Citizen An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine was published in 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. This text is broken up into seven different sections in the book, each part focusing on a different topic. However, overall the common idea presented in throughout the book is the racial antagonism that people constantly face, especially in recent times.
Part one of Rankine’s Citizen focuses on the interactions that people face due to their race. They experience moments between their friends and peers, in which their is a minor moment in which the people who constantly surround them are racially offending them. One of the first cases we see presented in the text is when the text states, “You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget” (7). This moment highlights the idea that Rankine presents in this first section, how often when faced with racial offenses, it is often ignored, by both parties which in turn leads to the opposing individuals to continue their commentary on the African American race, as well as the internal pain that African Americans are forces to deal with both internally and externally as well. Rankine’s first section also presents the idea that as colored individuals, they are forced to be silent. Although, they do in fact notice the commentary that goes on around them, their silence and control of their emotions when faced with the issue of constantly being insulted, whether indirectly or directly, are the other groups attempts at limiting these colored individuals and feeling like as colored people they should be “kept in their place.”
The second part of Rankine’s Citizen focuses on one of the most successful athletic players in women’s tennis, Serena Williams. Hennessy Youngman’s video oh how one can become a successful African American artist is also discussed in this text. Although you could argue that Youngman’s videos are also an attack on African Americans, his videos are mean expose the reality of the situation that African Americans face. Rankine discusses that the lack of recognition has lead to disappointment which in turn has caused anger in colored people, brown and black, because their skin color constantly leads these groups to be limited and face injustices. This section discusses the multiple times which Serena Williams has publicly faced injustices during her tennis matches, such as events like the US Open semifinals and the Grand Slam. In the text, it states, “In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because of her body, trapped in racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America—is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules.” The section of Rankine’s text clearly shows how Serena’s skin tone has caused her success to sometimes be overshadowed by headlines of her when she is reacting in anger due to her not being treated fairly in the tennis matches. Rankine presents several examples of when Serena has faced this issue during her matches. One example that Rankine did not mention, which happened after the publication of this book, was similar to the cases that is presented in the text. During Serena’s match in the US Open Finals in 2018, Naomi Osaka defeated Serena, but once again, Serena was portrayed as someone who was unable to control her emotions. Instead, they used the moments which she broke her tennis racket and supposedly got coaching from her coach (which isn’t allowed). This may have been another moment in which Serena faced an injustice due to her skin tone. Going back to Rankine’s text, she does contrast how Serena is treated in comparison to the behavior of Dane Caroline Wozniacki, who chose to imitates and mocks Serena, in which she does not seem to face the same injustice that Serena has.
During the third part of Citizen by Claudia Rankine, is similar to part one, in which you see the text focus on people’s experiences to comments which people make around them. One of the quotes that stands out from the text states, “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” (Rankine 44). This section differs from the first section of the book because it allows you to see how the colored characters would react and in a sense protest to the situations which they are faced with. This part of the book seems to highlight the separation between the two groups, especially since you finally get a chance to see the reaction from the African American groups, and you see that the other group is shocked that what they are saying is called into question, especially with Rankine’s constant use of the questions saying “what did you say?” and “what do you mean?”
In section four of Citizen, we see how there is a change between sighing, breathing, memory, and numbness. Rankine focuses on the ideas of sighing and breathing as a way to make it through all the attacks that this group is faced with. Rather than simply attacking back, they are simply trying to make it through the challenges they face. But that then goes into the way their memories are and how that leads to headaches and disappointment that these characters are faced with. Rankine seems to be using this section to give insight into the “ache” that these characters are faced with.
Section five of Rankine’s Citizen focuses on the idea of bodies. It discusses how bodies are important, which could relate to how the individual identifies. Rankine also references a voice in her pieces which may also be another term related to how these individuals gain their voices. There is a point in the text that states, “whose are you?” (Rankine 76). Since this section focuses on the idea of bodies, and how colored bodies are significant. The fact that one work references the body not being seen at all, is interesting, which could represent how African Americans are often forced to conform to societal rules, which often leads to their voices not being heard. In Rankine’s text we see how the injustice is dealt with, with the body by it running in order to deal with the attacks that it faces, as a body which is never truly scene or acknowledged. You can also see the idea of bodies as a body of people, which may represent the African American group as a whole, and the challenges which they face.
