Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” Is a Book For Our Times

By S.E. FLEENOR

Claudia Rankine is coming to Denver on November 15 for a free talk on her book Citizen: An American Lyric with Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. In preparation for this event, we are including a review of her book. Join in on the conversation with six weeks of events planned by Denver Talks.

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine. Rankine will visit Denver this month for a public discussion on the book and race in contemporary society. Credit: S.E. Fleenor

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine. Rankine will visit Denver this month for a public discussion on the book and race in contemporary society. Credit: S.E. Fleenor

For many white people, the recent white supremacist rally and subsequent terrorist attack resulting in the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was shocking. What so many white people have described as completely unimaginable many Black writers have said is nothing new. In her recent article for The New York Times, “Was Charlottesville the Exception or the Rule?” Claudia Rankine, author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” writes, “The horror we seem to only now be noticing is an effect of our country’s longstanding commitment to white supremacy. But I am unclear about when we ever lived without its effects. Was there ever a moment when the persecution of nonwhite Americans wasn’t the norm?”

The article goes on to trace the history of white supremacy in the United States, including attempts to exclude nonwhite Americans from citizenship, echoing the theme of Rankine’s 2014 book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.” At times a lamentation, at times a whispered profession, at times a meditation on race, her book is part poetry, part prose, part critical essay, part sports commentary, and part powerful visual art from a variety of artists. Rankine has won numerous awards for this work including the PEN Open Book Award, the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

Written in the second person, present tense, much of the book reads as an address (or an accusation) while also seeming to be a revelation of interactions the author has experienced and witnessed. However, given the point of view and tense, the reader is given pause to consider: Where is the author in this piece and where am I?

Rankine weaves together current events, literature, theory, and her own life experience to discuss what she calls “the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every black or brown person lives simply because of skin color.”

 One of the examples of racism she mediates on longest is the treatment of Serena Williams within the tennis community. When Williams is confronted (once again) with a problematic call from a line judge and yells at the judge, the number one ranked tennis player loses the match on a technicality, is fined over $80,000, and put on probation for two years. Rankine wonders, “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. Bad sportsmanship.”

Williams is not the only figure in current events that Rankine addresses. Throughout the book, murdered black people are remembered and mourned. In a section dated July 13, 2013, the day the police officer who murdered Trayvon Martin was acquitted, Rankine writes about how Martin’s name was everywhere on the radio and the fear for a partner who wants to confront someone for something they said, seemingly related to Martin’s murder. The partner is convinced to get in the car and keep moving “because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.” Rankine continues, “Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.”

In another section of the book, “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” begins a list of almost two-dozen names of black people murdered publicly since 2012. The list fades from black to white, continuing “In Memory” with no name following, leaving spaces for the murders that the author is certain are to come. Adjoined to this page, in perhaps the most chilling three lines of the book, Rankine writes, “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying.” Those lines are full of implications that bear teasing out, but like much of the book, they may be best left contemplated rather than dissected. 

Rankine ends the book with a line of dialogue addressed to her partner who asked her if she won today. “It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.” ■

 

A project of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the City & County of Denver, and NEA Big Read, Denver Talks is a citywide conversation about race, social justice, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Metro-area residents are invited to read the book and participate in Citizen-themed book discussions, arts activities, and other events. The project culminates in a free on-stage conversation between Claudia Rankine and Mayor Michael B. Hancock, November 15, at Boettcher Concert Hall.