Citizen: An American Lyric is unlike any book that I’ve ever read. Rankine offers a uniquely personal perspective the likes of which have possibly never been written before. She reveals the constant, overwhelming, and exhausting interactions faced by black people every day. Through poems, personal narratives, and pictures, a startling image begins to emerge of just how serious and omnipresent racism is today.
A dreary Pittsburgh day seemed to mesh almost too well with the contents of Citizen as I read through it one afternoon. The way Rankine addresses the reader as “you” in nearly every passage really grabbed my attention and pulled me through each page. I could play out the interactions described in my head perfectly, and I think that’s what startled me the most. Simple and routine exchanges should not be such an arduous task, but unfortunately they are. Sometimes a particular situation involves no real communication, but apprehensiveness and hostility can permeate through even if the one party is unaware they are doing it.
“Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.” – Citizen, pg. 12
What is the issue with sitting next to someone with a different skin color?
Of all the different pictures dotted throughout the book, one particular image stuck with me that can be found on page nineteen. A grotesque and strange looking creature with the head of a human and body of a deer lies at the bottom of the page. I was not too sure what to make of the picture. I knew there was a reason for the creature to be placed there, but it took me awhile to understand why. Then I think I realized why it was there. The creature was a representation of the dehumanization of black people. Racism can flourish if a group of people think they are superior to someone else based on certain qualities. This mindset is contagious and dangerous. I think Rankine used the picture to show how in today’s society black people are looked down upon as sub-human, or even animals just based on their skin color.
I always knew racism persisted even today, but the way Rankine illustrates it is subtle and provocative. The passage right before the picture found on page nineteen was incredibly eye-opening to me. A seemingly ordinary appointment with a therapist who should be warm and welcoming nearly goes awry.
“At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. 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?”
Why does this confrontation take place? Why is she so hostile towards someone at her door? Did the therapist assume she spoke to a white person over the phone? What difference should that make?
“You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.”
I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be nearly shunned away from someone that is expected to provide help. The therapist’s reluctance to help someone who is black conflicts with the ethics and standards medical professionals are held up to. These kinds of interactions should not be common place. And yet, they are. The way the therapist spoke reminded me of how some people like to yell at their pet animal when they are misbehaving. Get away from that, or what are you doing? Get over here! I took this particular passage as an allusion for the animal displayed on the very next page.
“I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”
– Citizen, pg. 18
Jon Stewart of the Daily Show had a brilliant segment about the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, this past August.
I found an interesting article that asked Rankine some questions regarding Citizen. She provided more of an in depth view of her methods for writing the book with NPR’s Eric Westervelt.
“There are two worlds out there; two America’s out there. If you’re a white person, there’s one way of being a citizen in our country; and if you’re a brown or a black body, there’s another way of being a citizen and that way is very close to death. It’s very close to the loss of your life. It’s very close to the loss of your liberties at any random moment. And so I wanted that to be considered.” – Claudia Rankine
Racism is a tough issue to address, especially as a black writer like Rankine. Her work and insight can easily be overshadowed by people not willing to listen. However, I think it is important to listen and to understand why ordinary interactions have undertones of prejudice and racism. Our society should not function this way. In the 21st century, coexistence should be the norm. One group of people should not be subject to such hate and mistrust every day of their lives.
Citizen: An American Lyric was recently nominated in two categories; poetry and criticism. This is the first book ever nominated for two such accolades by the National Book Criticis Circle Awards. Read the full article here: http://www.studio360.org/story/claudia-rankine-citizen-shows-what-racism-really-feels-like/