Citizen: An American Lyric
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The cover of the American softback first edition
|Publisher||Graywolf Press (US)/Penguin Books (UK)|
|October 7, 2014|
978-1-555-97690-3 (US sofcover) |
ISBN 978-0-141-98177-2 (UK softcover)
Citizen: An American Lyric is a 2014 book by the American poet Claudia Rankine. The book has been described as both criticism and poetry, described by critic Michael Lindgren as having "boundary-bending potency...an innovative amalgam of genres".
The book consists of seven chapters interspersed with images and artworks. The first chapter details microaggressions that have occurred to Rankine and her friends. The second chapter discusses the YouTube character Hennessy Youngman created by Jayson Musson, and discusses racial incidents in the life of Serena Williams and her public image. The third chapter features more microaggressions and the nature of racist language. In the fourth chapter Rankine writes of the transition of sighs into aches, the nature of language, memory, and watching tennis matches in silence. Chapter five is a complex poem on self-identity, interspersed with more microaggressions. Chapter six is a series of scripts for "situation videos" created in collaboration with John Lucas on Hurricane Katrina, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, the 2011 England riots in the wake of the death of Mark Duggan, stop-and-frisk, Zinedine Zidane's headbutt of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final, and the verbal error during Barack Obama's first inauguration as President of the United States. The seventh chapter ends with "Making Room", a script for a "public fiction" about finding a seat on the subway, and a list of African-American men involved in recent police shooting incidents that concludes with the phrase "because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying". The seventh chapter is a complex meditation on race, the body, language and various incidents in the life of the author. The book is interspersed with images of various paintings, drawings, sculptures and screen grabs.
Claudia Rankine's lyric opens with an introductory paragraph that is ironically a more formal "closing" to a long day. Rankine prescribes melancholia with an overall sense of exhaustion that leads the reader directly into a very familiar place: "bed". It is here, in the beginning of the book that Rankine weaves "prose, poetry and visual image pervasively into the daily American social and cultural life, subtly foreshadowing and boding its readers to the challenges certain citizens must overcome in order to not become invisible (National Book Award Judges' Citation)." "Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor." (Citizen, pg.1) Moreover, Rankine's first paragraph offers the oppressed citizens, Blacks, a subtle solution even before delivering her readers the very contents of her book. The book is lyrically written, in of itself, as an extended metaphor of the extreme color distinction between white and black. Only people's perspectives regarding race allows society to identify the difference when regarding humanity and therefore equality. Throughout the lyric this racial divergence becomes more apparent as Rankine conveys each experience. The crux of the metaphor is the subsiding factor of grey; a color degree between that of white and black that implies patience and hope. These factors, subtly and metaphorically penned in the first paragraph grants these citizens a means to press forward against the subtle microaggressions, which, metaphorically speaking, is a wake for them in the very wake of the book. "There are billions of souls in the world and some of us are almost to be touching the depths of how it is and what it is to be human. On the surface we exist but just beyond is existence. I write to articulate that felt experience."(Rankine) The first chapter immediately transfers the reader into a black persona who is quickly becoming invisible by the harassment of microaggressions. The necessity of tolerance ascribed by blacks, that is, in these occurrences even are subjected to children in grade school. Still consistent with second person perspective use of you, the short narration is of a child: "You", who experiences a microaggression by first a student who is copying her work throughout the school year, and secondly, from Sister Evelyn, who never acknowledges the blatant incidences. "...later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person." The microaggression described here is that, you are unworthy of a genuine acknowledgment of gratitude. "Thank you", is unnecessary or does not apply because you are classified as an "almost" in girl students' mind. Rankine's verbiage utilizing the word assume, remarks the harsh reality that you have to ascribe an excuse or reasoning for another's actions. You must enable them – her and therefore the situation, crippling it, in order to rectify your own stability, in your own personal defense, so that you do not take direct offense. Only because the offense was not a direct form of prejudice. "Sister Evelyn never figures out your arrangement perhaps because you never turn around to copy Mary Catherine's answers. Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there."
