citizen claudia rankine


shannon-chatBy far, one of the most powerful things about this little book for me is something you might not see without comparison. Claudia Rankine and Graywolf Press have made changes from the original printing in October 2014. More names were added to each edition, along with the quote below.

“because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying”

jennifer-chatI purchased one of the later editions with the changes to page 134. I’d heard about the changes but wasn’t prepared for how that single page would make me feel. I can’t put it into words.
vasillyI remember reading about the changes that are made with each edition. It’s sad to think how many names will be added in the future, yet it’s such a powerful thing to see and note. Whose name is going to be there next? But it’s also a powerful statement that in the latest edition, Rankine left spaces to add future names.
shannon-chatThat’s something I keep thinking about, too.

We see many different styles used throughout the book, it’s not your typical poetry collection. There’s second person prose, scripts, short essays, first person thoughts. Was there a style that appealed to you most?
vasillyI found myself gravitating more to the second person prose. I think it has to do with the fact that I don’t read poetry very often anymore.
shannon-chatI tend to like second person to begin with, at least when it’s used well, and I thought it was a major part of the brilliance here. I loved that it allowed me to see “you” differently in each statement. I know it forced me to examine myself and the people around me over and over again.
jennifer-chatThe second person prose worked remarkably well for me. It felt personal and I was able to BE that person, if only momentarily.
april-chatThis quote really struck me:

“…if ‘a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad,’ thereby intimating that any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property, which was the legal state of things once upon a time…”

What it made me think of was all the people who feel the need to shout from the rooftops that they are diverse readers! While I think that many people who track the diversity of their reading and make an effort to read diversely do so because they have an honest desire to gain experience or empathy, I do believe that there are a contingent of readers out there who read diversely merely to ‘check the box’ and then pat themselves on the back for supporting diverse authors. To me, this quote speaks directly to that latter type of person.
monika-chatI agree that that “check the box” attitude is out there, and it feels so dismissive (Danielle at OneSmallPaw eloquently explained why). Thinking about erasure—this quote struck me as well:

“Don’t be ridiculous. None of the other black friends feel that way and how you feel is how you feel even if what you perceive isn’t tied to what is . . .

What is?”

shannon-chatI love how that quote kind of ties together the way Rankine wrote this (using the second person “you”) with what she was aiming to achieve in writing. I think the “feeling of accumulation” she mentions in this interview is something that’s very difficult for many people to understand and though I’ll never feel it the same way, I think she more than succeeded.

“And I wanted a feeling of accumulation. I really wanted the moments to add up because they do add up. I wanted to come up with a strategy that would allow these moments to accumulate in the reader’s body in a way that they do accumulate in the body. And the idea that when one reacts, one is not reacting to any one of those moments. You’re reacting to the accumulation of the moments. I wanted the book, as much as the book could do this, to communicate that feeling. The feeling of saturation. Of being full up. I wanted it to be simulacra.” – Claudia Rankine, Guernica Mag

Reading this made me so much more aware of microaggression (and flat out racism) than I was before. Watching the news, reading tweets, on my way to work…I feel like I’m reading pages of this book. It’s jarring to see Rankine lay out everything so clearly while so many people continue to cycle through this false narrative that the United States has evolved beyond racism, or that those who point it out are just adding fuel to a nonexistent fire.
vasillyShannon, you’re so right. For the past few years, there has been this false narrative going around our country that because we have a black president that racism is a thing of the past and we live in a post-racial world. Rankine takes that perspective to task and shows readers how wrong that is, not just in terms of recent events like the murder of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson, but in everyday interactions. There’s the therapist who screams at her new patient to get off her lawn before realizing who the person is.  Or the man at the store who asks will your card work before it’s even swiped, though he didn’t ask the white friend when she used her card.

The racism that tennis player Serena Williams has faced over and over again from the media, tennis judges, and other players is something else that’s brought up. I couldn’t help but feel the stress of it all emanating from my own body as I read. I had to put the book down for a few days.
jennifer-chatI was incredibly impressed by this work. By both the subject matter and the form. I thought it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. I’m more aware than ever before and I do feel the moments adding up, I do feel that accumulation that Rankine was going for.
vasillyIt is a powerful read and it made me wonder how many people are going to pick this book up and read it. It’s going to call for some people to step out of their comfort zone and open their eyes.

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?”

Reading Citizen at the same time that the protests were going on in Baltimore was kind of surreal. Citizen is meant for now. It’s meant for now because nothing has changed.
shannon-chatThis was actually my second time reading it—the first time I picked it up was just after the grand jury announced it would not indict Darren Wilson. It definitely makes it seem like nothing’s changed and almost made it a more difficult read the second time through.
vasillyThe dialogue, and often lack of, that has been going on after the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that ensued haven’t always been progressive. There have been voices of apathy that couldn’t care less about what’s going on with minority groups. Yet, there have been voices like a recent Washington Post article that have said, “Wait a minute. This is what’s happening in these cities and neighborhoods, this is what’s been happening, and this is how people are being affected by racial and institutional discrimination. Here’s what going on.”
monika-chatI love that you said “Citizen is meant for now.” And I think it’s something that is going to continue to be relevant and powerful. This has the potential to reach much farther than its original intent, because it contains insights and lessons that have the power to make people stop and think about any marginalized group facing violence for who they are. That’s so important.
jennifer-chatI can imagine reading this again and again. I can imagine needing to read it again and again, which is very telling and dreadfully sad.


Tell us what you thought about Citizen, readers. Was it different from the poetry you expected to read? Did it take you out of your comfort zone? Did anything in the book hit close to home or change your perspective?