The experience of reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine could be compared to a walk through an art gallery. Her book is a space for an exhibition where colorful visual, unconventional poetry and insightful expositions converge. However, when taking this tour and start interacting with her work, you come to realize that it goes beyond an artful blend and becomes mediation on activism and literary aesthetics. Rankine illustrates how the constancy of racism in human social interaction, politics, and the media undermines black identity with the effect of nearly rendering it invisible, or flatters it as a means of tokenism to perpetuate white supremacy. What makes this work even more brilliant is that Rankine fully implicates you, the reader, in every racist assault on humanity that is taking place. In this reflection, I intend to analyze some of the themes, the impact it has had on me and the degree to which this text can be used as a tool to facilitate critical dialogue about matters of race, implicit bias, the conventions and social constructs that serve to divide societies.
Considering the narrative structure, Rankine’s Citizen also generates an effect of awe on the reader. The text is nonlinear and this composition works in her favor enhancing the flow between the seemingly disjointed images and the ideas she presents. Among those ideas, the irony of black visibility takes the central stage and the black body turns into a canvas where she exposes the double consciousness of black life in the United States. She explains that the racist language that is sometimes perceived as being used to ‘denigrate and erase’ the black community is (other times) the very instrument by which the black community is validated. She introduces several situations displaying various forms of microaggressions that a black person may encounter on a daily basis. Contrary to mainstream belief (and under the white eye), fetishizing the black body (like any other body) is far from being a positive action. Through her prose, she intends to denounce the fact that this way of stereotyping only helps to perpetuate the objectification of bodies and the perception of the different ‘other’ not as an equal. Furthermore, Rankine illustrates the invisibility of black identity, such as when “you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description” (105). This homogenization of black identities diminishes black visibility by reducing and confining the black community to limited stereotypes.
In some sections, Rankine’s writing moves into the abstract detailing the transition of the sighs into the aches. An intimate and vulnerable description of the sensations become more relatable and the reader cannot help but identify themself with them. The moan and the sigh, both labored though different kinds of breath, suggest a means of survival, expressing the vulnerability and dehumanization to which black people are subjected when confronted with their ‘less than’ status in American history and contemporary culture. “The sigh is the pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That’s just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache” (60). Thus, they represent the exhaustion that comes from a lifetime of confrontation with structural racism. The body speaks and whenever under situations of stress, it manifests in different forms. In Rankine’s essay, the mouth plays an important role since through it, diverse ways of expressing subconscious bodily sensations are produced, more significantly, the ‘voice’. The voice has a powerful meaning given that on one hand, it is a symbol of the self: writing a book is believed to be the writer’s attempt to develop his or her voice. Besides, its strength lies in the importance of ‘voicing’ an opinion to claim the right to be heard and to be recognized as an individual. On the other hand, it is a symbol for the physical capacity to speak; and at the same time, it allows the personal decision to remain silent.
Interestingly, she uses highly metaphorical language to describe sensations; she uses poetry to contrast the present with the past by evoking memory; especially the memory of ancient, stored pain. “You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headaches begin then. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, the world says, though they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you” (61). Memory brings back moments of pain, isolation, ostracization, and discrimination. It is sometimes better not to remember, to live in a kind of autopilot mode by benumbing all kinds of sensations.
Addressability is at the heart of Citizen. One of the most powerful strategies that Rankine uses is to address the reader directly, which creates a kind of living and hypothetical storyline that allows the reader to co-write the text. Even in moments when “you” or “your” describe the speaker, the reader is still somehow implicated and involved in the telling of the story. The author refers to herself as “you,” an invitation for the reader to stand in her place. In an interview, she stated: “I also found it funny to think about blackness as the second person. That was just sort of funny. Not the first person, but the second person, the other person [laughs].”
Even though the process of reading Citizen may generate feelings of distress, I overall found it a positive experience. She rather manages to approach the themes and ideas with some hints of humor and in a more contemplative way than an attack. She effectively creates a space within which each of us can explore our socialization process and make the conscious decision to rethink our understanding of race. Although the language that she uses is at times formal and elevated, it is mostly colloquial, which makes it a valuable material for academic purposes as well as for informal settings. Besides, it has the effect of inviting the reader to examine the underlying force that perpetuates racial injustice. Finally, she proposes a rather positive way to endure the problem of racism. The stanza “move on, let it go, come on” conveys a hopeful message but not in the way of ‘don’t worry, be happy’, but as an invitation to persevere without ignoring the core problem, and to continue with the fight against racism.
All in all, the strategy of using a non-conventional narrative structure of not following a chronological order gives the reader a feeling of interaction with an art piece. Additionally, the possibility of jumping from one section to the next one gives the impression of being playing a sort of artistic hopscotch. The playful character of her work is another element that I find utterly creative. Notably, the hybridity of her work makes it an enjoyable experience where you can find yourself identified with, in the end, we are all hybrids in a way or another. As aforementioned, this text is more than a mere piece of writing. It allows the reader to interact with its content and generates crucial discussions about the dangers of racial injustice, implicit bias, and divisive social constructions. Claudia Rankine, through her work, intends to evoke a sense of responsibility and determination to change the course of humanity’s evolution by giving an open ending to her book.
“I can hear the even breathing that creates passages to dreams. And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.”
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.
Rankine, Claudia. Interview by Meara Sharma. Claudia Rankine on Blackness as the Second Person. 17 November 2014, https://www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/. Accessed 15 February 2020.
 Interview by Meara Sharma. Guernica (November 17, 2014).