Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is timeless and urgent in the wake of yet another killing of a black body. Citizen published in October of 2014 has received countless awards including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, the 2015 PEN Open Book Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Poetry. Rankine reminds us through her lyrical prose of the continued killing of the black body in everyday encounters; the destruction of the black soul after countless micro aggressions.
Citizen is a compilation of prose poetry, lyrical essays, and internal monologue. Brought together as a performative piece, Citizen is inherently political in its artwork, passages, and subject matter. Beginning with the cover art, the reader is stopped cold with the image of a floating hood with no torso reminding us of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The 1993 piece by David Hammons ”In the Hood” was birthed out of the Rodney King Riots, not Trayvon, serving as a reminder that this violence is nothing new, but the continuation of a violent system. Throughout the piece there are references to past cultural icons and literature. Tying Citizen to a larger past, Rankine uses Zora Neale Hurston’s quote to bind this piece
“I feel most colored when i am thrown against a sharp white background”
Thus, juxtaposed with the memorable and widely reported encounters Rankine also speaks to how so many of her readers in their everyday routines with their white colleagues are aggressively reminded of their blackness. Through passages of media clips and ordinary encounters that Rankine demonstrates the routine nature of killing of the soul way before the body.
“Yes and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into conciousness–all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable, resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
Rankine´s language is direct and accessible while still remaining beautiful. Special attention should be placed on the directness of the language, because much of it is everyday dialogue. The common “Did he just?” and “Of course not, he couldn’t have” line the pages of this literary work, calling into doubt the reader’s validity and reflecting the way that the black experience is challenged when expressed in mainstream culture and media. It is in the essays, crafted to the bare bone, that we can see these coded exchanges. Citizen contains no titles and makes little use of punctuation to interrupt the expression, instead passages and lines continue, floating onto the next page, the use of enjambment mirroring a state of consciousness. Written almost entirely in the second person point of view, Rankine places the reader inside Hurricane Katrina, inside the footsteps of the Jena Six, inside the experiences of a black body. Then with the stroke of a pen, she renders the reader breathless, tragedy after tragedy after degradation.
“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!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.”
‘Aloud’ is precisely how we must all express and assert ourselves today. It is times like these, while holding your loved ones close, that this powerful work of poetry by Claudia Rankine holds and validates us. Masterfully crafted, it is a piece everyone must read.