Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

The new therapist specializes in trauma counselling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

Citizen begins with a series of flash fictions based on events told to Rankine. They vary from a twelve-year-old girl who a classmate uses to cheat on tests, to a woman called the wrong name by a friend – the same name as her friend’s black housekeeper, to the language that is used in front of people of colour and the behaviour of whites towards blacks in everyday situations. These short pieces illustrate the way in which people of colour are routinely ignored and dismissed, often by people that you might not expect to behave in these ways.

This section is followed by an essay about anger beginning with a discussion of the artist Hennessy Youngman and then focusing on Serena Williams.

On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist” resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger; the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.

Not being much of a sports fan, I rarely watch tennis so was unaware of the injustice served to Serena Williams again and again. It’s shocking and disgusting. The paragraph which seems to summarise this essay – and most of Rankine’s book – is this one:

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all blacks.

Rankine follows this essay with further flash-fictions and begins to intersperse art works, including Glenn Ligon’s, which relate to the points she is making. She goes on to include a series of scripts made for videos about Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Jena Six, and one entitled ‘Stop-and-Frisk’. She also has pieces about Barack Obama, Mark Duggan, Zinedine Zidane. The final section is a poem, incorporating some more short prose, summarising all that has gone before.

Rankine makes use of repetition to create a layering effect. She does this in individual pieces, for example ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ uses the following as a refrain:

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.

But also in the way the incidents she writes about build to create a devastating picture of the treatment of black people in the western world.

Citizen suggests that’s exactly what people of colour are not – they’re not legally recognised as they’re not being protected by law and therefore not allowed to stand alongside white people as equals. The comments and actions of whites serve to exploit people of colour as other.

I’m sure if I refer to this book as ‘powerful’ a ‘books written by people of colour and reviewed by white people’ cliché klaxon will sound but I’ve been through the synonyms and yes, Citizen is compelling and dynamic and forceful and impressive but it is powerful through the way Rankine uses the shortest of pieces to make you realise how often people of colour are ‘thrown against a sharp white background’ and how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background.

Caitlin Moran believes it’s culture – not marches or protests or petitions – that has the power to change the world. If that’s true, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household; I want to see it taught in schools and university, and added to the canon in the hope that in X [insert your own optimistic/pessimistic value here] years time, students will read, study, discuss this book in university seminars and be appalled at the way people were treated because of the colour of their skin.