Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine


Paperback, 169 pages
Published October 7th 2014 by Graywolf Press
Source: Raincoast Books

“because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying”

I don’t quite know how to talk about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The collection of short pieces that focus prominently on racism (both systemic and explicit) and the fight against it feels blisteringly angry, vulnerable, and personal.

Rankine talks about the insidious  nature of racism in the 21st century, a time when people, despite loads of evidence otherwise, want to pretend that racism and everything associated with it is of the past. It isn’t. Everyone knows this and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they are living a very privileged and sheltered life.

“Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.”

One of the most beautiful and heartwrenching pieces in the collection is a poem where Rankine describes the feelings of a man she observes on a train. How people avoid the empty seat beside him preferring to sit elsewhere or even stand rather than take the seat beside him. Being a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I have been in similar situations and have also observed other people being treated in a similar way so Rankine’s words struck a particularly deep chord in me.

“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 black bodies.”

In another portion of the book, Rankine talks in a lot of detail everything Serena Williams, the tennis player, went through. The blatant racism of the umpires, their actions, and how Serena’s reactions to the racism was trivialized and mocked. How Serena’s body became an object to be mocked by white tennis players.

While reading it occurred to me freshly that we have been conditioned for so long to not react to the racism directed at us, as if reacting with heat and sorrow makes us the ones in the wrong. As if by speaking out and stripping the mask off the racists, we are somehow committing some crime.

Rankine’s collection is beautifully written and encapsulates the rage and the pain felt by the black community so exquisitely. In today’s political climate and the position we find ourselves in, Citizen becomes a supremely important book for the voices and feelings it magnifies. I recommend it.