Book Reviews

Citizen : An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

My circle of blogosphere book bloggers have been buzzing about this book recently. I know, I know, another “must read”. When does the list end? Never, hopefully. This is a blog about books, so I hope I don’t run out of literature to talk about.

On a much more serious note, Citizen came out in January of 2014, and truthfully I hadn’t heard of it until mentioned amongst my fellow book bloggers. This 169 page memoir is full of essays, poems, photos, and artwork about race. Specifically about the African American culture in history and in present day. Here is a better synopsis:

20613761[1]“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. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.”

On the back of the book, Jonathan Farmer from Slate says it best for me, “Citizen is one of the best books I’ve ever wanted not to read…”

I didn’t want to read this. It’s my least favorite type of book. Books about racism, genocide, war, torture, child abuse, rape, sexism. All of them. I have an adverse reaction to them. They make me sick. Why would I want to read a book like this?

Because books like this are vitally necessary if you are a living breathing person and genuinely care about others. Because books like this open up dialogue and bring to light the injustices still going on today. Still. Going. On. Today. It’s not an easy read and makes you take pause and look at your life and in the mirror to really ask yourself if you’ve ever taken part in these microaggressions against others. Did you laugh at a racist joke? Did you say nothing? Did you pre-judge someone based on media perceptions? Did you put the blinders on when witnessing something racist? Did you give the older people in your life a pass because what they said was a “generational thing”? This happens more often than not. I’ve turned the other cheek when not wanting to get into a debate and hated myself for not saying what I felt to be true.

“You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly so both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.”

Citizen makes you want to argue back and yet there is nothing to say because it’s all blatantly obvious and disturbing. And disgusting. Being a white woman raised in the 1970’s, I have never been treated unfairly due to my race. We take so much for granted. And so I dug deep, trying to understand what this might feel like. This is the whole point in reading a book like this, to gain some insight, empathy, understanding. The only way I can remotely understand what it’s like to feel threatened for just being myself or prejudiced against is for being a woman. Something I have no control over.

Some reading this might say there is no comparison. And maybe there isn’t. Fortunately I wasn’t raised to have hate for any culture but I was raised to be cautious of men through adults, teachers and the media. Carry mace, learn self defense, walk in groups, don’t dress provocatively, don’t smile too much, don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a drink from a man at the bar, don’t appear too smart, don’t challenge…the list goes on. Change myself so I don’t ask for unjust treatment. I consider myself one tough, feminist woman, taking crap from no one and yet these experiences and knee-jerk reactions don’t go away because someone told me to have “Girl Power”. They are always in the back of my mind. Just as the media and news chooses to portray African Americans and other cultures one way, it biases the majority of viewers. Just as growing up and told to be wary of men biased me for many years.

“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. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she just do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?”

Poetry is not my go-to read but I found listening to this via audio while reading the words made for an amazing experience. The cadence of the narrator helped punctuate the words and seeing them on the page was powerful. The artwork and photos are important also.

This book is full of so many insights and beautiful, thought provoking prose. For me the major take-away of this important book is a person’s voice. It’s very important to listen to a person who feels like they have been treated unfairly. The voice matters most of all. A voice to be heard and a voice to speak up for others.

“You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off of your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”




6 thoughts on “Citizen : An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

  1. I think asking (and providing some thoughtful answers to) the question “Why should I read this?” is an important one. Setting aside the fact that the writing is beautiful and brutal in its own right, there’s a bearing witness I feel responsible to do. Especially if it’s an issue that I don’t have to deal with it. I feel a responsibility to acknowledge it exists and is a problem for people unlike me and do what I can to address it when I see it, talk about it, spread the word on the book. Those are the reasons I read many difficult books, and I’m usually glad I did.

  2. “Because books like this are vitally necessary if you are a living breathing person and genuinely care about others. Because books like this open up dialogue and bring to light the injustices still going on today. Still. Going. On. Today.” THIS.

    It’s so easy for us white people to say “racism doesn’t exist anymore because I don’t experience it,” but all we have to do is LISTEN to what people of color have to say to learn the truth. Why are we often so reluctant to do that? I loved that this book opened up the black experience and made me look harder at myself.

  3. I might have to reread this in audio format after your description of your experience. Really great post, and this is definitely one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. Haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.

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