My book club read Citizen, and yours should too

CitizenRating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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.

Reading as protest for the win!

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

  1. 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?
  2. Who is Citizen written for, and what does Claudia Rankine hope to do by speaking directly to them?
  3. 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?
  4. If possible, discuss personal stories that could potentially feature in Citizen. Why did you pick these specific stories, and what power do they hold?
  5. 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?

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17 Comments

  1. […] myself. This isn’t a book you read once and give away– like Between the World and Me, Citizen, Salt, and Baldwin himself, The Fire This Time is an undaunted examination of America’s […]

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  2. […] Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine […]

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  3. […] Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine: This was our most recent book club selection. It’s not an easy read for those of us who rarely read poetry, but definitely worthy of a glance. […]

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  4. Great review. I’m looking forward to this one.
    I do wish I was in a bookclub in my area. Discussing books with others help to pull out points previously overlooked.

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    1. It definitely helps me, at least. I got lucky, and my roommate from last year and his fiancee were interested in starting one with me and holding the first meeting at our apartment. Even though we’ve moved into different places with our own significant others, we’d managed to get it underway well enough that it stayed together. Have you seen any on goodreads that you’d find interesting?

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      1. Oh that’s nice. I joined a few on Goodreads but I’d like to join one where I speak to members in person. I think that would be more social than online and convos would be different too.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Brilliant and moving review. I absolutely love the Trump rally pic. So subtle yet so subversive. Yours in hope for a non-Trump outcome, Bronte.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love how subversive it is. Oftentimes, protest needs to be loud and abrasive, but sometimes, just being somewhere is an act of protest, no? Thanks for reading, and I’m hoping/praying/voting for a non-Trump victor as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree. These thugs are often scared of the bravery of the subtle because they cannot understand it. PS Most of the UK is on your side on this one. We’re rooting for the US in a way Trump cannot understand!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for a great review! This one is definitely on my stack for post-Bailey’s longlist consumption. Your review felt so synchronous with this week’s Scene on Radio podcast about singer Laila Nur. Maybe I should plan to listen to her music in between Citizen reads!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! Ive never listened to Laila Nur before, so I’ll take this as a recommendation!

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  7. I have read this, but I feel like I need to talk about it with people. It was brilliant. I will make it a choice for our book group the next time it’s my turn to offer choices. (We vote on one of three or four choices monthly.)

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    1. I definitely like it more as a discussion piece instead of just a book I read on my own. But I also feel that way about more poetry, so perhaps I’m biased.

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  8. Beautiful review!

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  9. I recently read Citizen as well, though I listened to it as an audiobook. The narrator was excellent, and I agree that hearing it read aloud helped at points, though a lot of the more abstract poetry was still over my head. I would like to go back and read it in hard copy because I did not have the opportunity to see the images throughout the book, and also I had a hard time following what was going in in the “situation videos” without seeing the punctuation (for headings, attributions, etc.). Overall I thought the book was excellent and definitely recommend it also.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m usually not great with audio books and whatnot. But listening to her read the poems made understanding so much easier. That said, the book itself is a must. Definitely buy it!

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