Racism and the Power of Language: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Citizen is Jamaican poet and playwright, Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume of poetry. Published in 2014, Citizen was a a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle awards, where it was nominated in two categories, poetry and criticism, the first time since the awards were created forty years ago that a single book has been nominated in more than one category. It is the winner of Poets and Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and an Amazon #1 bestseller. Online magazine The Millions called it one of the most anticipated books of the year [1].

A shocking compilation of racism, Rankine’s poems deliver the cutting reality of what it is to be black in America through her own personal tales of prejudice, as well as through tennis star Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, and other black figures. Rankine constructs each poem with a vivid scene and wraps it up with a poignant last sentence that will hit the reader with its telling subtlety even if he or she has never experienced racism before.Citizen

With many of the poems written in the second person ‘you’ form, the reader is able to share the humiliation of the true story behind it. Citizen begins with a twelve year old black girl who is asked by her white classmate to move her body to the side of her desk during exams, so the white girl can copy her answers. Meanwhile, the implication that Sister Evelyn does not notice the similarity in their exams, is that the copying only works one way. Or the black girl takes too little space in Sister Evelyn’s mind to even notice her presence. The poems that follow are similarly humiliating—You taking the window seat on an airplane after a year of traveling. When a mother and daughter approach the same row, the daughter is initially surprised, followed by disappointment at the seating arrangements, apparently not expecting a black person in the same row as them. The mother promptly takes the middle seat. In another, an individual makes an appointment with a trauma therapist over the phone and comes to the door at the back that the therapist uses for all patients. The therapist cannot imagine a black person is here for an appointment and treats the individual like a criminal. She can only repeat sorry several times over after the poem’s protagonist says softly that she is here for an appointment.

Though prose like, there is much carefully written syntax and underlying musicality that add to the powerful delivery of these pieces. Rankine does a beautiful job of packing everything into the last sentence. The surprising importance of the last lines in the poems reveal the humiliating prejudice that the reader cannot fully understand until the end. One example of this is when an individual meets with a manager she has only spoken to on the phone. When they meet in person, the manager blurts out that he did not know she was black. A dialogue between the two follows, “I didn’t mean to say that, he then says / Aloud, you say / What? He asks. / You didn’t mean to say that aloud.” The poem ends with the line, “The transaction goes swiftly after that” [2].

Citizen does many things to take the reader off guard. One way is Rankine’s choice to not name the poems. After finishing reading through the first few, this technique I initially found disconcerting, became preferable. The content was able to speak for itself rather than a distracting set of words up top to say ‘this is what this poem is about’. In turn, the poems flow without interruption into the next poem, helping to build to a powerful climax at the end. To return to the earlier idea of this book as a series of essays, the way the pieces are separated only by Roman numeral sections make it feel like a large essay. A large amount of the poems are held together by the poems that proceed and follow them, meaning that on their own they may not make the same amount of sense that they do functioning together in a book. This does not negate the power of any of the pieces but to say that the way in which they read like short essays is them building off of one another.

Unconventional, not only in the prosaic like way in which they are written, but also in the way the essay like nature helps the book function. Some of the poems are no longer than a page, while others, such as the Serena Williams piece and the sequence from the 2006 World Cup are several pages. Both of these pieces are written like articles, long spins where Rankine’s voice and quirks are present, but the the pieces do not necessarily feel like poetry. The author gets away with calling this poetry, because it is in a collection of poems. Though it is not necessary to debate which literary genre Citizen should fall under; it is however, interesting to note the flexibility of these pieces and how they function in their unusual forms.

Citizen will leave a sting long after finishing it. It is a book for everyone who has had racism done to them and for anyone else who has not. It is not pretty; it is storytelling with a literal kick at society, exposing racism and racial profiling through real life instances. A quote on an intro page in the book, from French film director Chris Marker, sums the story of Citizen up well; “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black”.

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine

169 pages. Published by Graywolf Press

Paperback: $20.00 (Graywolfpress.org)

 

References:

1. “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Graywolf Press

2. Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. 44. Print.

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