‘Citizen’ Deciphers the Blur of Experience

In this newsletter, we look at Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the April California Book Club selection, which reveals the erasure and hypervisibility of Black Americans as two sides of the same coin.

claudia rankine, citizen an american lyric
Caleb Lee Adams

Repeatedly, in Citizen: An American Lyric, the April California Book Club selection, the poet Claudia Rankine shares heartbreaking passages about surviving microaggressions and racism as a Black woman in America. Her clear, immediate focus in these pages may be a deciphering of the interpersonal, which, as lived, can feel rapid-fire, but lurking in those exchanges are also repeated threats of governmental and social incursions on freedom—often through the actions and choices of strangers who refuse to recognize their own racism.

There is the not-seeing—the failure to see the contribution of Black Americans. But Rankine plumbs the other side of erasure as well: hypervisibility. When a society doesn’t see certain people as fellow countrymen or countrywomen, their rarer presence within a space is noticed more acutely than their absence. There is the stranger, for instance, who calls the police on a Black man in Rankine’s book and sees in the man’s behavior what he wants to see, because he has the expectation that the man should not be in that space and that expectation frames his perceptions and what he believes an appropriate response would be.

The sense of being too present, too much at the mercy of other people’s policing of spaces and boundaries, is an emotion absorbed, registering not only as emotional pain but also as a physical tax on the body, on living, on consciousness. As Rankine mourns, the energy required by those noticed “to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”

You can’t help but think, especially if you’re rereading the book, about how many educational articles, how many personal essays, how many poems have been widely circulated about theories of race, including critical race theory, which was birthed decades ago by scholars in the legal academy, since Citizen’s publication in 2014. How much conversation has occurred since videotapes of brutal racist incidents became widespread. Hypervisibility in the extreme, and yet, still—so many news accounts of police brutality and social brutality against Black Americans persist, flood in. “No amount of visibility,” no amount of photographic evidence seems sufficient to radically change society’s expectations and perceptions about how the country’s story should go. Instead, we have book banning and refusals of facts in schools.

In illustrating the concept of hypervisibility, Rankine looks at tennis phenoms Serena and Venus Williams via Zora Neale Hurston’s quote “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” As of 2014, the world of tennis was, to put it in the realm of numbers, 78 percent white.

Rankine writes,

Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily, they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.

If you are willing to see, you can observe disturbing behavior, of course, when you encounter it in person or on a screen, at a tennis match on television. What Rankine calls a sharp white background is made up of rapid and repeated acts intended, whether consciously or unconsciously, to drive a people out of a space: exclusion, ostracism, mockery, forgetting contributions, relentless excuses—I was just joking. I didn’t mean to. Rankine transfigures these humiliations in Citizen; she is a troubadour chronicling the emotional fallout in poetry—a genre that is often felt most strikingly on the tongue and within the reader’s body or the audience’s body, under the skin, a genre well suited to making change.

The body is a home for consciousness, and that home, the only one a person truly has, should not have to withstand a degrading onslaught. There’s a term I learned from Citizen when I first read it upon its publication—John Henryism. Epidemiologist and professor Sherman James coined the term. He hypothesized that Black Americans’ laser-focused determination to succeed in a system set up to fail them via its structures increases the likelihood that they will develop hypertension and cardiometabolic diseases. As Rankine explains it, those who are exposed to the stress of racism “achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.”

And not only erasure, but flat-out blindness in those crucial moments when a judgment call could go either way—moments of discretion in which a white person would have received the benefit of the doubt, moments when a match-deciding call is made by an umpire like Mariana Alves, who “made five bad calls against Serena in her quarterfinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati” in 2004 at the U.S. Open. Rankine allows you, as the reader, the grace of drawing the symbolic connection between that day and all the many judgment calls we make in our daily lives. How do we see what is actually happening better? How do we notice facts and feelings better? How do we serve as fair umpires?

One path through the blur of our experiences might be language, which requires us to keenly notice rather than allow experience to wash over us. Another might be visual image—though as Rankine reminds us, cameras get us only so far past expectations and insistence. The power of this book lies in language and expressive image seamlessly bound together. Read these pages; read the measured second person that nonetheless carries in its undertow a palpable anguish. Feel this. Let yourself be forever changed, as so many of us have been, by Rankine’s words. Citizen stands out as one of this century’s monumental works of literature.•

Join us on April 20 at 5 p.m., when Rankine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Helga Davis to discuss her 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.


claudia rankine books


Critic and author Walton Muyumba (The Shadow and the Act) writes about Rankine’s poetics in Citizen and other books. —Alta

joanna schwartz, shielded, how the police became untouchable, nonfiction


CBC editor Anita Felicelli reviews Joanna Schwartz’s comprehensive Shielded. —Alta

16 new books for april, a living remedy, the lost wife


Here are 16 April releases by authors of the West. —Alta

the trees, percival everett
Graywolf Press


The Trees, by upcoming CBC author Percival Everett, has been short-listed for the Dublin Literary Award. —Bookseller

a living remedy, nicole chung


Read an essay adapted from A Living Remedy, a memoir by author Nicole Chung, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, about her grief after the death of her father. —Time

carribean fragoza
Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times


Southern California author Carribean Fragoza (Eat the Mouth That Feeds You) has won the prestigious Whiting Award. —Los Angeles Times

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Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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