Citizen: An American Lyric

by Claudia Rankine

Paper Book, 2014





Minneapolis, MN : Graywolf Press, 2014.


Claudia Rankine's bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV-everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jnwelch
"At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn't know you were black!

I didn't mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn't mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that."


"I knew what ever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.

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


"because white men can't
police their imagination
black men are dying"


"Your friend is speaking to your neighbor when you arrive home. The four police cars are gone. Your neighbor has apologized to your friend and now is apologizing to you. Feeling somewhat responsible for the actions of your neighbor, you clumsily tell your friend that the next time he wants to talk on the phone he should just go in the backyard. He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."

Being black in America. Claudia Rankine brings that home in a way I haven't experienced before, in Citizen: An American Lyric. It's an amazing, heartbreaking book.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
The beginning sections of this book of poems and scripts for spoken-word pieces, with occasional artwork, are incredibly intense. They are in the second person, which for me (a white woman) created both engagement and forced a confrontation with difference: the POV kept front and center the ways in which I will never experience the racial microaggressions Rankine describes with such devastating specificity and embodied anger/disgust/wish to not have to deal with this. Although I’m not a huge fan of second person, this is clearly one of the best deployments of it. The spoken-word scripts were less powerful, most likely because the visuals didn’t entirely accompany them.… (more)
LibraryThing member thomnottom
An intense read. I wish I could have understood more of the abstract sections. But the language she uses to address the state of being black is a marvel. There are moments that truly rip open the wounds of simple actions and inactions that continually beat down a person at odds with what so many of use consider normalcy - what is invisible to those of us who make up the majority.

I feel that this is a composition that will require further investigation - actual study - in order to better comprehend a subject that is, by definition, not of me.
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LibraryThing member snash
Haunting poetry exploring the subtle continual acts which erode black person and what annihilation feels like.
LibraryThing member Dreesie
I found the first section--the prose section on Rankine's experiences as a black woman--to be the most compelling. Because I know these things happen, and I see them happen--especially the incident on the bus. And in grocery stores. (Though I too have been told sooo many times (always by men older than me) that they "didn't see" me standing in line at the "line forms here" sign at the library, the pharmacy, wherever. I thought it was because I was female and thus not important.)

I struggle with poetry, and have recently decided to try to read more. So I found the form of the more poetic sections of this book difficult (how long did it take me to figure out the form of the Zidane World Cup section?).

But this is an important book. It does have a section that takes place in London, and then the Zidane section as well--neither "American", but clearly these issues are not simply American.

I would love to know if there was a specific design reasoning for using the large sans serif font. Does it mean strength? Or is it meant to be stark? Naked? Or maybe it means nothing? (This is me struggling with poetry.)
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LibraryThing member Florinda
I’m pretty sure I need to read this book again at least once, and maybe more. I can always write more about Citizen when I re-read it–I hope so, anyway. When that happens, I’d like to be better able to talk about Citizen. At this point, it’s left me with many swirling thoughts, but at rather a loss for words.

I’m on record as not reading poetry, but I know I’ve never read poetry like this. Rankine’s poetry is journalism, op-ed, and political commentary. It’s frank and accessible and genuinely artful. It’s consciousness-raising and gut-punching. It feels specifically timely and sadly timeless.

Citizen is, in short, affecting and important, and after this first reading, I’m left with two things: the need to read it again, and to tell you to read it for the first time.
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LibraryThing member jbealy
Should be required reading... for white people especially.
LibraryThing member AliceaP
I'm cognizant of the fact that I don't read enough books by women of color and that I read very few works of poetry. I decided to kill two birds with one stone by reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. (Also, it's National Poetry Month so it was a no-brainer.) This book is especially relevant right now with the state of our world being what it is: a shambles. Citizen is essentially Claudia's exploration of what it is to be a black woman living in America as told through poetic verse. It is beautiful, tender, terrible, tragic, and real. She doesn't shy away from such topics as police brutality or the prevalence of feeling like an outsider. This book is a personal revelation and a public admonishment all rolled into one neat package Coupled with her verses are historical quotes and pencil drawn (I think?) artwork. What better way to begin your foray into poetry than by reading a book that challenges the status quo and speaks from the heart? If you'd like to maybe see the world through a different set of eyes Citizen is your golden ticket with many stops along the way. 9/10

I made a note of this quote on page 89 to give you an idea of just how powerful her words are:

Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and where we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.
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LibraryThing member lydia1879
"The world out there insisting on this only half concerns you. What happens to you doesn't belong to you, only half concerns you. It's not yours. Not yours only."

