Citizen is indeed an American lyric. It is lyrical. It is an indictment of the racism American citizens impose and the racism American citizens endure. It demands to be read. And read out loud. Again. Again. And again.
Claudia Rankine’s best-seller has won awards for poetry as well as “open” book awards. It is impossible to tell whether this is a series of vignettes or a series of poems or something else. And it probably doesn’t need to be labeled as one or the other. In fact, that is some of the beauty and complexity of it – it defies definition. It defies genre. It is definitely like no other book I’ve read (although Tupac’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” comes closest.)
There’s this: “…a friend once told you there exists the medical term –John Henryism – for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.” (11)
Read that again: “They achieve themselves to death…” Read it out loud. And think about how many Black friends and colleagues are achieving ‘themselves to death’ because they have to be twice as good in order to be recognized half as often.
And then, there is a whole section on how the tennis world tortured Serena Williams with tiny slights, fault lines called wrongly – and displayed in that section, a photograph of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed star stuffing her bra and panties to mock Serena’s strong body. And the tennis world – in its lilywhiteness – stood mute. Laughed even. My stomach still aches every time I open the book to that page. Yet another knife held against a Black woman’s body.
This book is a voice against that racism. And against all the micro-aggressions (that combine into something way beyond microscopic) that are suffered daily, hourly, by our friends, our family members, our colleagues.
“Words work as release – well oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture…words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains.” (69)
The words are daggers and rose pedals and icicles and pillows that smother (and sometimes soothe.) They captivate you. They release you. They torture you. They subdue. But they must be read.
Nothing I can write here can capture just how powerful this book is. So go read it. Now.