Part six of Rankine’s Citizen addresses real cases in which lives of African Americans were attacked. In one of the first cases presented, you see that in the case of Hurricane Katrina, African Americans were intentionally left behind, which caused their lives to be put at risk. You see that the text states that they were forgotten and that it wasn’t safe to be in that area, but if the hurricane had the entire area affected than why is it not safe in the areas where these groups were? What was the difference between these groups compared to other groups who were taken to safety? This section also focuses on how This section relates real cases to what Rankine is discussing in her book, as to the realities which African Americans face and how that not only affects their lives, but also the lives of people around them. An individual which Rankine brings up in this section is Zinedine Zidane who isn’t African American, but has a more melanin in his skin. Rankine introduces this individual to show that skin color isn’t the only way to determine and attack individuals, Rankine is trying to show that it goes beyond that.
In this final portion of Rankine’s Citizen, Rankine constantly states “you” throughout this section. “You” could refer to the group, who are constantly overlooked and are invisible in the book experiencing a change. Rather than being overlooked like previously shown in the text, now this group is finally being acknowledged, they are finally seen. The section also takes the time to acknowledge how African Americans, as well as other colored races have in fact been limited and faced challenges, which have caused injuries. In the text, it states, “How to care for the injured body,/ the kind of body that can’t hold/ the content it is living?” This kind of reflects on the fact that the body is unable to keep up with the constant attacks that it is faced with, whether it is not being acknowledged, or not having the proper recognition, like Serena. It’s interesting to see how this section transforms the text, from being about the challenges the these groups face, to it turning into a lesson and how they overcome that challenge and are finally acknowledged in the world around them.
The text primarily focuses on the challenges which African Americans face in society. How they as a group are often portrayed negatively, which we see with the example of Serena Williams, but also how they are constantly pushed around so that they can work with society’s ideals. Rather than helping this group, they are often broken down which we see through the insults that they face with the people they interact with, the violence they face, and the constant misinterpretation of their actions. However, Rankine does manage to have these individuals overcome these challenges in her text. This text is historically important as you can see the hardships that African Americans have faced in the past. Although, this is a book that was published in recent years, it does relate to the original issue of how slaves were exploited for another groups personal needs, which parts of that are still visible today. This is significant to what we are currently facing in our own political climate as it’s clear that this issue still remains a major part of what we face, even going beyond just African Americans, leading other colored people to experience this as well. In this political climate, the issue of this divide has become more obvious in recent years. This reflects on concerns that we see globally and nationally as we often see the differences between social classes being a major issue. We may see this on a national level just between the lower classes and the elitists, whereas if you look at a place like India, that class system challenges and limits people within their own system, similarly to the ideas that Rankine presents in Citizen. The genre of Rankine’s Citizen may be a documentary poetry since it informs the reader of the history and real life events that has taken place. The book addresses and even accuses interactions which African Americans have witnessed or experienced themselves. One theoretical text which this may relate to is Federici’s “The Great Caliban: The Struggle Against the Rebel Body” since it does discuss witch hunts and the limitations, specifically Rankine’s section about bodies would apply to this theoretical text. It may also relate to Bourdieu’s Distinction and the way that he discusses the idea of ideology and taste.
In “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine expresses what it is like to be a black person living in the present day. The trials and tribulations that black people face are just inexpressible some times. While racism seems to be a thing of the past, Rankine exposes how small encounters reveal the subtlety of racism that still exists.
One of her poems that I thought really captured the effects and impacts that have been a part of black culture is on page 61.
• Rankine says, “You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says.” Slavery and racism is the root of Rankine’s words here, with the “they” being society. Society tells the blacks to forget slavery and racism as if it never happened. However, it did happen, and the ramifications of it are still felt today.
• “No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives.” Rankine is bringing up the fact that society tells us to turn a blind eye. By pretending slavery didn’t exist, and racism still doesn’t exist, maybe it will make the narrative true. However, the narrative has already been written, and just because you ignore it, doesn’t mean it did not and does not exist. People’s identities were created around these facts, and pretending like they don’t exist just strips people’s identity away.
• She says, “To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds.” The things people have endured are what creates their being. Trying to act like their experiences and history are nonexistent only adds to the emotions of negative feelings.
• This can be related to The Sellout. The protagonist, because of his racial experiences, decides to recreate segregation. The effects of segregation are a lived experience for black people, and the protagonist emphasizes those feelings by reinventing the unexpected.
• Race is a prevalent theme in many of the texts we have read, from The Sellout, to “The Island” to Wheatley’s poems. The aspect of race and divisions it causes are in numerous places.
