I am one of five girls, and I am the only one among my sisters who isn’t white. Growing up, I was rarely self-conscious of my skin color, barely aware that less than twenty-five percent of my African descent would have such an impact on my existence, let alone my identity. On state-regulated exams, I checked “other” under demographic, otherwise I would be confined by my race and its implication. I was confounded to call myself American because, surely, I didn’t grow up that way. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates on this notion by deconstructing our “post-race” nation and forcing the reader to become both witness to and victim of such. We end up evaluating what it truly means to be a citizen in a disadvantaged society, and those who are privileged thus perceive their indispensable need to embrace the struggling self in society.
The lyric is an image, an introspective glimpse into the reader’s head. Rankine titles her novel Citizen: An American Lyric perhaps to heighten the reader’s understanding of the individual experiences witnessed by a collective of colored citizens. Rankine has even described the writing process of Citizen as an attempt to “pull the lyric back into its realities,” in which the reality we live in is subjected to quotidian racism (Chiasson). The “citizen” is characterized as one who is entitled to protection and privileges, yet we are made aware that not everyone is entitled to these rights in the same degree. There is a silent divide, black versus white, and Rankine identifies such stylistically. Although the lyric is typically written in the first-person, Rankine is rather creative and, instead, implements the second-person throughout the entirety of the novel. In doing such, Rankine encourages her audience to empathize with each illustrated account because she not only conveys the speaker’s own thoughts and emotions, she directs the reader to reflect on their own as well. Consider the following excerpt:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? (10)
Do you feel uncomfortable? You should, and Rankine wants the reader to feel that way. She emotively moves the audience by encouraging a movement towards acceptance and understanding. By addressing the reader with her use of second-person narration, Rankine translates positionality while communicating an impending urgency to change our current “American” attitude. We know that, as Americans, it is our right to be entitled to equal opportunity, yet Citizen shows the audience that “equality” isn’t exactly an accurate evaluation. Rankine depicts how it feels to be colored and discriminated against, even by subtle comments that might not have meant to be malicious. Additionally, Rankine displays this sense of discomfort on the surface of the page, and without directly telling us to feel that way. In doing such, we ascertain that Citizen, in its entirety, is a visual journey because Rankine captures our attention by showing us substance, in which we then reflect on our own character. We question what it truly means to be a part of this nation because Rankine creates hyper awareness of colored identity by interfacing the reader’s own identity with a distinguishably subjective one.
Similarly, the lyrical aspect of Citizen effortlessly highlights the importance of subjectivity. Although Rankine refrains from writing in the first person, she does identify the importance behind “I”. She writes, “Sometimes I is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it” (71). Although this excerpt is open to several interpretations, the heart of what Rankine is trying to express will always stem from what tugs on heartstrings as one continues to read. Whenever we read and are able to relate or empathize with the text, Rankine succeeds in illustrating her core meaning: Americans are just as racist as they’ve always been, and racism is still very widespread, despite the United States’ post-racial claim.
The introductory section of Citizen travels through personal and situational vignettes which reflect this notion because within each of these scenarios surfaces blatant racism. Reflect on the following passage:
A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interests and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of you American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant. (14)
Hold on to this awareness. Rankine’s words readily fly off the page, aimed at the brain‒a transcendent ricochet of emotive thought firing out at us. She wants you to listen, to no longer enjoy the blissful advantage of being ignorant. What did you say? causes one to conjecture which is more powerful: the intention or the gesture; what we mean or what we impulsively (sometimes instinctively) do. Quite often, racial prejudices are unconscious weapons: words falling off the tongue with little to no understanding of their implications, words firing from familiar lips and hitting the chest like bullets. Rankine wants us to be unsettled by this notion of privileged unawareness; she wants us to understand all too well what is meant.
Perhaps that is why Citizen: An American Lyric is a hybrid composition of prose, poetry, streaming consciousness, and multimedia images. She even samples transcripts from CNN as way to provide a visually immersive experience. It is evident that Claudia Rankine is not your convention writer, she is more so an artist uniquely quarreling with the form of the contemporary lyric as way to discuss the form of racial prejudice in our society. In retrospect to form, it is important to note to what influence the composition of the book has on its content. Foremost, consider how the cover of Citizen pictures a black hood suspended over a white backdrop. The image, titled “In The Hood,” is reminiscent of both the past and present because it suggestively references the recent death of Trayvon Martin, and the actual image was produced shortly after Rodney King’s senseless beating (Chiasson). Likewise, it is interesting to reflect on the homographic nature of the word hood, which can mean either the garment used to cover our heads or the colloquial reference to deprived inner-city settings where violence is prevalent. In doing such, Rankine’s play on words illustrates how racism is able to pass freely in which the word is our vessel.
Additionally, the cover image effectively complements both the text within the book as well as the images, specifically the textual image spanning across pages 52 and 53. Here the audience pauses to read Zora Neale Hurston’s quote, I do not always feel colored and I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. Discernibly, the cover image eminently exemplifies Hurston’s notion and it is no accident. Rankine’s obvious occupation with visibility transcends form and content to complement each other, and the audience can readily witness her cautious and considerate use of detail on every collaborative page. In response, Rankine raises another question on intention:
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language act. Language that feels hurtful in intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and as insane as it is, saying please. (49)
In respect to such, Rankine transcends previously private thoughts into the public eye. Most privileged individuals would believe they keep the previously mentioned idea of the “historical self” in the back of their heads, when in actuality, acknowledgement of such can displayed on the surface of almost every racial interaction. Part of the human condition is to be aware of our surrounding environments and how we present ourselves in those circumstances; we read into every situation we put ourselves in. Intention is characterized as conscious or calculated thought, whereas gesture is more suggestive and can be conveyed through instinctive body language. This unsettling recognition of racial language, whether it’s verbal or physical, activates our curiosity as we witness the challenged relationship between the colored individual and their privileged peers. Rankine renders this thought further when she writes on page sixty-nine:
Words work as release‒well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate every and nothing.
Whether a privileged individual means to act on their prejudice beliefs or not, their actions have the potential to reveal their disposition before they even have the chance to articulate their true intention. Yet again, we are made aware that our impression of “post-racial” society is erroneous. Rankine continues:
What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid‒what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there, altered to hide or disguise‒words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains. Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out‒ To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting. (69)
Citizen: An American Lyric invites each us to be outraged, to empathize with the outburst that Rankine alludes to in the preceding passage. Rankine wants her audience to collectively understand the racial injustice that still faces our nation today, and she no longer wants us to be silent, shoving ignorance in a corner to be dealt with later. An entire population of colored individuals are tired of being mistreated, and it is time that we listen. To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting is meant to jump out at us, scream and trigger a relapse in our memory. Through stylistic endeavors, acts of content complementing by form, and attentive positioning of meaning, Citizen: An American Lyric invites all individuals, regardless of their race, to tune in and emotively understand the deprived position still endured by our colored citizens. Rankine wants to not only be heard, but to also encourage us to speak out as well. Regardless of whether the reader chooses to act upon this mission or not, at very least, we are made highly aware of iniquity existing within our own country, and that alone holds the potential to fuel impending change across the nation.
Chiasson, Dan. “Color Codes: A Poet Examines Race in America.” The New Yorker. The New
Yorker, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. N.p.: Greywolf, n.d. Print.