Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

The new therapist specializes in trauma counselling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

Citizen begins with a series of flash fictions based on events told to Rankine. They vary from a twelve-year-old girl who a classmate uses to cheat on tests, to a woman called the wrong name by a friend – the same name as her friend’s black housekeeper, to the language that is used in front of people of colour and the behaviour of whites towards blacks in everyday situations. These short pieces illustrate the way in which people of colour are routinely ignored and dismissed, often by people that you might not expect to behave in these ways.

This section is followed by an essay about anger beginning with a discussion of the artist Hennessy Youngman and then focusing on Serena Williams.

On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist” resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger; the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.

Not being much of a sports fan, I rarely watch tennis so was unaware of the injustice served to Serena Williams again and again. It’s shocking and disgusting. The paragraph which seems to summarise this essay – and most of Rankine’s book – is this one:

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all blacks.

Rankine follows this essay with further flash-fictions and begins to intersperse art works, including Glenn Ligon’s, which relate to the points she is making. She goes on to include a series of scripts made for videos about Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Jena Six, and one entitled ‘Stop-and-Frisk’. She also has pieces about Barack Obama, Mark Duggan, Zinedine Zidane. The final section is a poem, incorporating some more short prose, summarising all that has gone before.

Rankine makes use of repetition to create a layering effect. She does this in individual pieces, for example ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ uses the following as a 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.

But also in the way the incidents she writes about build to create a devastating picture of the treatment of black people in the western world.

Citizen suggests that’s exactly what people of colour are not – they’re not legally recognised as they’re not being protected by law and therefore not allowed to stand alongside white people as equals. The comments and actions of whites serve to exploit people of colour as other.

I’m sure if I refer to this book as ‘powerful’ a ‘books written by people of colour and reviewed by white people’ cliché klaxon will sound but I’ve been through the synonyms and yes, Citizen is compelling and dynamic and forceful and impressive but it is powerful through the way Rankine uses the shortest of pieces to make you realise how often people of colour are ‘thrown against a sharp white background’ and how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background.

Caitlin Moran believes it’s culture – not marches or protests or petitions – that has the power to change the world. If that’s true, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household; I want to see it taught in schools and university, and added to the canon in the hope that in X [insert your own optimistic/pessimistic value here] years time, students will read, study, discuss this book in university seminars and be appalled at the way people were treated because of the colour of their skin.

0 thoughts on “Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

  1. I’ve admired Claudia Rankine for a while now, and this is truly an important book. I love these lines. Such clever line breaks, each line can be interpreted in at least two ways.
    You are you even before you
    grow into understanding you
    are not anyone, worthless,
    not worth you.

    • This is the first of hers I’ve read – I hadn’t heard of her until I started doing the In the Media posts. She is amazing though and those lines you’ve quoted are fantastic. I’ll definitely be seeking out more.

  2. This sounds intriguing. It’s a book – and an author – I’ve never heard of, but on this evidence warrants further investigation, definitely. I’ll have a look for more from her in your In The Media posts (where I’ll get hopelessly sidetracked by great articles for about 2 hours, as usual!) The line you quote about “fitting the description” is very powerful. I can see a diversion into Waterstones on the way home occurring…! Great review Naomi, as ever.

    • Thank you and yes, something like World Book Night would be great. There seems to be a lot of buzz about this book in America – it’s up for two National Book Critics Circle
      Awards, the first time that’s ever happened – but it’s not being replicated in the UK; it’d be interesting to know why and to see whether it does get nominated for any awards – it crosses genres so I suspect they’ll be many that say it doesn’t fit their entry criteria.

  3. I read this in November and it hasn’t stopped kicking around in my head. I don’t expect it ever will.

    As a dual US/UK passport holder: I think the buzz around it coming out in the US is partly down to how timely the release was. The murders of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were in the public eye; Ferguson was unfolding. Race and institutional racism was in the news every day, for a time. Graywolf published Citizen at a point where white Americans were being forced to confront their complicity (even those who consider themselves “nice people” or “liberal”), and that helped with creating buzz around the book. Race relations in the UK come from such a different historical starting point that I think that may account for the collection’s relatively low profile here.

  4. One of the aspects of this work which struck me (and it IS powerful…perhaps the word is overused in some contexts but surely a book like this can still be identified as such when it truly is) was the element of visual representation. Even now, I can still picture some of those pieces. The power of the words lingers in me still, but the combination of media really cemented the reading experience for me.

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