A part of me feels like I shouldn't even review this book.

I don't need to. There are enough white opinions on pieces like Rankine's to last a thousand lifetimes.

But I want you to read it.

Claudia Rankine's book is activism and love and compassion at its best. This piece is organic, it flows like blood and sweat and tears flow. Rankine incorporates a variety of mediums, poetry, essays, photos, artwork and it feels cohesive and comprehensive. She tackles racial micro-aggressions in the most eloquent, the most simple way.

But I don't have to tell you that.

I want you to hear it from her, in her voice.

Her voice is powerful. It's a cry, a whisper, a shout, a scream, and all I can say is that I hear her. I feel that voice.

And I want you to feel it, too.

(P.S. I will say it's definitely worth buying a hard copy of this book because reading it on an e-reader doesn't give you the full view of the artworks, but that's just my personal opinion.)
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LibraryThing member poetontheone
A devastatingly effective critique of the insidious operations of systematic racism in America and a portrait of black experience that blends lyric essay and poetry. This is certainly one of the most compelling things I've read about the current state of race in AMerica, and that's saying something considering all the thoughtful writing from academic prose to experimental poetry that is exploring the topic. I love the chimeric forms here, especially the careful placement of photos throughout. That visual component make the narrative all the more devastating. I honestly think the the armchair critics of this book shouting that it isn't poetry are using that as an excuse to consider the function of text and what it addresses. This is a seminal work, maybe the most important book of poetry this past decade.… (more)
LibraryThing member mikehaef
I read it in one sitting with some breaks spent watching protests in Ferguson, MO. An important and beautiful lyric.
LibraryThing member streamsong
This volume consists of poems, prose poems and essays about being African-American in today’s America. It’s a punch-to-the gut sort of work – the racism, both overt and microagressions from strangers and friends is overwhelming and can take your breath away.

Memorable lines:

“Because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying”

On being stopped by police: “You are not the guy. You are always the guy, because you fit the description and there is only one description. You are always the guy there is only one description.”

“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

"Before it happened, it had happened and happened. As a black body in the States, your response was necessary if you were to hold on to the fiction that this was an event 'wrongfully ordinary,' therefore a snafu within the ordinary."

First five star read of the year.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
I bought this because I wanted to read it but I was a little afraid to read it but I wanted to read it.

Once I started reading it, I couldn't stop. I read it walking to work and when I absolutely had to put it down I walked around aching and hollow, eyes half-seeing for a while.

I googled a lot of things.

There is a lot of Serena in here, and as I was reading this, there was a lot of Serena in the news again because Serena is amazing and a lot of damn fools in the world cannot reconcile her amazingness and her blackness.

As amazing as the poems are about Trayvon, about Eric Garner, about Michael Brown, it is the poetry about casual racism, about microaggressions that slays. The exhaustion in them is palpable. The exhaustion of "Did that person really just say that?" "Do they know what they said?" "Did they mean that?" "Is this reasonable?" "Do I have the energy/standing/emotional fortitude to call them on it?"

Brutal. And very, very necessary.
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LibraryThing member Lyndatrue
It's a powerful book. Don't start it on a night when you intend to read only a page or two. It might catch you up, and you will be doomed. Truthfully, it wasn't until I was a third of the way in that I really got involved, but I read all of the rest today, in two sittings (between stints outside, in the heat, in the garden).

In some ways, it's like swallowing a mouthful of ground glass. You know it hurts, and it's not going to hurt less as it passes through (nor should it). Not since I first saw the production on PBS of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf" have I been as moved as I am today.… (more)
LibraryThing member mjlivi
Short and powerful, illuminating the constant barrage of aggression (micro and macro) that faces black people in America (and elsewhere of course)
LibraryThing member James.Igoe
Not quite poetry in the traditional sense, thoughtful and powerful writing.
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
I'm not sure how to describe this short book--poetry? prose? screenplay? It won the National Book Critics Award in Poetry and was also a finalist for the same award in Criticism. It also won the NAACP Image Award, as well as being a finalist for several other awards.

It contains, among other things, a long story about a series of bad calls made against Serena Williams in 2004, 2009, and 2011, all apparently involving racial bias. She discusses friends who have crossed the line with her when they feel entitled to joke about racial matters (i.e. "nappy hair"), or those who have spoken with her on the phone, who express surprise to discover she's not white when they meet her in real life, and other indignities suffered merely because she is black, such as the store clerk asking her if she's sure her credit card will work.

She takes a series of quotes taken from CNN after Katrina, and presents them as a poem, which includes Barbara Bush's unforgettable comment, "And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working out well for them."

