Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

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In a recent article on Grantland, staff writer Rembert Browne dialogues his impromptu visit to Ferguson, Missouri in mid-August. In opening the essay, he admits: “I don’t know what made me buy a plane ticket to St. Louis at 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday. Maybe it was remembering that feeling of helplessness and guilt after learning of the Trayvon Martin verdict while embarking on a carefree cross-country road trip.”

Claudia Rankine’s new book, Citizen, effects a similar experience. Citizen requires the reader to enter that realm: the realm of being privileged in an otherwise deprived society; of relaxing while watching others work; this antiquated idea of modern civilization. Of an encounter as eyewitness to the experience of victimization. Of pure helplessness while knowing you have an aid to offer. In Rankine’s world, we, as audience, are both the spectacle and the representation. We are both the protagonist and the antagonist. We are both the eyewitness and the victim, the armchair and the television. Of watching, from the armchair, the television blaring with what Guy Debord hails as how “the whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become a mere representation.” Here the accumulation of spectacles requisites first an acknowledgement of the individual as citizen, as Rankine bears witness: “your friend refuses to carry what doesn’t belong to her.” She teaches us that in this situation, we are both the you and the friend. She teaches us that to be a citizen means to embrace the agonizing struggle of the self in society.

In Citizen, Rankine debunks and deconstructs what has been called our “post-race” society. In doing this, the lyricism of her prose asks us to redefine our obligations (racial and otherwise) by investigating and probing the definitions of the titular “citizen.” She goads: “to know what you’ll sound like is worth noting” and relinquishes: “all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.” And through this use of the second person she forces us to question what it means to be her reader, to be American, to belong to this country, our nation, our people, and also begs us to extend the margins of what it means to be her reader, to be American, to belong to this country, our nation, our people.

Citizen is a remembrance—sometimes personal, sometimes communal. Here:

And still a world begins its furious erasure—

and here:

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.

Shortly after Rembert Browne visited Ferguson during the heat of the riots, poet Jason McCall took part in Rattle’s “poetry in the news” series; his poem, entitled “Roll Call for Michael Brown” ends:

Someone will ask,
‘Michael Brown? Is Michael Brown here?’
and we will all have to answer.

And Rankine, too, instructs us that we must stand up to answer, as we all are citizen in this respect, for, as she notes, “appetite won’t attach you to anything no matter how depleted you feel.” The “you” of Citizen is middle ground. No matter our appetite, we can’t appease it without first attaching ourselves to the cause.

We must all serve as witnesses. We must all answer to the responsibility of self as citizen. And we all must defend our citizenship, as well as that of those around us.

Rankine, here, acknowledges the operation of memory, and locates that operation within a cultural memory in which we can’t not, in which we shan’t not, forget. At the beginning of the book we proceed with her through a series of self-referential anecdotes written in the second person. We then move on to a broader examination of circumstances that contextualize the anecdotes. Rankine takes us, sometimes guiding, sometimes forcing, down a river of these roll calls: she meditates in memoriam for certain tragedies of the last decade—we venture with her collectively through Serena Williams and Caroline Wazniacki, Hurricane Katrina, the World Cup of 2006, the Hackney riots, Rodney King’s beating, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and as we move through we all have to answer. We grapple with Rankine grappling with the intake and processing of this information.

Toward the end of the book, the exposition gives way to one more personal anecdote: we see Rankine worrying after her brother has left the house “to go to work, to buy groceries, to work out…to walk the dog” when suddenly “on the car radio the dead sentence begins ‘A black man in his . . .” We see her desperate for a name, then we feel “the same bitter relief when you exhale.” And we do exhale. We exhale with her. And we exhale because we aren’t her.

Through moments like these, Rankine reminds us we also, as citizens, have a cultural conscience. And it’s a harsh truth, Rankine notes, that we have made an archetype of the spectacle of racially motivated violence. That we have forgotten an archipelago of archetypes like this. It’s too easy for us to refuse to carry what doesn’t belong to us, because in claiming oneself a citizen, one accepts the offer to carry the credo of the label citizen—and thus everything in which we stake claim belongs to us: our state, our nation, our country, ourselves.

The static televisions of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely helped demarcate an idea of audience, of surveillance, of accessibility to action, whereas the artwork throughout Citizen calls us to direct confrontation with artists such as Glenn Ligon, Hennesy Youngman, Carrie Mae Weems. We here are an audience that must be aware of itself, and must locate ourselves in the space of the text as a participant, rather than simply audience, passive observer in the dark of our own.

But even with this recall of wake up, she makes it clear that:

All our fevered history won’t instill insight,
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer.

She has given over the detailed endnotes of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which codify and amend the experience of the text after the thought, seemingly the moment of answer, to the image credits of the direct and unavoidable pieces that interrupt the text of <emCitizen. What she leaves instead is a resonation with images, and her uncanny use of the second person to torrent the reader through them, rather than flipping to Rankine’s edification thereof. And here again she imbues her audience in the question, rather than the answer: what does it mean to be citizen?

Toward the end of the book, Rankine interrupts herself with dates unattached from events—such as the one upon which we end: February 15, 2013. We still, though, as readers, are isolated from the authoritative meaning of this last date’s suggestion, which we then connect to race, to gunfire, to maltreatment, to our own embedded guilt as citizens with an appetite for connection, reason, understanding. The you is no longer a we. We, here, are alone. The you can be disorienting.

A quick Google search of headlines from this date reveals these major events: DA14, a 50m diameter asteroid comes within 27,700 km of Russia; a mark of the 10th anniversary of protests against the war in Iraq; Senate Republicans block Democratic nomination for Secretary of Defense; a story about a teenager killed by police during protests the day before in Bahrain; a report releasing that the Obama administration has been prosecuting far fewer weapon charges than the Bush administration.

In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine wrote:

The sadness is not really about
George W. or our American optimism; the
sadness lives in the recognition that a life can
not matter.

This book was published in 2004, and ten years later, we find ourselves musing over the same issues—the same ideas and quests are at stake. It’s not that we forgot that makes her, or us, sad—it’s the loneliness that comes as a result of forgetting.

Rankine both embeds us within her you, and excludes us from it by forcing us to identify with ourselves, and then forcing us to dissociate from our former position as readers. As she writes:

the worst hurt is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you—

In allowing us, as readers, as audience, to subject ourselves to this hurt, we experience this authorship of being alone, of the desperation and demand for the basic instinct of the retrospective. We are coerced into questioning how we come to live as a citizen, not simply of our state or country, but also as a citizen of our humanity. We must reconcile our inevitable failures and fuckups and misgivings, and grapple with those in this state of belonging to and of belonging of. And we must understand the difference.

She demonstrates, through gorgeous anecdotes and blunt recall that citizenship comes from an obsession with memory and history and what, damaging or not, results from the interworkings of these collective memories.

In Citizen, Rankine forces us to sit longer with what Debord has foretold us: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.”

Rankine ended Don’t Let Me Be Lonely with this admission: “In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.” And through the ever-elusive you of Citizen, she puts pressure on the weight and bearing of her message once again by admitting to the audience that even if perhaps we have let her down, even she doesn’t “know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.” She extends her hand to us, without any qualification, and the reader must put out her own hand to receive it, and acknowledge this as a moment of truth among the falsehood.

Shaelyn Smith lives in Tuscaloosa, AL and her work can be found or forthcoming in storySouth, Forklift, Ohio and Sonora Review. More from this author →