Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen2014. Graywolf Press. Paperback. 169 pages.

Notes on my reading:

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is a collection of prose poems. In preparation for writing this book, Rankine asked her friends to recall moments when racism interrupted their everyday lives. At first, friends demurred but in the following days, the stories came and kept coming. These stories are embedded throughout Citizen.

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel,
you have already settled into your window seat on United
Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row.
The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are
our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s
response is barely audible – I see, she says. I’ll sit in the
middle.

The book also ruminates on news-making stories such as Hurricane Katrina and on news-making people such as Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, and the Jena Six. One of the poems, called “Stop-and-Frisk” has a haunting refrain: “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

I had some trouble digging into the more abstract sections – they may take some re-reading to fully ingest and I’ve been out of practice in reading poetry. The poems about the microaggressions were the most immediately accessible and memorable. I learned about the term microaggressions only in the past couple of years. For me, the concept and term has helped me understand the toll of everyday small prejudiced acts and words on people of color and other marginalized groups.

In my last review of Coates’ book Between the World and Me, I voiced some of my resignation about the common futility of trying to change closed minds. Jenny of Reading the End commented: “I try to frame it to myself this way: Even if I’m not changing hearts and minds (which I know that I am not), I am at least maybe showing the person that they will experience social consequences (even just minor ones, like being embarrassed for a minute) if they say their racist shit in public.” Citizen has several examples where the silence of a white witnessing friend can inflict as much pain as the person being racist. So while resigned to the intractability of some opinions, I should not be resigned to silence.

The words of Citizen are powerful and beautiful – the piece called “Making Room” is especially lovely. The words are interspersed with selected works of art as if in dialogue. Speaking of art, I was surprised that the piece shown on the cover was made in 1993. The hoodie is so freighted with meaning now; the provocative choice of this image definitely made me curious to read the book, especially when I recognized Claudia Rankine’s name from my English major days.

I read Citizen last September while also reading Coates’ Between the World and Me. I didn’t plan it that way, but it ended up being a great reading experience to go between these two different voices and perspectives on what it means to be black in America. I also saw Claudia Rankine read from Citizen at the National Book Festival last September, which helped me better get inside one of the more abstract poems.

After the tragic Charleston shootings last summer, the pastor of my church called on the congregation to enter into a season of prayer for racial justice and reconciliation, as a first step toward figuring out what we can do to be partners in reconciliation. We especially focused on the passage Isaiah 58:6,9b-12. At the end of summer, some of us gathered after church to share our thoughts and reflections. Being a bookish congregation, someone recommended Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and I recommended Coates’ and Rankine’s books. My pastor quoted Coates in a sermon later that fall, which was exciting. I’m not sure what will be the next step in this vision for our congregation, but I’m hopeful.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Books, Time and Silence – “Every word of Citizen, every image, beats you round the head saying ‘this is my world, this is my world’, challenging you to overlook it.”

Estella’s Revenge – “Moments that will jar and enlighten…render the reader uncomfortable, sorrowful, thankful.”

Runestone review by Deziree Brown – “Her relentless authenticity makes readers’ skin crawl. No matter how the reader identifies, Rankine forces the reader to encounter the shame and profiling black bodies endure through her use of simple language.”

Stefani Cox – “What I think is important though is that Rankine is saying all of this through prose poetry, which lets the rant flow and settle into your brain in little pieces that each deserve their own time to be processed.”

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

  1. Thanks for the shout out to my review!

  2. Thanks for sharing a bit of my review! I’m so glad you got to read this one. I just cannot push it on people enough these days.

  3. I can well imagine that Coates and Rankine would make a good pairing. Their work is sad, but I’m so glad that they’re being published and receiving the kind of attention they are — it’s a slow plod towards progress, but hopefully it does make a difference.

    • I’m also really glad and also hope that the conversations each spark continue on for a while. It’s especially fantastic for a book of poetry to be making these kinds of waves.

  4. aartichapati

    I have this one on its way to me from the Book Depository, and now that I’ve read your review, I’m very glad that I’ll be discussing it with a book club. It seems like a good one for that.

    • Oh I’d love to know what your book club ends up discussing with this book. I think that would be very helpful with a book of poetry – as each reader may find a different piece that especially struck them.

  5. Oh wow, I didn’t realize the cover image was that old. You’re right — the hoodie has become such a symbol, it feels entirely contemporary (in a sad, upsetting way). I read this one a few weeks ago and haven’t quite put my thoughts into words. I want to revisit some sections that I’m sure I didn’t understand or absorb the first time.

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