There is a prose poem/script in memory of Trayvon Martin which ends with the following:

"because white men can't
police their imagination
black people are dying."

This was like a scrapbook of various meditations on race. Many of the individual pieces were moving and unforgettable. However, overall, I found it sometimes disorganized, and some of the pieces did not engage me. (Some seemed to be intended to be presented visually, as in a video). Still, I could see that it is an important work.

3 stars
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LibraryThing member JimElkins
This isn't a review but an observation, bearing on my project Writing with Images -- I am studying the history of fiction and other narratives with images. Given the fact that Rankine's interest is life as an African-American woman, and the racism with all the ordinary, sometimes daily insults, condescension, unthought disrespect, half-noticed slurs, and other painful experiences, it does not make sense that most of her illustrations are by successful artists. There is very little reference to the artists in the text, which I think has to lead to the conclusion that she thinks their work is the best illustration of her concerns. But is it? Carrie Mae Weems, Nick Cave, or Glenn Ligon often have very different agendas and interests, and their work raises specific issues that are not mentioned in the text -- and the reason for their absence is itself not articulated

For me, the only way to read the illustrations in "Citizen" as apposite to the text is to think of them generically, as art, and not to notice, or to forget, their different careers, symbolism, and narratives. A few pictures are from the media, like the one of Caroline Wozniacki pretending to be Serena Williams (p. 36), or Hennessy Youngman (p. 23). Those fit the narrative perfectly.

I wonder if a more careful selection of images, and more passages in the text meditating on the images and their meanings, might not have raised the stakes for the narrative itself, by adding a level of reflection about what visual materials best give voice to the texts' concerns.
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LibraryThing member roniweb
I bought this book after seeing an African-American woman reading it behind Donald Trump at one of his rallies. It is a moving and damning piece of literature on the USA's history of racism. Normally I do not read poetry, but I challenged myself with this book. You may devour this in one sitting or may need to walk away to let things process. Either way, do get this book. Read it. Give it to someone else.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaulsu
I am a “liberal” “white” person. We are all so free with labels. Er think we know what everyone knows. And that everyone knows what we know. Or they should...but please don’t should on me.

This book made me squirm. When I open my mouth, are my good intentions misunderstood? Pure intentions! In this day of amazing numbers of black men being gunned down by police acceptable?

As we used to say about men sexually harassing women, is this OUR problem, that they can’t keep it zipped up? Ranking now points out that white [men/policemen] need to control their imaginations when confronting unarmed black men.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
Citizen is an exploration of attitudes, a loose leaf dispatch on race. Is it a meditation on anger? On images and bodies?Is language as violent as memory? Is it privilege to be oblivious?

I said aloud while reading that, “my mental misanthropy is presently blooming.”

I stumbled upon this book this morning, fully unaware. It was digested in a futbol half.… (more)
LibraryThing member steller0707
Claudia Rankine, an accomplished poet, has aptly described this book as lyrical prose. But make no mistake, her poetic voice comes through loud and clear. Arranged in seven parts, she has collected events and encounters in the life of American citizens, and arranged them to vividly portray the experience of black people, and especially black men, in America today.

Rankine describes incidents ranging from the slights that friends and acquaintances make without realizing they are making ("What did you just say?") to the blatant racist language and violent stereotyping we see all too often in the media. All are treated in vivid prose and accompanied by provocative artwork - a image of a street sign designating Jim Crow Lane; a tennis star who stuffed her tennis outfit with towels front and back to imitate Serena Williams. Included in this volume are scripts she has written to accompany "Situation" videos produced with her husband John Lucas, a documentary filmmaker. Some of these videos can be viewed in various places on the internet. (Search for Situation video). Despite our history and the strides made in race relations, she insists we must continue to make strong advances.

Very powerful meditation on what it means to be a black citizen in America today.
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LibraryThing member SamMusher
I don't even feel like I can give this a number of stars. It is clearly a compelling and unique work, it's doing something worth reading/experiencing, and it is not for me. I struggle to comprehend anything with so little narrative, I will admit. It is my own failing. My husband the poet read and loved it, for what that's worth.… (more)
LibraryThing member schufman
This should be required reading.
LibraryThing member b.masonjudy
Citizen weighs a ton. Rankine mines the personal, using a variety of textures of information (photos, paintings) and formats of language (essays, poetry, scripts, transcripts, quotations) to present the myriad of violence and injustice that has been levied against black Americans. I found her variation of address to be particularly striking and the pieces on Serena Williams and Mark Duggan really extends this conversation beyond the borders of the USA to the dominant white culture in Western society.… (more)



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