Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a book that breaks the rules. Blurring the lines between prose and poetry, essay and image, it operates as a hybrid of form as well as voice. Opening with a sequence of brief second-person narratives, this is a volume of the body, of the physical (as well as emotional and spiritual) toll of racism. A neighbor calls the police on a friend who is at your house babysitting. An acquaintance tells you “his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” The offhand nature of these observations is the point. What Rankine is doing is building muscle memory, incident by incident. She is creating, or re-creating, trauma on the page. “Didn’t feel it the first time?” she explained to me in a 2016 Paris Review interview. “Here it is again. We don’t get there by saying it once. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment.”
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
That notion of the recurring moment is everywhere in Citizen. After its opening sections, Rankine pivots into a set of public narratives involving Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, and Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old British Black man killed by police in London in 2011. “ ‘The purpose of art,’ ” Rankine writes, quoting James Baldwin, “ ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.’ ” That’s a useful rubric for her work.
For Rankine, the so-called answers reflect what we don’t want to see as much as what we do. That’s one reason Citizen, like its precursor Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, eschews narrative in favor of something more experiential. Narrative, after all, is something we impose, a story we tell ourselves. This means it is necessarily contrived. Rankine is seeking something less digested. She is seeking to disturb rather than to reassure.
This is most explicit in her use of mash-ups, which create a collage in book form. In a section on Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer player who headbutted an Italian opponent for making racist comments during the 2006 World Cup, she appropriates the words of Baldwin, William Shakespeare, Frantz Fanon, and Ralph Ellison. She also interweaves images manipulated by her husband, photographer and filmmaker John Lucas, for a video series called Situations.
Such material is collaborative—between Rankine and Lucas, but also among the author and the voices she invokes. The effect is to create on the page some aspect of the collective, literature as an act of social conscience. “It always surprises me,” Rankine once observed, “when people say that the realm of the lyric is the personal and the personal is not political.… When you think of a poet like Yeats, how can you say politics is not in the poem? When you think of Milosz, how can you say politics is not in the poem?”•