Go to the archives

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 14, 2017
Category: Poetry

An incident:
It’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter.
The cashier says, Sir, she was next.
When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my god, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.

Another incident:
The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.

The last time I saw the second person used effectively was in “Bright Lights, Big City,” Jay McInerney’s 1980s novel. In that book, “you” was the narrator, a young hipster snorting coke in downtown Manhattan clubs.

Who is the speaker here? Who else might be “you?”

Let’s start with the book’s first sentence: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.”

“Devices” is the word that suggests this might not be a book of prose, that Rankine, a professor of poetry at Yale, really is a poet. Yes, she means your iPhone. But more, she means the strategies we use to keep painful truths at bay.

Who keeps painful truth at bay?

White people, of course. And of the many truths they keep at bay, the truth of their feelings about race is key here. In these pages, we’ll meet the white woman with multiple degrees who “didn’t know black women could get cancer.” A white therapist doesn’t realize the person at the door is her patient, so she screams, “Get away from my house!” And then there’s the white teacher who confides in his black colleague that his dean is making him hire a person of color “when there are many great writers out there.”

But keeping painful truths at bay is even more key for blacks, because blacks routinely experience “micro-aggressions” that they respond to at their peril. To be black is to eat the words of whites: “This is how you are a citizen. Move on. Let it go.”

And, Rankine says, “Until white people — white women — start giving birth to black babies, I think we are going to stay living in these incommensurable experiences.” Imagine this, day after day: “You take in things you don’t want all the time….Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”

“Citizen” has been called “the book of the decade.” Given how slow we are to hear the deep truths that Rankine presents so simply and bluntly in “Citizen,” it may be the book of several decades. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

These are not “poems” in forms you know. There are lists. Photos. Mini-essays. But taken as a whole, these are poems. You may not welcome them, but these are definitely poems.

Watch what it looks and sounds like when “There is only one guy who is always the guy who fits the description.”

Or what it’s like to be Serena Williams…

On the train, the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. In fact, there is one.

Let Claudia Rankine have the last words:

One of the things I wanted the book to do was speak to intimate moments. I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, “Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?” I wasn’t interested in scandal, or outrageous moments. I was interested in the surprise of the intimate, or the surprise of the ordinary. So you’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue. I wanted those kinds of moments. And initially people would say, “I don’t think I have any.” Their initial reaction was to render invisible those moments weaved into a kind of everydayness. And then I’d tell them something that happened to me, and that would trigger something. It was interesting to watch how the emotion of telling these stories built up in the tellers. They often got very upset. You could feel the anger being released. You could feel the irritation, the disgust, happening as the event was retold. So clearly they weren’t cool with it.

I really wanted the moments to add up because they do add up. I wanted to come up with a strategy that would allow these moments to accumulate in the reader’s body in a way that they do accumulate in the body. And the idea that when one reacts, one is not reacting to any one of those moments. You’re reacting to the accumulation of the moments. I wanted the book, as much as the book could do this, to communicate that feeling. The feeling of saturation. Of being full up.