‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine – Getting Angry

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine, prose poem (2014) – 159 pages    Grade: B


‘Citizen’ is a fierce meditation on being black in a predominantly white society like the United States.

“I feel more colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” – Zora Neale Hurston  

This prose poem is abrasive and disturbing for a white person to read.  It begins by showing examples of everyday unthinking racism perpetrated by even those enlightened white people who know better.  Good friends can cause deep hurt when it comes to race by saying the wrong thing.  There is even a medical term, “John Henryism – for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism”.

I wanted to say that some of us whites are trying to do better   Our attitudes are embedded in us from early childhood, and those cannot be easily or entirely corrected or eliminated.

And then we get women’s tennis star Serena Williams. Rankine gives us several scenes from Serena’s career.

“They (Venus and Serena Williams) win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily, they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all – graphite against a sharp white background.”

 We get re-enacted two of Serena’s most famous matches which had disputed calls.  At the 2004 US Open, Serena is defeated by Jennifer Capriati due to a series of bad line calls by the chair umpire.  Serena keeps her temper in check despite the bad calls.  Rankine is on somewhat precarious ground when equating bad line calls with racism, but in this case the chair umpire making the bad calls was excused from officiating any more matches.

In the 2009 US Women’s Open Serena is called for a foot fault at a critical moment in a match against Kim Clijsters, and she explodes.  Serena loses the match and is fined $82,500 and put on a two-year probationary period by the tennis officials for unsportsmanlike conduct.

images (6) However in 2012 Serena wins the only two gold medals that the United States would win in tennis at the Olympics and later would go on to win every match she played between the US Open and the year-end championship tournament.  Serena then is named the Women’s Tennis Association Player of the Year for 2012.

Next we get the scenarios for a number of ugly racist incidents that have occurred in recent years: James Craig Anderson (a forty-nine year old black man run over intentionally in Jackson, Mississippi by a bunch of white teenagers driving a pickup truck), Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan in London.   The detailing of these incidents reminded me of a book I read nearly fifty years ago called ‘Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness’ by Robert E. Conot which chronicled the deaths of all 34 people killed during the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965.  That book had a profound effect on my attitudes toward race over the years.

In ‘Citizen’ Rankine seems particularly pessimistic and angry about the racist attitudes of whites and their likelihood of being changed.

But when I watch the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, I begin to think there is hope for blacks and whites together yet.


5 responses to this post.

  1. I have a book recommendation for you: White Dog by Romain Gary. I’d love to read your thoughts about it. (billet on my blog)


    • Hi Emma,
      Thank You. My usually trusty guide for twentieth century literature is ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’ by the wonderful English critic Martin Seymour Smith which was written in 1976. If Smith recommends an author, I will read him. However I just checked, and Smith does not include Romain Gary at all in his book, and that is probably why I missed reading him. For about fifteen years I’ve tried to read Goncourt Prize winners, and as you say Gary won it twice,
      ‘White Dog’ seems particularly suited for me, and I will give it a spin soon.


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