Ten years after writing Citizen, unfortunately I think the conditions that made the book necessary for me to write remain relevant,” Claudia Rankine recently told Alta Journal. “I can’t say that my relationship to the book has changed that much.” And the relationships readers form with the book have not changed either. Our April California Book Club pick remains just as striking as when it was first released. Citizen: An American Lyric, published in 2014, came to readers shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement began.
Citizen is composed of poems, lyrics, artwork, and photographs that explore bigotry, microaggressions, and systemic racism. This is a book of collected vignettes, from Rankine’s personal experiences and those of her friends and family, of casual racism and times when she or a loved one was reduced to the color of their skin. Here, she reveals that it doesn’t matter if you’re a college graduate, or a world-renowned athlete, or a little girl, or a mother, or a poet; you, too, can be reduced to your race.
We read of a man reported to the police by his neighbor, whom he’s met before, for the crime of talking on the phone in his friend’s front yard. We learn of a woman at a shop being told she is escalating things by defending a group of teenagers from a racist man. Events are described in an intimate second person, which asks us to personally experience them: We’re ignored by a drugstore cashier, even though we’ve been standing there longer than the man who has been acknowledged. We are questioned by another cashier on whether we have the funds for a sandwich and a San Pellegrino, a question not asked of our white friend. We’re snubbed by a real estate agent, we surprise a person with two degrees—“I didn’t know Black women could get cancer”—we startle a therapist with just our skin color, and we’re made to believe it’s “our mistake.”
Many things have changed since the book was first published—but a slew of others have not. The year 2014 brought the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—the former an unarmed Black man choked to death by a New York Police Department officer and the latter an unarmed Black teenager killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer while walking on the street. According to a 2021 report on mapping police violence, Black people are twice as likely to be killed at the hands of police officers as their white counterparts are. Garner’s and Brown’s deaths sparked protests across the nation.
Catalyzed by three Black organizers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement was a direct response to the acquittal of the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. After the tragedy in Ferguson, Black Lives Matter organizers flew into action, helping those in Ferguson and nearby St. Louis, organizing protests against police brutality, and raising awareness of the injustices experienced by Black citizens. While the movement began as a small project advocating for those whose lives were unjustly taken because of their skin color, it gathered incredible, nationwide velocity in 2014.
Since the deaths of Martin, Garner, and Brown, Black Americans have continued to be killed with impunity by police officers. There have been too many heartbreaking deaths to name them all here, but among those killed in 2014 was 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by an officer who claimed Rice was wielding a gun. It turned out to be a toy gun, and the officer was never indicted. In 2015, Freddie Gray was pronounced dead while under arrest and in police custody—the officers were not convicted. Stephon Clark was shot to death in 2018 while visiting his grandmother—and again, the police were never charged.
Citizen: An American Lyric honors the many victims of structural racism. The book was initially printed in batches; the first printing of the book holds the name of Jordan Russell Davis, but during the second printing, Rankine decided to add Brown’s name as well. She has steadily added more names as the number of the dead has increased. On page 134, Rankine lists the names of 28 Black Americans whose lives were senselessly lost because of the color of their skin. On the next page are Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, and empty spaces signify future deaths at the hands of police, deaths that feel, horrifyingly, inevitable.
“Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying,” writes Rankine just above Arbery’s name.
Progress has been slow, with only a few glimmers of hope for justice since Rankine wrote Citizen. The officer who shot Garner was eventually fired from the NYPD, and more officers are facing more than just a loss of a job for their actions: the officer who shot Botham Jean in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years in prison; in the 2021 shooting of Daunte Wright, the officer was sentenced to 2 years in prison; and four officers involved in the killing of Floyd have been sentenced to time in prison.
Yet Citizen: An American Lyric continues to be deeply, unsettlingly relevant. It captures the unequal recognition of belonging that Black citizens in white America receive. These inequalities manifest in both large and small ways. By using second person, Rankine brings us into the feelings of invisibility and hypervisibility produced by these situations.
“The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings,” Rankine wrote in the New York Times Magazine almost a decade ago, and those words, along with Citizen, remain.•
Join us on April 20 at 5 p.m., when Rankine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss her searing landmark book Citizen: An American Lyric. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.
Author Lisa Teasley writes about her personal experiences in connection with the themes of Citizen. —Alta
WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin recommends Citizen and writes that Rankine is “building muscle memory, incident by incident.” —Alta
CELEBRATING A LEGACY
Of Scott Timberg’s posthumously published Boom Times for the End of the World, Ulin writes, “These 26 pieces are alive in the fullest sense, immediate and deeply felt.” —Alta
Here are the top-selling books at independent bookstores across California for the week ending March 19. —Alta
SIMI VALLEY DISASTER
Alta contributor Daniel A. Olivas interviews author and lawyer Yxta Maya Murray about her new novel, God Went Like That. He writes that the book is “a powerful indictment of governmental malfeasance and structural environmental racism.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
Novelist and Alta contributor Charles Finch will be talking with Los Angeles Times books editor Boris Kachka at a party for the paperback of What Just Happened at Book Soup in Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 29. —Book Soup
CHINESE ART-HOUSE FILM
Jean Chen Ho (Fiona and Jane) writes about Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. —Criterion
The National Book Critics Circle announced its award winners. These included author Hua Hsu’s memoir of the Bay Area, Stay True; the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for poet Joy Harjo; and the Toni Morrison Achievement Award for San Francisco–based City Lights Bookstore. —New York Times
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.