• We can link these texts both to Levine’s “The Affordances of Form” and Melamed’s “Making Global Citizens.” What does the form Rankine chooses to use do for us as the audience? How does the use of the second person narrative work in her favor?
• In Melamed’s case, how can reading Rankine create a notion of neoliberal multiculturalism? By reading Rankine, does that really mean one is indulged in true multiculturalism?
Notes on Citizen:
– Claudia Rankine is a Professor of Poetry at Yale.
– Citizen was written in 2014. The only value of poetry ever to be a NYT Best Seller as non-fiction
– Citizen is hard to summarize: it’s at some points a scathing account of racial microagressions and the narrator’s attempts to reconcile them with her own reality, to broad discussions on the nature of race relations in the US in general. Rankine weaves between a close, almost intimate point of view to a cold, distant one depending on the topic she’s writing about in the moment. The places where she “code switches” between emotional distances, I think, are where the lyric is most powerful.
– Ways to use this on the exam
1. In conjunction with Beatty and Federici. If there is a question on the meaning of citizenship, or anything broadly talking about the worth of a human/body, those are the three texts I’m taking for that essay. Both texts are grappling with the same intellectual situation in wildly different ways. As I discussed in my notes on the Sellout, Beatty utilizes satire to comment on the worth of a black body; in that it is most clearly constructed through the lens of comedy and irony. That text, like Citizen, evokes an emotional response in the reader to make them feel something in response to their coming face to face with their own preconceived notions or prejudices. Rankine’s work uses form in the same way. The way she plays with emotional distance also evokes a similar kind of emotional response in the reader: empathy, sadness. Most saliently to his point, Rankine states “to live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter. Sighing upsets,” (59). In this line, Rankine evokes the kind of exasperated dread she feels in dealing with her struggle with the world’s conception of her worth; the worth of her sigh’s and moans. Both of these exploration of forms can be foregrounded with theory from Federici and how this kind of measurement of worth is historically derived from a group of men in power seeking control over an “othered” group. That’s basically the whole essay right there. Really hoping I get to use it.
2. Multiculturalism/Inclusion/Issues of Representation: Here I’m thinking in particular about the chapter on Serena Williams and how it relates to Melamed’s ideas on neoliberal multiculturalism. Rankine goes into great detail discussing how she (and many others who commented on the situation) believed Serena Williams, in an outburst on the tennis court, was being punished and treated more harshly because she was “black in a white space”. That kind of intellectual position lends itself to Melamed; how does Rankine’s portrayl of Serena Williams interact? Is her status as one of the greats in professional tennis mediated by her skin color? Another section of use would be her related discussion on the marketability of black anger by youtuber Hennessy Youngman on page 23. Both sections are widely applicable to both Melamed and Federici.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine was originally written in 2014, and can be considered not only a book of poetry, but one of social criticism as well. Each of the book’s seven chapters has a particular focus, and in addition to poetry Rankine included several powerful works of art that are meant to provoke her readers. Overall, the book highlights the struggle of being black in the United States, and through her poetry, Rankine shows a side of American culture that not one of of should be proud of.
Part 1 focuses on the microaggressions that take place in the United States, as experienced firsthand by Rankine and her friends. In the opening passage, Rankine highlights the backhanded compliments often given by ignorant caucasians in an attempt they consider to be friendly when she recalls the moment in middle school when a classmate whose name she cannot remember tells her “…you smell good and you have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person” (Rankine, 5), highlighting the early age at which young black people begin to feel different from their peers, as though they aren’t as smart as their white classmates, and this leads the reader to consider the psychological effects that this can have. Later in her first chapter, Rankine informs her reader that “…there exists a medical term- John Henryism- for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend” (Rankine, 11), and as we venture into the next portion of the book, one cannot help but wonder how many people we have encountered with John Henryism. How many friends have we seen struggle silently before us just so they felt as though they were catching up to their caucasian classmates and not being forgotten? How many people have we failed to see?
Part 2 focuses primarily on the outbursts of Serena Williams on the tennis court when confronted with a racist referee, as well as a video made by YouTube influencer Hennessy Youngman that covers how to become a successful black artist. Within that video, Youngman “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working” (Rankine, 23). The passage about this video suggests that the only basis that black artists have to stand on is their anger, and that is something that is highlighted through our culture. It is not often that we hear the success story of a black singer, rapper, actor, writer that comes from a happy home, but the media is happy to rush to talk about the ones that came from the projects and rose up through hard times. While there is no doubt that that acknowledgement is well-deserved, why is it that we have not come to the point as a civilization where we can acknowledge all backgrounds from all socioeconomic statuses and recognize their success? Why are black artists only considered truly successful when they appear to have been fueled by anger and poverty?