The second chapter consists of Rankine's meditation on tennis star Serena Williams and the racially motivated attacks on her when she competed at Indian Wells in 2001, as well as controversial calls made against her throughout her tennis career. Rankine uses an example from youtuber Hennessy Youngman from his video How to Be a Successful Black Artist to argue her point that certain stereotypes exist about black people. In his video, Youngman "advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior'"(Rankine 23), which exposes that black people's anger is a marketable tool that lives up to the expectations of how blacks are perceived in a white-dominated society. Rankine further points out the difference between this sellable anger and the other type of anger that results from the individual experiences of feeling invisible, unimportant and undermined in a society that has designed itself in a way to make these feelings possible and unavoidable. To do so, Rankine brings up multiple occasions where it seemed as if her color caused Serena Williams to be treated unjustly and unfairly on the tennis court as in the case when umpire Mariana Alves made five bad calls against Serena at the 2004 US Open (Rankine 26). Rankine uses Serena's behavior and very presence in a primarily white-dominated sport to justify her claim that having a black body in a white environment brings out or draws attention to your differences, your blackness.
Returning to the youtuber Hennessy Youngman, Rankine states that in another video How to Be a Successful Artist Youngman makes the claim that if "a n***** paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower..." (Rankine 34), showing that anything created by a black person is automatically representative or associated with their blackness. Like the fabric sculpture used in the chapter (Rankine 33), created by Nick Cave which are supposed to blend the aesthetics of visual art and dance together into one medium are turned into something that represents or resembles traditional African customs, particularly ritual masks and costumes, because their creator is black and so must be connected to his ‘blackness' in some form (Jack Shainman Gallery). This connects to how later, Rankine brings up that Serena Williams no longer makes sudden outbursts and dramatic scenes in response to the injustices acted upon her but instead keeps herself contained. Her new demeanor is in line with the assertions made by Youngman in his Art Thoughtz that it is better to remain vague and ambiguous or "be white" (Rankine 36), as, according to him, this is the only way to be truly successful. Rankine comments that when Dane Caroline Wozniacki imitated Serena "by stuffing towels in her top and shorts" (Rankine 36) at an exhibition match in December 2012, that the former had "finally given[s] the people what they wanted all along by embodying Serena's attributes while leaving her [Serena's] ‘angry n***** exterior' behind" (Rankine 36). Their ‘expectations' of what a quality tennis player should look like had been fulfilled.
According to Rankine, in her article, "The Meaning of Serena Williams," she states that, "There is a belief among some African-Americans that to defeat racism, they have to work harder, be smarter, be better". This means that they have to give their 150 percent in order to show white Americans a black excellence that is supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks. The chapter also focuses on an on-court incident in 2009, where Serena told a linesman regarding n controversial call, "I swear to God I'm fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God!" (Rankine 29). According to Anna Leszkiewicz, in her article, "Black Bodies in America," she states that, "In a long essay on Serena Williams, Rankine wrote that the tennis star's body was ‘trapped in disbelief code for being black in America' (Leszkiewicz 26). Even John McEnroe, known as an ill-mannered and foul-mouthed player during his professional tennis days, felt moved to tell Williams that he thought she was being treated unfairly by judges who seemed determined to rule against her and by fans who considered her sometimes rude and embarrassing (Rankine 28). Rankine implies that Serena, who is admittedly vocal on the court and sometimes disparaging toward officials, has been mistreated, or at least misunderstood, because of her race. Throughout the chapter the media characterizes Serena Williams as hyper sexual, aggressive, and animalistic. When she dares to express frustration, she is stamped with the infamous "angry black woman" stereotype.
This chapter, similar to Chapter 1, is composed of events in the form of micro-aggressions. These events take place in seemingly normal places. The only difference is that Rankine does not express her physiological responses and instead questions their responses in some cases debating the remarks internally, while she has revelations of communication, through real world experiences. Also, a pattern reveals that most characters in the book that are not "black" are never ethnic specific. Though, through language and key words it is known that they are not "black".
Rankine begins the chapter with an instance where she was called a "nappy headed ho" by her friend when she was late after traveling a distance to a distinct neighborhood known as Santa Monica.
Then, proceeding that paragraph, a picture of the Rutgers women's basketball team of 2007 appears. It displays the image of five black females sitting down in their track suits from April 10. This image, she tells us later in the next paragraph, refers to the women that were called "nappy headed hos" on live television by the host of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, Don Imus. Indeed, a blog from Media Matters for America says that Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team, which is eight black and two white players, as "nappy-headed hos" immediately after the show's executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, called the team "hard-core hos". Later, former Imus sports announcer Sid Rosenberg, who was filling in for sportscaster Chris Carlin, said: "The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the [National Basketball Association's] Toronto Raptors." This form of micro-aggression reference is common throughout Citizen.
