‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ challenges readers with the reality of casual racism

Claudia Rankine’s poetry confronts the intricacies of being Black in America

Claudia Rankine confronts anti-Black racism in her poetry book Citizen.
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Claudia Rankine’s voice is nothing short of transformational. Her volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, is a book-length poem which illuminates the uncomfortable reality of Black citizens’ everyday lives.
 
There’s an overwhelming feeling in the collection of taking up too much space—of being too visible and invisible all at once. Her words inspired me as a poet, informed me as an ally, and changed me as a reader. 
 
Rankine draws on pop culture, street names, real experiences of Black citizens, and police brutality to weave together themes of race and racialization. She delves into the ways in which Black people are perceived and judged, regardless of how they may try to appeal to the white gaze.
 
However, what separates Rankine from other authors is her ability to articulate the weight of glances and offhand remarks that people of colour hear every day. The discomfort of witnessing instances of covert racism through Rankine’s masterful language is an experience all readers should put themselves through—both because the writing is stunning and because it’s a necessary education.
 
The book is filled with moments which have truly lodged their way into my psyche and continued to impact my understanding of racism as a cultural phenomenon.
 
In one section of Citizen, Rankine describes the experience of a Black woman meeting her therapist for the first time.
 
“The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone,” Rankine writes.
 
The speaker describes the house before ringing the doorbell and waiting outside for her therapist to answer.
 
“When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.”
 
Rankine’s ability to personalize this experience of racism—this moment of extreme discomfort and pain—was enough to bring tears to my eyes. These experiences are woven throughout the book, interspersed with instances of violence and police brutality.
 
Although Citizen was written in 2014, it’s as relevant now as it was during its publication. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor could heartbreakingly fit perfectly into Rankine’s descriptions of police brutality.
 
“Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying,” Rankine writes.
 
For Queen’s students, I think one of the most applicable references Rankine makes is of Glenn Ligon’s Untitled painting, which was on display at the Museum of Modern Art in 2021. The painting itself draws inspiration from Hurston’s novel How it Feels to be Colored Me and Ellison’s Invisible Man.
 
In bold black font, Ligon’s prints read, “I do not always feel colored;” “I feel mostcolored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
 
This, I feel, is the crux of the book—experiencing race and racialization against the “sharp white background” of the majority.
 
Citizen is one of the best pieces of literature I have experienced because it pushes the boundaries of form and understanding. It is activism through the lens of incredible poetry, combining historical and contemporary instances of racism with the depth of human emotions.

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