Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric resists traditional categories. Some of it looks like prose, some of it looks like poetry, and some of it doesn't involve words at all. It's a collage about death, media, and race, much like Rankine's 2004 book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, but Citizen has punctured the consciousness of the country in a way few books do.
When the National Book Critics Circle nominated Citizen in two different award categories—poetry and criticism—that was a feat no other book had ever accomplished. (It won the poetry award.) It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Last year, when an audience member at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois, quietly protested the bullying she saw onstage by conspicuously reading, the book she was reading was Citizen. It became that rarest of creatures: a poetry book on the nonfiction New York Times best-seller list.
Two years ago, I saw Rankine read from Citizen at a book festival in Miami. Not even the tropical if cologne-choked glory of the Standard Spa could distract the audience members. Everyone stopped worrying about feeling awkward in such a fancy place, stopped wondering if Biscayne Bay was night swimmable, stopped wondering how long the open bar would stay open. Instead, we focused all our energy into listening to Rankine, who, with the quiet intensity of her elegant and singular voice, was cutting through all the bullshit and bringing us into the present moment.
She may also be responsible for changing the way academic leaders talk about race in literature.
Several years earlier, in 2011, Rankine wrote an open letter to Tony Hoagland, a big-deal poet and her colleague for a brief period of time at the University of Houston. Her letter concerned a poem of Hoagland's called "The Change." In it, the speaker recalls a tennis match between a "tough little European blonde" and a "big black girl from Alabama" with "cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms" who has an "outrageous" name like "Vondella Aphrodite." The poem ends, I'd argue, on a note of nostalgia for a time when the divide between white people and black people was even more institutionalized than it is now.
Rankine's letter was a beautiful, searching, and generous consideration of the poem, but it also basically said: "What the fuck?" Hoagland responded with an e-mail that began: "To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues, and I still think that, to me, you are naive when it comes to the subject of American racism." Emphasis his. Once THAT happened, the literary world blew up.
Rankine's brave act arguably inspired the callouts and conversations that enrich the Twitter feeds and Facebook walls of literary folk every day.
Her dustup with Hoagland could easily have been the subject of one of the many vignettes in Citizen—accounts of everyday moments when someone lets slip some racist slight (or in some cases, bellows a racist slur) and time stops for the speaker, who is also the reader, because so much of the book is in the second person. An example:
Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy.
What do you mean?
Exactly, what do you mean?
The other stories like this involve people met while standing in line, people on buses, and, ironically, trauma therapists. As these moments accrue, a white reader like me—briefly and limitedly inhabiting the "you"—starts to wonder what it'd be like if the situations were flipped and white people had to announce the unearned advantages they receive just for being white. I imagine myself asking for a day off and my boss saying: "Sure, Rich, you can have a day off so long as you acknowledge that I won't perceive your request for time off as an instance of you perpetuating the stereotype of laziness among your people!" If the culture forced white people to acknowledge their whiteness as often as the culture forces black people to acknowledge their blackness, the way we talk about racial injustice in this country would change real quick.
One of the saddest and most poignant gestures in the book is a list toward the end:
In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown
The words "In Memory" continue down the page, eventually fading out to white. On the facing page are the words "because white men can't / police their imagination / black men are dying." Every new printing of Citizen will include more names, making part of the book a living document of the dead, a move that suggests literature's power and powerlessness. Reading Citizen won't end police brutality, but it may move more people toward political action against racism. For white readers, it may even help to silence that white tyrant in our heads.