ON CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC BY CLAUDIA RANKINE
GRAYWOLF PRESS, 2014
REVIEW BY KENNA O’ROURKE
The subject matter in Claudia Rankine’s hybrid prose-poetry book Citizen is nothing new. But that is what makes Rankine’s work beautiful, tragic, profound: in describing African American experience, Rankine strives not to “make it new” (as the modernists would have it), but to make it legible — to articulate the contradictory state of invisibility and hypervisibility, of aggressions and microaggressions, that black citizens endure daily in a society that continues to position them as “other.” In this sense Rankine treads familiar territory (after all, one can hardly claim that racial injustice is a new phenomenon in the US) in an unfamiliar way, letting form reflect content such that a reader can feel the psychological toll of black citizenship in this country, a country built upon the historical exploitation of black bodies.
Citizen is structured as a collection of lived experiences — whether the author’s, or those of her friends or fellow black Americans, is unclear and perhaps unimportant — interspersed with postcolonial theory, excerpts from the news and pop culture, and artwork. From the beginning of the book, the reader is involved in the text through Rankine’s use of the second-person “you,” making the personal universal: “You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind you asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. … she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person” (5). Much of the first half of the book maintains this storytelling structure, the subject “you” — the reader, regardless of race, an object of white indifference or ignorance. The process of reading becomes the process of experiencing the constant negation of blackness in the US; whether Rankine describes a casual n-word overheard in Starbucks or the vilification of Serena Williams as “angry black woman” in the US Open, her poetically told stories illustrate the pervasiveness of white privilege and the corresponding oppression of black bodies. Rankine makes clear that this inequity is relentless, and invades even those institutions that are meant to offer hope in the face of racial ignorance, e.g. places of higher education. She writes, “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” (10); and later, “when the woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back” (45). It is a painful process to read Citizen, but the suffering involved in parsing story after story of ignorance, violence, disrespect, is what makes Rankine’s book required reading: we know that these stories are true, and by exerting us to live them, to be the “you” that embodies blackness in the US, Rankine forces them into the public consciousness they deserve.
But Rankine’s book is more than an activist manifesto. It is also a careful catalogue of modern history that ensures that both the everyday violences against black Americans and the more publicized instances of racism (Trayvon Martin’s death, Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup headbutt, etc.) are retained in collective memory. Citizen forces the reader to learn the names of the victims of racial violence in the US, to look up those stories they don’t know and to mourn the failings of a system theoretically based in liberty and justice for all. Rankine’s subtitle to Citizen, “An American Lyric,” recalls Frederick Douglass’s subtitle in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: “An American Slave.” Douglass’s qualifier signified an assertion of his right to American citizenship — he was an American slave — and called out the hypocrisy of a country founded on “freedom” condoning slavery. Rankine’s phrasing in Citizen’s subtitle works in a similar way, challenging what America is, what it allows to happen to its own. The book is riddled with questions, with disbelief surrounding the daily assaults on and denigration of black Americans; she asks, “What did he just say? Did she really just say that?” (9), “What did you say?” (14, 41, 43), “What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean?” (47), “What is wrong with you?” (54), “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?” (55). Over time, the questions become a refrain — habitual, familiar — and one can sense the exhaustion of challenging oppression; Rankine writes, “Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.” (151). As the book progresses the experience of reading changes — what was once scholarly prose becomes verse as the poet’s attempts to articulate the toll of everyday racism become by necessity broken-down, faded, then eventually rebuilt into a recognizable paragraph form. Rankine proves that no one way is the best way to channel trauma into creative expression; in an atmosphere of injustice there is no time for pedantic arguments over the superiority of poetry or prose.
One may well ask why Rankine, or for that matter a reader, would choose to dwell in such a disheartening historical catalogue if “[t]he world is wrong,” if “[y]ou can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (105). The answer, for the reader at least, is that Citizen is not only a history but a work of art —“lyric” is an apt descriptor. Rankine’s writing is beautifully constructed, peppered on occasion with Steinian phrases like “Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same” (107), or “Who shouted, you? You // shouted you, you the murmur in the air, you sometimes / sounding like you, you sometimes saying you,” (145). Often these phrases reveal the cruel or hopeless circularity of the way blackness is treated in the US; see, for instance, Rankine’s interpretation of stop-and-frisk policing: “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” (105). Her artistry is further contextualized and supported by a greater canon of black cultural production, as evidenced by her inclusion of powerful images from black artists like Nick Cave and Carrie Mae Weems throughout. Rankine knows that “[t]he state of emergency is also always a state of emergence” (126), that “[t]his endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful” (128). It is almost impossible to begin to describe the beauty that Rankine achieves in Citizen; the work is tragic, painful, difficult, even hopeless at times, but more than that it is a momentous act of recording, empowering, witnessing; it is doing what writing is meant to do. Citizen is a compelling testament to Rankine’s place amongst the black scholars and artists she references within the book; it is precisely the kind of text that this society needs to move forward, to honor voices that have been subdued, marginalized, or obliterated for far too long.