Rankine refers to her own personal micro-aggressions and others of importance in real world situations that might have seemed flagrant. Rankine does not wish to cope with her statement. "Maybe the content of her statement is irrelevant and she only means to signal the stereotype of 'black people time' by employing what she perceives to be 'black people language.' Maybe she is jealous of whoever kept you and wants to suggest you are nothing or everything to her. Maybe she wants to have a belated conversation about Don Imus and the women's basketball team he insulted with this language. You don't know. You don't know what she means. You don't know what response she expects from you nor do you care" (Rankine, 39–40). She notes the moment of awkwardness of it after she has pointed it out. Then continues to describe more moments of micro-aggressions. "At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn't know you were black! I didn't mean to say that, he then says. Aloud, you say. What? he asks. You didn't mean to say that aloud. Your transaction goes swiftly after that." After this, a revelation she has appears when she overhears an author responding to a question from the audience during his book promotion. The book or author are not noted but his response impacts Rankine." Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect—context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not ... Only then do you realize you are among 'the others out in public' and not among 'friends'" (Rankine, 43–46).
Again she has another revelation, but this time she recalls a question to Judith Butler. This is after the previous statement. "Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this" (Rankine, 43–46), "you begin to understand yourself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please" (43–46). Then after a few more awkward encounters with her day-to-day life with micro-aggressions. Rankine inserts another photograph into the book. This one has a similar style tone in the wording of it. It is monotone and without punctuation and the words do not connect at some parts making sure to fill the page, yet, the continuous phrase when read still allows the viewer to fully distinguish what is being said. Even though it says feel it is not in the traditional sense of emotions or sensory type. Instead it is talking about the color of one's skin. The words "I do not always feel colored" and "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." These phrases embody the main theme of the chapter as it summarizes the racial struggles one of color might face due to their appearance in a socially dominated white society causing one to question their identity.
Chapter 4 focuses largely on mental health and the importance of history in creating a narrative. Rankine writes, "to live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter. Sighing upsets," (59). This thought repeats the sentiment expressed in chapter 2, regarding the difference between "sellable anger" and the other, unmarketable but more genuine "..anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization..." – the kind of anger, Rankine states, that makes a person appear insane (24). Later, Rankine writes "you like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world's had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives," (61). She recognizes the sentiment that one should put the past behind them, but proceeds to express the futility attempting to disregard one's narrative, by stating "the world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard," (63). This is evinced again later in the chapter in reference to Serena Williams: "The commentator wonders if the player will be able to put this incident aside. No one can get behind the feeling that caused a pause in the match, not even the player trying to put her feelings behind her, dumping ball after ball into the net," (65). In building a racial personality, the speaker of Citizen refers to what a companion had once advised her that there exists a "Self-Self" and a "Historical Self" that are in conflict with race. At the point when the authentic information of racism and the desires of its omnipresence are put next to the worldwide resident, the individual, it prompts a kind of mental disharmony. This the speaker says "is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go… Move on" (122) feeling alone in her otherness. Traveling through the book-length verse lyric, the reader comes to relate to the dynamic way of the judged—" Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut…the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside" (125). Rankine investigates racism and unmindful racial partiality as a somewhat implicit, open outcast, and the visually impaired quest for an answer, which just on occasion, unfortunately, is to end up a citizen (Helmintoller).
