(Book Review) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

By David Nilsen

CitizenI’ll be honest: I have no idea what to say about Claudia Rankine’s National Book Award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric (811.5 Rankine). I question if I should say anything at all, if I even have the right to, if a white man writing about a book like this, even to praise it, is a perpetuation of the privilege dynamics that necessitated the book’s writing in the first place.

Ultimately, I’ve chosen to write about it for two reasons.

First, because choosing not to write about it would be as much about my own white guilt as it would be about anything else, and that’s not a good reason.

Second, because you need to read it, whoever you are, wherever you are, and if seeing a recommendation here means you decide to, then that is worthwhile.

There are more reasons, of course.

Because it’s black history month, and too often white people in America like to believe taking a month to look at African American history (which is inseparable from looking at the long history of racism in this country) is a way to assure ourselves racism is a thing from history, something safely tucked away in the past.

Because #BlackLivesMatter, and the shocking statistics of how consistently that inalienable truth is disregarded in this country should be nothing less than devastating to us, no matter our own race.

Because the town this library serves (Fourth & Sycamore is the online literary journal for Greenville Public Library in Greenville, Ohio)  was 96.7% white as of the 2010 census, and it is nearly impossible in so homogenous a community to circumvent ingrained white privilege, even if the owner of that privilege consciously condemns racism.

Citizen is a testament to how far we have to go as a nation to move past the racism that still shapes too much of our culture. The book is a series of brief anecdotes from Rankine’s daily life, offered with little or no preamble, each of which expresses the casual and at times flagrant racism a person of color regularly faces. She addresses some of the explicit – but by no means exceptional – situations that have received media attention in the last few years – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner – but the bulk of the book deals more with the microaggressions performed on a daily basis, the situations white America doesn’t want black people to make a fuss about, the things that can seem so minor they might not normally seem worth mentioning. Rankine mentions them. She challenges the reader to experience what she experiences and then still try to call them minor – to be erased from a situation because you’ve been made invisible, to have your credit card handed back to someone else because the cashier didn’t assume you would have one, to have a passerby cringe away from you in fear on the sidewalk, to be pulled over for the apparent crime of driving while black. And on and on. These things are small, and their enormity is crushing.

In one particularly poignant piece, Rankine speaks to the stunning and appalling regularity with which black persons are killed by law enforcement in cases of “justifiable homicide,” a rate that far outstrips their population percentage relative to whites and other races in America:

In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory
In Memory

And then, on the facing page:

Because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

And that’s it, isn’t it? The failure of the white populace to police their (I, my) imagination is a penalty paid for with a harsh currency – the marginalization (and blood, far more often than receives media attention) of persons of color. Black pain pays for white comfort far more often than the comfortable would care to acknowledge.

There’s nothing else I can really say here. Claudia Rankine’s voice certainly does not need mine speaking for it, much less over it. Please, reader: listen. Pick up Citizen and listen.


Citizen: An American Lyric is available now at Greenville Public Library.

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