Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Published January 2014, Read February 2017
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.”
Rarely do you come across a masterpiece like Citizen. Few texts even attempt what Claudia Rankine has accomplished with her form-shattering work. Rankine pieces together disparate images and makes them a cohesive whole, telling a powerful story of race in America. The attention and precision is beyond belief. Every word is carefully chosen, every punctuation mark placed just so, and each image paired with brilliant intention to Rankine’s exquisite writing.
Even the cover is intensely evocative. In 2014 when the book was first released, it had been two years since Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood. The photo widely circulated in the news and social media depicted Trayvon with his hood up, catering to the broad racial stereotype of young black men as troublemakers. His murderer, the infamous George Zimmerman, argued that since Martin was walking with his hood up, this betrayed his bad (read: black) intentions. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in a matter of moments. His crime? Walking while black.
But it is not only Trayvon Martin’s story told in the pages of Rankine’s book. She evokes the names of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and many more. She draws on her own experiences, portraying them with brutal honesty and strength, using her chosen images to incredible effect. One such instance that stands out is when she describes an encounter she had when showing up for a medical appointment with a professional who worked from home. Upon ringing the doorbell, Rankine’s doctor appeared to chase her from the property, assuming by reason of Rankine’s skin, she did not belong there. She follows this reminiscence with a photo of a taxidermy piece. The piece, Little Girl by Kate Clark, is an infant caribou with a bastardized human face. The juxtaposition reveals the sheer power of the dehumanization Rankine experienced that day and shows, in a way words could not, the depth of our society’s racism.
Even the construction of the physical book is intentional. Repeatedly Rankine mentions the “stark white background” upon which all African Americans are seen in this country. She returns again and again to this theme, until you realize: the text is written upon a pure white page. I believe the author could have chosen any kind of paper or binding for her book, but she chose to use stark white pages for her story. They are not the traditional off-white or beige paper used in most books today. They are waxy, photo-quality. Sure, maybe Graywolf Press used the paper to get the best quality from the images Rankine selected, but I doubt it. The rest of the book is far too cleverly and painstakingly constructed for even the paper to be an afterthought.
In the end, I believe Claudia Rankine breaks with traditional form because so many of our most beloved and time-honored traditions are based in racist systems. It may be hard to grasp how something like a traditional collection of short stories could be racist just by its form, but those forms are established and controlled by a broader white society. Rankine selects her own structure in order to challenge our most basic assumptions about literature, race, and society as a whole. She forces us to flex our thinking into new shapes and directions in order to hopefully create a crack in the institutions oppressing (and killing) African Americans today.