Chapter 5 reads as a satirical parody of invisibility and the constant Up and Down notion of self-doubt and identity. Rankine commands in a stand-alone "stanza". "Stand where you are." However, the more that is read ascribes to a concise form of uncertainty. Again, another command but just the opposite Rankine states, "Anyway, sit down. Sit here alongside." Metaphorically, Rankine forms a transparent platform in which the reader knows is present however Rankine places you in a thick cloud of mistrust. Disguising, life as a personal roller-coaster of self-doubt. "You begin to move around in search of the steps it will take before you are thrown back into your own body, back into your own need to be found. The destination is illusory. You raise your lids, No one else is seeking. You exhaust yourself looking into the blue light. All day blue burrows the atmosphere. What doesn't belong with you won't be seen (Citizen, Ch. 5). The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. "Exactly why we survive and can look back with furrowed brow is beyond me." It is not often within the text that Rankine subjects and/or projects herself and the narrator. The reader than can interpret this subjectively or objectively depending how it is read. In an effort to gather the overall theme of chapter 5, Rankine employs these first person perspective notions to drive forward a character, any character in a means of strife. The subtle connotations barb the fragile reality of indifference. That blacks, are different than whites and society makes it apparently so that renders them invisible and likewise, without an identity. Rankine asks, "Why are you standing"? "Yes, and you do go to the gym and run in place, an entire hour running, just you and your body running off each undesired desired encounter." (Rankine, Citizen Ch.5)
Rankine narrated multiple tragedies happening to African Americans in chapter VI. These tragedies clearly showed images of micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions against African Americans around the world. Rankine started with Hurricane Katrina, Treyvon Martin, followed by James Craig Anderson – tragedies that connect to the idea of continuous aggression against black bodies. Rankine also connected this chapter with the case of the Jena Six on December 4, 2006 in Louisiana, and the passage of Stop and Frisk laws. Rankine exposed the international effects of racism with the poem to Mark Duggan, killed by Police in London, and with the world cup poem, showing this was a global problem. Rankine used a situation video linking the passage of world cup with a scene of a second-generation Algerian soccer player playing for France (Zinedine Zidane) head-butting an Italian player in front of the world's eyes after some racially fueled remarks from the Italian. The scene is in slow motion as if a clear remark to the eye that is trying to accommodate this type of racial aggression and ignore it. Rankine also references the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Rankine brings the problem back to the individual with the passage called Making Room. In addition, in this passage the author gave a hidden answer to the question of racism. The author used second person as an argument and way of pointing fingers to denunciate an ongoing injustice of human segregations. Rankine used these continued passages as a reminder of the black American history that continues to exist in this century.
The priority of chapter VI was to focus on the still alive prejudice. Hurricane Katrina passage depicted the suffering of African Americans when they struggled to survive prior and after the hurricane catastrophes. CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper, recalled the events during hurricane Katrina with images of people calling out for help. Hurricane Katrina impacted New Orleans and Louisiana, African American towns.
Rankine wrote, "And some said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn't safe to be there"(Pg 84). Rankine used the word FEMA as a clear statement that the authorities were well informed of the events. The author used FEMA as the governmental representation and the lack of mercy towards what she called black people, the poor people. "He said I don't know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come"(Pg 85). By using metaphoric personifications, Rankine gave the sense that even water could let us know how less value were the African Americans lives to the white American eye. The passage in Memory of James Craig narrated the death of an African American man by white young teenagers. James Craig was beaten and ran over by the pick up truck, because he was African American or a person of color. "I ran that nigger over, itself a record-breaking hot June day in twenty-first century" (Pg. 94). The white kid said after killing the black man. This statement is so powerful and embraced the continuation of African American oppression in history. Rankine used the pick up truck as a connection between the pick up truck and the white Americans culture.
December 4, 2006, Jena Six Passages and Stop and Frisk related to the injustice and prejudice in the judicial system. Teens once again got involved in beating however this time not killing anyone. These kids were just furious in regards to racial statements done by the white kids at the school. The black kids sat next to the tree where only white kids usually sit and the next day three nooses were placed as a threat or as a reminder. The African American teenagers got angry, beat the white kids, and as consequence convicted as criminals on attempted murder now waiting for 25 to 100 years in prison. This passage is followed by Stop and Frisk, which talked about a man being detained just for his skin color. He was humiliated, his clothes taken away and he was beaten just for fitting the African American description. It was easier for an African American to go to prison than a White American.
Rankine was very precise on demonstrating that this discrimination against African American was not an individualized problem, but a global problem with the passages on the world cup and Mark Dugan in London. Young men killed for fitting the description of being African American. Last but not least she individualized the problem with the passage Making Room where a white woman preferred to be standing for long periods of time in a train than sitting next to an African American man. She found the solution to racism by sitting next to that man and calling him family. Rankine finalized the chapter with "in memory of …" (Pg. 135). Different victims of racial hatred and with the statement "Because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying"(Pg 135). And calling out for unity by just sitting next to that men that perhaps some white American sees as threat because of their skin.
