In an essay centered on Serena Williams, the speaker asks, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” (25). A few pages later, Nick Cave’s Soundsuits appears (33), the photograph of a bent-over body in a black, blossom-adorned bodysuit evoking the title of the feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back.
It is the book itself, however, that struck me first: its heft, its slick, starkly white pages (echoing Zora Neale Hurston’s words referenced in the text and art of Citizen: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”), how the glossy disembodied hoodie on the cover, a mixed media sculpture by David Hammons called In the Hood (1993), captured my white reflection and held it there.
If you’ve put an e-book edition in your online shopping cart, stop. You will miss too much without these pages in your hands, like the way Citizen’s “weight insists” on its presence, as if “fighting off” what the speaker will later describe as “the weight of nonexistence” with its 80-lb paper (139).
What’s within, what Rankine constructs with structure, tone, syntax, diction, and genre-bending form, is something poet and multidisciplinary artist Holly Bass calls “an intentionally disorienting experience, one that mirrors the experience of racial micro-aggressions her subjects encounter” (NY Times).
This disorientation begins immediately. CITIZEN, the cover proclaims. Should this be read as an interrogative addressing the reader or is the book about another citizen, individual or collective?
The opening lines that follow—“When you are alone, and too tired even to turn on any /of your devices”—introduce the second-person narrative mode, chosen because Citizen’s story is more than Rankine’s story, and for the way it pulls the reader into a shared space with the speaker.
Throughout the book, the use of “you” positions readers within an accumulation of spare, intimate scenes in which “race enter[s] the room” (Star Tribune), private rooms and public ones, where readers are asked to dwell in each uneasy encounter, define their place in it—which “you” are you?—and reckon with the resulting accretion.
Tension builds as each encounter unfolds in a flat, matter-of-fact tone ticking with what is left unsaid, undone. This technique reminded me of an activity designed to heighten awareness of micro-aggressions and their cumulative impact. One person, representing someone with a particular identity or identities, stands while five other people circle slowly and speak, over and over again, remarks that subtly stereotype, marginalize, erode, or erase the person standing.
In passages where people’s race is not named, pronouns rely on readers to assume race. In an interview with Meara Sharma, Rankine explained how she uses such passages in her classroom.
“Sometimes I’ll have a student who says, “I don’t really think about race. I don’t see race.” And then I’ll ask, “Well, how do you read this?” And they say, “Oh, that’s a black person, that’s a white person.” (Guernica)
I assumed too. As I read “Making Space,” in which a woman sits in an empty train seat beside a black man, stepping past another woman who has decided to stand, I pictured the woman who sits down as black (130-3).
When Rankine read “Making Space” at the National Book Awards Reading, I learned that in the true story behind the script, the woman who filled the space was white. Along with malleable pronouns, Rankine’s syntax mirrors how racism confounds logic, how it can feel familiar and freshly painful, elusive and unmistakable at once, the script for “Stop and Frisk” stating how “Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same” (107).
While Citizen emerged from Rankine’s reflections on race and her conversations with friends about race, its words and images raise question after question rather than offering answers, subverting efforts by many to label it as a “meditation on race” by becoming as much the reader’s meditation as Rankine’s own. The language’s physicality further demands a visibility that resists retreat into an out-of-body experience.
When Rankine began documenting the incidents that inform Citizen, she had another purpose in mind: “show[ing] how black people’s health was connected to their day-to-day lives” (Guernica). This original impulse surfaces in her diction: tongue, lungs, larynx, eyes, mouth, feet, arm, throat, ribcage, and stomach among the places that racism lodges in the body, inflicts cuts that rupture any suture meant to hold them closed, the way its chokehold stifles voice and breath. The words catalogue “That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you,” then remind each injured you, “That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice” (156).
Citizen refuses mere mental exercise. Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, citizens abandoned during Katrina—“Have you seen their faces?” the speaker asks (83). Remember, the way a body remembers.
Citizen’s hybrid form may make it difficult for judges to wedge into familiar award categories, but its immersive mash-up design has allowed it to shapeshift far beyond the confines of the typical audience for either poetry or essays.
Rankine refers to poetry as “the last gift economy” (Guernica) and this usually bears out in sales, but it appears that like her speaker in Citizen who sits silently in a car in hopes of “bucking the trend [of John Henryism]” (11), Rankine’s book seeks to buck a trend too. At the time of this review, Citizen’s sales rank on Amazon.com was #795, astounding for a work in either genre. Among other books published in October 2014, The Secret History of Wonder Woman ranked #2753 and Picoult’s Leaving Time #620, putting Citizen’s sales rank in the league of bestselling fiction.
What about its sales rank compared with winners of the 2014 National Book Award for which Rankine was nominated? The fiction winner, Klay’s Redeployment, ranked #1258, while Faithful and Virtuous Night, the winning poetry collection by one of Rankine’s mentors, Louise Glück, ranked #18,613, admirably high for a poetry book.
In sentences often deceptively plain, Rankine has opened the sometimes gated communities of poetry and essay to invite conversations about Citizen in spaces outside academia, as well as within and across disciplines as varied as epidemiology, women’s studies, law, psychology, and government. And while her craft can spark analysis in the expected literature and writing courses (including analysis of elements not discussed in this review, such as allusion and metaphor), online videos for several scripts in section VI, as well as online excerpts, including earlier versions of scenes, support explorations of the contrast between page and screen, and comparisons of shorter pieces with this book-length work.
Published in the wake of Ferguson, many critics hailed Citizen as timely, yet Rankine’s meticulous lyric could have rung just as timely, just as American, at any point in our history thus far. Perhaps the now into which it is sung will shape how we hear its notes and its silences, how we respond to its insistent hum.
Situation videos for scripts in section VI
· In Memory of Trayvon Martin (a.k.a. Situation 5)
· Stop and Frisk (a.k.a. Situation 6)
· World Cup (a.k.a. Zidane, Situation 1) – in Blackbird 9.1 (Spring 2010)
· Making Room (a.k.a. Situation 7)
Situation videos, sometimes in slightly different versions, are also available on Claudia Rankine’s web site. Click on situations, then on numbers in corners of next web page.
Excerpts and earlier versions of scenes from Citizen
· from That Were Once Beautiful Children (previous title of Citizen) – in Lana Turner #5
· “Be Angry” – in Lana Turner #6
· from That Were Once Beautiful Children – in Boston Review (30 April 2012)
· “You are in the dark, in the car…” – in Poetry (March 2014) – includes audio