Claudia Rankine’s award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric is a book that’s difficult to talk about, yet one that has the potential to serve as the gateway to some of our most important conversations. For just as Claudia Rankine isn’t defined as simply a poet, a playwright, an artist or an essayist, Citizen is a book that defies being boxed in by a single genre. Is it a poem? An essay? A meditation or prayer?
I think it’s all of these things, and it feels fitting that this book doesn’t conform to a singular label. In some ways, that lends itself well to the immediacy of emotions that makes reading Citizen an experience.
At times, that immediacy can be an uncomfortable one — and maybe that discomfort stems from my being a white, middle class, raised-in-Suburbia person in today’s America. Sometimes it is hard to know how to talk about issues of race (Am I going to offend her? Is he going to get upset? Do I sound ignorant? Privileged? Something else? Maybe I should just stay quiet, pretend I didn’t see, didn’t hear, was distracted). After all, how can we ever really know or understand someone else’s reality? My reality is not yours and vice versa. Claudia Rankine’s point in Citizen is that the unshared experience doesn’t excuse us for not seeing and acknowledging the experience of others.
Understanding and acknowledging the hard truths of our lives begins with listening and by paying attention to others’ experience. By directing her reader’s attention to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) instances of racism that occur in American society, Claudia Rankine brings her experience and hurt and pain to the page where we see it in all its rawness and honesty.
“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lung. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.”
The poetry (the American lyric) of Citizen forces us to slow down, to listen, as Claudia Rankine writes eloquently of real-life instances of racism that we know from the headlines — the cover illustration is of a hoodie, symbolizing the killing of Trayvon Martin — as well as the more subtle, yet personally searing moments that too often get glossed over and dismissed altogether.
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lung. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx.
Two examples that have stayed with me:
“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.”
“The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
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?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. 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 am so sorry, so, so, sorry.
~ Melissa F.
Ready to Open Your Ears?Check Out Citizen Now
Melissa F. loves short stories (especially ones that are interconnected), literary fiction, memoirs, poetry and creative nonfiction. A native of Philadelphia, Melissa loves everything about Pittsburgh, especially working for the Library as Manager of Grants and Research.
This post was originally published in Eleventh Stack on February 19, 2016.