Chapter 7 deals with feelings of invisibility and worthlessness in the black community. It begins by discussing the way in which black people are invisible before they even fully understand that they are ("You are you even before you grow into understanding you are not anyone, worthless…" (Rankine)), and goes on to detail the struggle of living with the knowledge that society views blacks as less than, but refuses to acknowledge that they are being hurt by this. The next page is an anecdote about a black person and their white friend at a restaurant that talks about white privilege in one of the few humorous moments in the book. Immediately following this, there is another anecdote about a man watching his child play with other children in a street closed to traffic. Next, we are shown the date July 13, 2013. This is the date that the Trayvon Martin verdict was handed down. The text that follows is an account of a person struggling with how they feel when they hear the results of this verdict. The person is unsure whether or not they are supposed to feel the way they do, and feels that they are forced to keep their feelings bottled up. The end of the chapter contains some of the few uses of "I" in the entire book. The "I" tells the story of a trip to the tennis court where a woman pulled in to park her car across from them and then backed up and parked on the other side of the lot. They want to ask the woman a question (presumably "Why did you move?"), but they do not because they are expected on the court. The book ends with the line "It wasn't a match, I say. It was a lesson." (Rankine), a line which wraps the book up in a way that is just as ambiguous and cryptic as the rest of the book. Whites who read the book have been given a lesson in what it means to be black, and Rankine leaves it up to them to decide what to do with that lesson.
The cover image of a hoodie is the work of David Hammons, first exhibited in 1993. Hammons' "In the Hood" is a disembodied hood from a generic dark green hoodie, mounted on a wall like a hunting trophy. Wire props up the rim of the hood, so it holds its shape as if it were covering an invisible head". Although it was exhibited over twenty years ago, it is a reminder of Trayvon Martin's death because he was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by George Zimmerman. The "hoodie" acts as a symbol of fear; in the case that young black men wearing a hoodie are stereotyped as dangerous and suspect, a theme that Rankine covers later on in chapter 6.
The first image in chapter one of Rankine's book is an image with a street named Jim Crow Road. The original website from where this image originated states, "In 2007, there's still a place called "Jim Crow Road." It runs through a typical southern neighborhood, past a strip mall with a Curves franchise, past a few gated McMansions, a small country store, and the white houses seen here. The road crosses behind an Elementary school, right past the playground. One wonders if the kids there are still being taught what Jim Crow means, in Hall County, which adjoins Forsyth County, known for its infamous "sundown town" that existed well until the '80s" (Murphy). Rankine attacks a different part of your brain when using an image, and her reasons for that is to interject abstractness to force you to rethink the historical picture, and ask the reader to go out of their way to do some of their own research. She does this to not only keep interest but for you to do thinking on your own. This image came from either Georgia or Florida from an upper-middle-class neighborhood. An inherently racist street name is followed by white houses, a white fence, and a white car, a historical reference to the name of the road, Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States during the reconstruction period until 1965. The image comes after the story where Rankine tells about how in catholic school the teacher did not notice the white girl cheating off her paper, referencing one central her themes on how blacks are seen as invisible. Her reasons are to show a literal setting of the type of neighborhood she is from and is talking about. The image reinforces the idea that even in a suburban area, where if anyone has money white or black, that you can not escape the racism being that a street with that name actually exists. It provides to Rankine's argument that racism is an invisible institution, as an infrastructure of the community desensitizes racism from the people living there, because they have lived there so long the do not see the problem, adding to the bigger picture of how this upper-middle-class neighborhood is similar to middle class America, representing the ongoing problems not only in the book but in America.
The illustration on page 87 shows a young black male, appears to be no older than 16 and is filled with vibrant colors consisting of yellow, blue, green, and orange. Toyin herself says that, "this piece actually speaks of identity and how malleable it is. It's not something that you can really pin point with certainty, its very kind of…suspect I think" (Odutola Shaiman Gallery). This image follows a heavy chapter about Hurricane Katrina, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan, James Anderson, as well as a detailed description of the infamous Zinedine Zidane head-butt. This chapter included the struggles that the black community as a whole underwent during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Rankine uses a quote from a local person present in New Orleans during the hurricane, "…it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that" (Citizen, Pg. 83). The glare which resonates from the young boy's eyes suggests an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and distress similar to the majority of the black population; however, the boy's conscious decision to keep his chin elevated suggests that he has an optimistic view of life yet. The chapter touched upon an entire community of people feeling as if they were the last to be saved in an emergency situation, if at all. Another survivor on the scene stated, "We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there's no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us" (Citizen, Pg. 84). "I don't know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come. He said, I don't know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment"(Citizen, Pg. 84). In a separate yet very close analysis and comparison of this illustration, Toyin Odutola created this picture and placed a multitude of muted colors versus brighter, more iridescent colors to illustrate the creative energy channels flowing through the young boy's body. These channels represent the many experiences that he has gone through, both conscious and unconscious. The dark background also emphasizes the vibrant colors, forcing the viewer to strain their eyes, just as this boy has had to do growing up with no standard model to interpret his experiences. The illustration creates an almost stained glass affect, exhibiting the variations of the boy's experiences thus far. Further thought brings you even deeper into the idea that these colors represent the more or less tarnished parts of the boy's view of the world and himself.
