Claudia Rankine's Citizen: A Provocative Wake-up Call
Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric is a must-read in our contemporary society. In an extremely provocative text, Rankine calls attention to the microaggressions present in our society. The hybridity of her text--Rankine includes essays, photography, videos, etc--is fascinating, and through it, she manages to reach a wide range of people, as she addresses many diverse interests. The way she structures her text is different form what we are used to in literature (it includes several forms), and it is all the more captivating because of that.
In Citizen, there will hardly be someone who doesn't feel addressed. Rankine alternates between the lyric "I" and a second person (either "you", or "she", or "he", or "they")--indeed, everyone. That way, she manages to grab our attention because we always feel connected. It's a way, perhaps, to make us feel empathy towards the speaker.
Rankine calls attention to the distinction we make of each other based on race and creates an invisible (black) speaker. With that, she shows how beneficial invisibility is for the whites to be able to maintain a position of power. All throughout the text, Rankine includes situational examples that we've all surely experienced at least a couple of times--whether it happened to us, whether we were the ones who acted that way, or whether we witnessed it. One of the examples is of a black girl paying for her groceries. Before inserting her card to pay, the cashier asks her if the card will work (???). It's a very automatic reaction and the cashier probably didn't even realize the severity of what she was doing--perhaps that she was even doing it in the first place. But reading it is extremely revolting and makes us want to jump in the scene and ask what on earth is her problem. Or when Rankine describes officers arresting you, a black person who is innocent. "And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description." The scene and its all-too-common reality is incredibly revolting! All three or four times I read this part of the text were equally enraging. All three or four times I kept shaking my head from left to right in disbelief but at the same time very much aware that that's exactly what happens. It's disturbing and wrong in all levels. Something must change.
Something must be done. Rankine knows it and we know it.
Also, all of the images Rankine includes are very powerful. Look at the cover, to begin with: it's a (headless) black hoodie on a white background. This was a 1993 exhibition by David Hammons entitled "In the Hood". Right away it reminds us of the Million Hoodie March made in honor of Trayvon Martin's murder. Or the disturbing collage of a deer's body and a black girl's face. It's a sculpture by Kate Clark entitled "Little Girl". We can't help but thinking of a deer as prey, and the sculpture's deer is laying down, which further contributes to the idea of vulnerability. Clark's artwork reminds Rankine of her historical body. Like an animal, it was someone else's property. It's a sickening--though extremely powerful--sculpture, which enriches Rankine's text and calls attention to the much-silenced perpetuation of racism.
Citizen grabs its readers right from page one. It leaves us frustrated and enraged while reading the text and definitely after we finish it. She definitely gets her message through. Rankine's Citizen should be included in every school's syllabus, should be discussed in book clubs, and should be read by all.
By Marcia Ramos