In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine approaches the difficulties facing black Americans. However, this is no ordinary literary racial commentary. When writing about a sensitive subject like race, often writers must be creative in their approach, in order to allow for discussion and interpretation. For example, Beatty approaches race issues through absurdist humour in The Sellout, and Whitehead creates distance by using an historical setting in The Underground Railroad. In contrast, Rankine uses the lyrical format to foster discussion and interpretation of racial attitudes. The text combines personal anecdotes, discussions of race in the media, scripts and poems, all of which contextualise photographs, film frames and art to deliver an effective, emotional discussion about race in America. Due to its troubling perpetuity, racism has existed in many forms, from early colonial settlement slavery, to its twenty-first state as a, generally, more covert form of prejudice, exemplified by Rankine’s white mother who purposely separates her daughter from the black community by “sit(ting) in the middle” (Rankine: 12) of her child and the black speaker on a ‘United’ Airlines plane. These unsettling outward manifestations of racism are presented alongside internal musings over the ‘otherness’ of the black race as termed by white speakers, for example Rankine ponders on how police officers are bias towards black men who will always “fit the description” (Rankine: 105) of the criminal. As racism changes form, so does Rankine’s approach to its discussion, symbolised by the changes in literary formatting throughout Citizen.
Where Beatty has used absurdist humour to draw attention away from the man behind the curtain, the author, Rankine draws on her own deeply personal life experience, amalgamating the author and her life with her subject matter. Through dozens of personal stories, Rankine shows that it is not one great moment, but a great many moments that have developed her sense of identity as a black person in America. These moments, mostly held in the first five sections of the text, are constructed in the prose poetry form. Many read like stage directions, telling the reader that “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street swallowed by speed” (Rankine: 10). The poems are written to control the reader, seating them in a situation of Rankine’s choosing. By asking us to observe the situation from this point of view, Rankine forces the reader to feel these many uncomfortable instances first hand.
This use of prose poetry reads in antithesis to Rankine’s more abstract pieces. A large part of their effectiveness in conveying Rankine’s feelings is their unique and interesting formatting. For example, on pages 134 and 135, Rankine creates a striking visual by coupling anaphora of the phrase “In memory of” (134) with the typographical feature of the print fading down the page. The repetition displays how these victims are remembered, as simply a list of names. As it grows longer, the public will become increasingly desensitised to this type of crime. Alternatively, by leaving room for more names below, Rankine is criticising the action being taken (or lack thereof) as insufficient in stopping this type of crime from happening again. On the right hand page, there are only three short lines referencing the inability of white men to control their “imagination” (135). Visually, the stark contrast between a page filled with mourning text and a page of just eleven short words, between black and white, victim and perpetrator, demonstrates how the many deaths within the black community have one root cause: the bias suspicion of white men. This message is effectively conveyed through her careful formatting.
Not only does Rankine deal with American race relations, but certain sections also cover international and European events, like Zidane’s headbutt at the end of the World Cup in 2006. Rankine has chosen quotations from many different places and people, though their very relevant and similar ideas makes for a difficult read on the “insidious” (122) nature of racist language. Rankine shows the true power of words by amalgamating the quotations of many authors and unifying the rage felt by those on the receiving end of them. Printed in large letters across the fold of the two pages is the phrase “Black-Blanc-Beur” (122). This racially inclusive french phrase being stamped on the pages perhaps shows the hypocrisy of the french’s own ideas of inclusivity. Rankine does not write any of her own words in this section, simply making a collage of the words of others. Perhaps in giving the piece many voices, Rankine shows that many share this same feeling of restrained yet volatile outrage against racial injustice.
The format changes again in the section concerning athlete Serena Williams. Rankine’s language becomes more prosaic, the layout more traditionally reminiscent of a novel as opposed to a poem. The usage of “you,” as opposed to “I” as seen in the prose poetry previously continues throughout this section. The speaker and, through this use of “you”, also the reader, are watching Serena Williams’s career unfold through televised events, and watching the prejudices against a black player unfold in a sport with a “white background” (32). This viewpoint emphasis the scrutiny Williams is under, portraying her as an other, as someone who does not belong, facing criticism for more than just her on-court fowls. Rankine successfully harnesses Williams’s experience, and how that effected her, feeling these slights come “out of history, through (Williams), onto (Rankine)” (32). As a fan, the speaker watches Williams swallow her anger and wonder why. Rankine uses Williams’s strife as an example of of the troubles all of the “black bodies thrown against” her “American background” (32).
In her review of Citizen for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway states that it “may or may not be poetry” and that “the question becomes insignificant as one reads on.” It is clear that for Rankine that subject matter is more important than poetic structure. It may be that Rankine’s unique “unsettled hybrid” is a much more relevant and thought provoking way to talk about race, and perhaps this is the first wave of popular and uncomfortable literature of this kind.
Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin Poetry. 2015
Kellaway, Kate. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine review – the ugly truth of racism. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/30/claudia-rankine-citizen-american-lyric-review Accessed on 15/10/2017