Cerebral Caverns is an art piece portraying thirty human-sized white plaster heads lined up in a wooden cabinet with four shelves and glass doors. The artist, Radcliffe Bailey, is "a descendant of former slaves and Civil War soldiers who fought for the North" (Jackson, Cadance). Bailey's work is known to use themes and concepts from his own life and his family's history of involvement in ending slavery (Jackson, Cadance). The piece "recalls the infancy of anthropological and ethnological studies during the nineteenth century" where scientist such as Samuel G. Morton used "human skulls as evidence to support theories of racial hierarchies" (Wolf, Alana). Skulls like the heads in the cabinet were used in scientific attempts to justify racism and slavery. The heads deny this concept of scientific racism "by simultaneously bearing distinctive... African facial features associated with blackness while [also being] cast in a bright white finish" (Wolf, Alana). Rankine places an image of the cabinet in chapter six of Citizen following the Mark Duggan excerpt on page 119. Rankine used Bailey's piece because it reminded her of a line in Citizen that states "the past has ‘turned [our] flesh into its own cupboards'" (Believermag). Rankine is relating the black body to the wooden cabinet in Bailey's art piece. Through the image, Rankine points out that African Americans "have had to hold the history of this violence," slavery, and racism "in our bodies for centuries" just as the heads in the image have likewise been preserved on the shelves of the cabinet for centuries and used in support of racism, slavery, and violence (Believermag). Rankine also relates the placement of the heads to "the way bodies are stacked on top of one another in slave ships" (Believermag). She believes that "the heads are speaking to each other, almost as if they are asking the question, ‘Did he just say that?' ‘Did I just hear what I think I heard?'" (Believermag). These questions refer to responses made by Rankine throughout Citizen after instances of microaggressions. The way in which both the black body and the heads hold a history of racism and question instances of microaggressions supports Rankine's purpose of relating the history of slavery and racism to the present form of racism in the form of microaggressions.
Joseph Mallard William Turner's The Slave Ship is displayed on page 160 and the final image of the book. It is a reminder of the trips taken in the 1800s across the Atlantic which carried many black slaves. While that took place in the 1800s, the image being presented at the end of the book, showing African slaves being discarded into the ocean, Rankine seems to infer Americans have not moved forward from the days of slavery and still value black bodies as less than, or simply cargo that can be discarded. "The racial system taught Americans to associate blackness with slavery and to accept this as the " natural " place of African Americans". The theme of black bodies being valued as less than is presented numerous times throughout the book.
The book received enthusiastic reviews. Dan Chiasson, writing in the New Yorker, wrote that "[Citizen] is an especially vital book for this moment in time. ...The realization at the end of this book sits heavily upon the heart: 'This is how you are a citizen,' Rankine writes. 'Come on. Let it go. Move on.' As Rankine's brilliant, disabusing work, always aware of its ironies, reminds us, 'moving on' is not synonymous with 'leaving behind.'" Writing for the Washington Post, Michael Lindgren described the book as "Part protest lyric, part art book, Citizen is a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of black life in America".
Awards and honors
- 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry) winner
- 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) finalist
- 2014 California Book Awards Poetry Finalist
- 2015 PEN Center USA Poetry Award
- 2015 New York Times Bestseller
- 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry
- 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry
- 2015 Forward Prizes for Poetry Best Collection
- Michael Lindgren (10 March 2015). "Color Codes". Washington Post. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
- Hennessy Youngman (2010-10-07), ART THOUGHTZ: How To Be A Successful Black Artist, retrieved 2016-05-18
- Rankine, Claudia (2015-08-25). "The Meaning of Serena Williams". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
- "Racism Transformed into a Given: 'Citizen: An American Lyric' by Claudia Rankine – ZYZZYVA". www.zyzzyva.org.
- "Trayvon Martin, David Hammons and How to Think About Hoods". www.clydefitchreport.com. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
- Murphy, Michael David. "Jim Crow Road – 2007". Michael David Murphy.
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