Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” forms a matrix of thoughts and memories that paint a picture of the emotional trauma of racism in the US. The book, voted a National Book Finalist, is revolutionary in both its visibility and genre. Melding far too common instances of injustice into an atypical interdisciplinary format, Rankine creates a piece that resembles the way humans actually experience emotions.
Brilliantly, Rankine writes this hybrid novel in varying elements of critical essays, photos, collages, poetry, and fictional prose. Much like the way I process experiences, the book mimics common forms of coping. At least for my own thoughts, I know that I teeter back and forth between modes of expression. Sometimes I think in poems, sometimes in non-fiction memories, sometimes in essays and critical responses, and sometimes in imagination. In this same way, Rankine creates a world where the reader can wander through racist experiences, and process and unfold them in the same way as an actual person might process them. Instead of merely describing what is going on, the narrator shows us the emotion. And what we get from this book is an intense look at what it is really like for some people to experience discrimination.
With no table of contents or titles for each piece, the structure itself disarms the reader before they even consider the content. Much like the struggle of lived prejudice, the writing mimics the discomfort of the experience. We thus follow the narrator through lived experiences of racism that are not universalized, flowing naturally through sadness, anger, visuals, storytelling, and critical responses to such experiences.
The title of the book plays on the meaning of the word “citizen” and asks readers to think about who is really granted the full-status of personhood in the US. Coupled with the images that that challenge conventional thought that is often racist and sexist, readers can feel validated through common understanding, and many can be challenged to look at the politics of race and gender relations in the US.
Moving seamlessly through topics as diverse as appropriation, Serena Williams, Hurricane Katrina, and images of disturbing humanoid animals next to beautifully surreal depictions of the black body, the narrative manages to include points on the emotional harm of language and thus the complicated weight of constant discrimination on the psyche. Making intensely critical and powerful statements, such as “because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying,” Rankine puts current US politics in the reader’s mind, more traumatic than that futuristic dystopian novel so many seem to fear.
As the narrator moves through mostly fiscally privileged/upper class spaces, such as therapy, private schools, airplanes, and an appointment with a realtor, Rankine shows that even the most privileged communities of color are not immune from the experiences of racism.
“Citizen: An American Lyric” has, at times, been unfairly identified as a “timely” piece. But this critique insinuates a type of capitalistic greed motivated its publication and thus erases the sentiment of the work, and the knowledge can be gained from its content regardless of the timing.
When asked about the goal of the piece, Rankine stated:
“I wanted to create the field of the encounter; what happens when one body comes up against another and race enters into the moment of intimacy between two people. …On the one hand, I am talking about institutionalized racism. But on another and, I think, equally important level, I’m just talking about what happens when we fail each other as people.”
The cover, which depicts an ominous black hood ripped from a sweatshirt, also resembles an executioner’s hood. Rankine uses the image to compliment the narrator’s discussion on racial profiling and the far too frequent murders of black people. Set against a white background, the cover invokes a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, that Rankine frequently uses throughout the piece, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
In a world where over 90 percent of the publishing industry and 90 percent of full-time professors are white, Rankine’s work can validate those who have experienced prejudice while also challenging readers to explore modes of thought that are often left starkly unanalyzed in the publishing industry.