Citizen by Claudia Rankine

citizenThis is part non-fiction and part prose poetry, interspersed with artwork and photography. There are also a number of different styles in the book, from essay to free-form poetry to collaborative poetry. It’s incredibly raw, powerful, angry, and, in places, tinged with a kind of resigned sadness.

Roughly three of the chapters are full of fragments of experiences of everyday racism, one per page. Most of the perpetrators of the often casual, thoughtless, racism don’t seem to realise what they are saying, or think they are being discreet. There are many who would hear of one, individual, instance and think ‘that’s not great, but you can brush it off’. But when the fragments are together like this you are shown their relentlessness – the exhaustion and anger of their accumulation every day. It’s never just one instance. And it’s more and it’s broader than just thoughtlessness.

And that relentlessness is juxtaposed against not only a lack of understanding, but the idea of the ‘angry black woman/man’ and how that anger is seen as unjustified or even ‘insane’. There’s an incredible essay focusing on Serena Williams and how she has had to “split herself off from herself and create different personae” in order to deal with overt racism from the media and officials and become successful. Or, as one commentator said, to ‘grow up’, “as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others”.

It’s hard not to highlight pretty much every chapter / poem, but I was also particularly struck by the chapter of collaborative poems including the response (or lack thereof) to Hurricane Katrina comprised of quotes collected from CNN; a poem on Zidane and the 2006 World Cup final made of extracts from other writers, from Zidane’s interview afterwards, the reports from lip readers, and stills from the tv coverage; and poems for and about young black men killed by police, all in different styles from non-fiction essay to prose poetry to free-form poetry.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

Most of the book is written in the second person. This is not something I always like as it’s hard to do well, but it is absolutely fitting for this collection. It cleverly puts the reader in the position of the ‘I’ of the poems (regardless of the reader’s own race), and, at the same time, puts the reader in the ‘they’ when they know they are not actually the ‘I’ if they are white. It feels like another way of trying to get people to see those that are invisible – just like how the hoodie on the cover is empty and  how Rankine quotes Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” You are seen, and yet are ‘unseen’ as an equal human being.

I urge you to pick this up, even if you aren’t much of a poetry reader.

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4 Responses to Citizen by Claudia Rankine

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