Short Review: Rankine’s fusion of poetry, prose, and visual art is a fascinating look at everyday racism that will be very familiar to many Americans.
Last night was our monthly book club meeting, and let me tell y’all– it was fantastic. Between bites from the moderately successful bibimbap bar, we discussed Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine. Citizen gained steam after a young black woman was seen reading it during a Donald Trump rally.
For those unfamiliar with the book, or it’s author, I recommend the introduction given here, and her readings from the book here. One of her first readings in the video is VI (which I refer to as My Brothers are Notorious). In the book, this poem is followed by a graphic image that most Americans have seen. The black and white photo depicts two African-Americans hanging from trees in the aftermath of a lynching. Rankine edits the photo, removing the assailed bodies, and leaving only the horde of white spectators. Here, Rankine changes the focus of the photo from the murdered to the murderers. Tucked in online footage of various interviews with Rankine, these small insights helped our group of otherwise artistically illiterate people understand Citizen’s majesty. Afterward, we felt more capable of tackling Rankine’s prose-poetry fusion.
In the early stages of writing Citizen, Rankine went to her friends, asking them to recount for her a time “when race entered the room.” When they’d been allowed to forget for just a moment, but were suddenly reminded of their own differences– of their status as a second-class citizen.
This compilation of stores is not entirely Rankine’s own, despite her ability to display them with unsurprising familiarity. I say unsurprising because these are problems that plague all African-Americans, regardless of class and exacerbated by gender and sexual orientation. While these stories belong to her friends, they resonate widely.
The beauty of this work is that it ranges from microagressions to macro, showing simplistic instances of everyday prejudice. Instances that range from neighbors calling the police on Rankine’s black male babysitter, to racist jeers during Serena William’s 2001 Indian Wells match.
The first of these two sparked a large discussion, because one of the book club members had heard a similar story in real life. This story included his brother, who was mistaken for a home intruder while babysitting. At this point in our discussion, the discourse took a predictable detour, everyone chiming in with stories that could very easily have been featured in Citizen.
For those who read Citizen with skepticism, let me assure you that these scenarios happen. Interviewers you’ve only spoken to on the phone will be surprised when their invited candidate shows up with dark skin, and tennis fans shout racial slurs at Serena while in the midst of a game. Rankine is not lying, nor is she exaggerating.
Initially, our group had mixed feelings about Citizen. Some felt that too much of it was “artsy,” and didn’t resonate with them as much as ordinary prose may have. For the record, I enjoyed nearly every minute of it, even though some of it went over my head. If you find it escaping you, I recommend reading this aloud, like I do most poetry. Only in reading it aloud did the group truly understand the desperation in the refrain “my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart,” or the incredulity in “did you see their faces?”
Citizen is a book written to define what citizenship looks for those who cannot escape their black body. Moreover, is a book made to be read and discussed aloud. Read it with your book clubs, and discuss how very subversive racism, sexism, and every other type of -ism is in contemporary society. And if you have a thick enough skin, discuss your own roles in it, too.
Potential Discussion Questions for Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
- Discuss the use of visual art in this book, including what they depict and how they are placed throughout the book.. What does it add to Citizen, and how would the experience be different without these pieces?
- Who is Citizen written for, and what does Claudia Rankine hope to do by speaking directly to them?
- Citizen is filled with micro encounters between different races. Tell one of the stories from the perspective of the other party. How does this change the narrative?
- If possible, discuss personal stories that could potentially feature in Citizen. Why did you pick these specific stories, and what power do they hold?
- What role does class play in these stories? What is the dominant socioeconomic status of the people in these poems? Was this a purposeful creative choice?