If you haven’t yet read Claudia Rankine’s multigenre blend of prose, poetry, art, and protest lyric Citizen: An American Lyric, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Particularly, perhaps especially, if you are white. Because you don’t understand, and even though reading a book is not the same as living the experience, it will open your eyes. Some of what you will read in this book you think you know, but the bone-deep weariness of living in America and being black permeates every single page of this beautifully written book.
Rankine writes about topics from the #blacklivesmatter movement to Hurricane Katrina to Venus and Serena Williams to Trayvon Martin to microaggressions. I think my favorite part was perhaps the extended section on Serena Williams. Many years ago, I used to follow tennis, but I haven’t really done so for about 25 years. So, I didn’t realize what Serena Williams had been through in her career, and it was educational to be sure. I also found section VI on Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and New York’s stop and frisk policy especially powerful. Each was described as a script of a situation video.
Rankine experiments with boundaries. At times, it’s hard to classify what, exactly the form is—poetry? essay? The resulting book resembles an assignment I have given my students in the past: the multigenre research project. In this assignment, students research a topic, but rather than write a research paper to show what they learned, they write poems, stories, and essays (any genre you can think of, just about) and use photographs and art to tell the story of what they have learned. They are immensely creative, incredibly interesting and inventive, and highly expressive. Citizen could probably best be classified as a multigenre book on the black experience in America. It includes criticism, prose, poetry, art, and photography. In fact, the chilling omission of a key detail on p. 91 somehow rendered the photograph (which is a famous photograph of a lynching) even more stunning and frightening, and I’m not sure how, but you really have to see it. Even the cover is a fascinating work of art. At first glance, I thought it was a black mask, but I realized it is actually a hood like you might find on a hoodie sweatshirt.
I read Citizen in one gulp, and I probably should have slowed down to take it in because it deserves a thoughtful reading, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books I think I will be pressing into the hands of just about everyone I know. Powerful. Wow.