Later on in the chapter, Rankine goes into great detail about the number of times Williams has faced racism on the tennis court, a court where non-white players are few and far between. Most times, Williams has been able to keep her cool, however Rankine argues that “..it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief- code for being black in America- is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. 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” (Rankine, 30). This argument of having the rules changed without warning is a brilliant metaphor for the hyper-consciousness that is required in order to stay on a level playing field with white counterparts as a black professional in this country. While the reality is sad, there is no way to sugarcoat what is true.
Part 3 is also composed in the form of microaggressions- beginning with a white friend who believes that they are entitled to address her black friends with the term made famous by Don Imus- “nappy headed ho.” As Rankine struggles to understand how a so-called friend would find that appropriate, she also covers random instances of the black experience in America, including one in which the ignorance is incredibly blaring- “And when the woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back through all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here” (Rankine, 45). While it may seem striking that there are still those out there that believe black people are somehow a different species from their white counterparts, this is actually a phenomenon that is all too real. Being black in America requires a thicker skin because you don’t only have to watch as these comments come at you from enemies and strangers, but from those that appear to be friends as well.
Part 4 focuses on mental health, a topic that is often ignored for non-whites that don’t have the privilege of being able to talk about this struggle on a public platform without judgement, because as a non-white person, everything that you do puts you under a microscope to be judged from every angle. One particularly striking line from this chapter is “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (Rankine, 63), and this line signifies, again, the hyper-awareness involved with being a black American. Though these lines, Rankine signifies the ways that memories can haunt a person, as well as the ways that John Henryism can rip through the cracks in one’s existence.
Part 5 seems to mock the invisibility of black Americans in daily life, and highlights the ways that they must find to deal with not being truly seen, in fact, the chapter seems to bring the reader in and out of consciousness on an emotional roller-coaster of self-doubt and belonging. Rankine describes the act of going “…to the gym and run in place, an entire hour running, just you and your body running off each undesired desired encounter” (Rankine, 79), and one can only imagine that this is what it’s like at the end of each day for Rankine, that she must run off the stress of every desired encounter that didn’t turn out as she had hoped, every drop of sweat acting as one less moment that she should hope to never experience again.
Part 6 follows both the microaggressions and macroaggressions experienced by African Americans all over the world, beginning with the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, and running through tragedies such as the murder of Treyvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, and Stop and Frisk laws. Hurricane Katrina was by far the most politically covered storm of any other in this country, and the it is difficult to ignore the blaring racism that crept out of the United States Government in the lack of response or care for those that were affected the most by this storm. Rankine states that this storm “was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots, between the whites and the blacks” (Rankine, 83), highlighting the fact that, in the United States, there is no visible end to the racial divide. There are not “Americans”, there are whites and blacks, there is a government that struggles to see the similarities in all of us. That struggles to care about those that struggle to find their voices. Additionally, here Rankine addresses the racial profiling by saying that “…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” (Rankine, 105), and this causes an inescapable feeling of uneasiness with the way that policing has targeted the black community. Rankine covers these issues with grace, but wrenches open the heart of her reader with the uneasy truth of it all.
Part 7 addresses the feelings of invisibility and worthiness in the black community. She starts off by highlighting the fact that black people are invisible long before they ever realize it, and goes on to showcase the struggle of living within a society that has always, and will seemingly always continue to, view black people as less than their white counterparts. “You are you even before you grow into understanding you are not anyone, worthless, not worth you. Even as your own weight insists you are here, fighting off the weight of nonexistence” (Rankine, 139). Even though you feel like you are here, like you are a part of something bigger, the chances of you being seen, of you being acknoweleged, are unlikely. Rankine displays for her readers the feeling of invisibility in a society that refuses to allow you take part in it. By ending her book in such an ambiguous way, Rankine allows for her reader to take the lessons they have learned, the feelings they have experienced, and go off into the world to choose the way they address these issues, the issues they can no longer ignore.
Citizen can work very well when paired with Zamora’s Unaccompanied, which highlights the experiences of a young boy fighting to join his family on the other side of the border. Additionally, this would also pair nicely with Federici, as they both highlight the importance of the body as a symbol in literature.
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