In Citizen, an American Lyric, the author Claudia Rankine, composes different ongoing encounters of racism taking place within the twenty-first century. These racist aggressions take place within daily life, daily conversations, among friends, and strangers, as well as within the media. Racism is clearly still present in the world today, and Rankine provides the reader with individual racist encounters written in the second person narrative point of view. Doing this allows for little to no context on who is saying what, and therefore makes the impact of the words being said more powerful. Some of these encounters are slips of the tongue, while others are intentional derogatory comments, meant to be hurtful and offensive. Through the utilization of essays, images, poetry, and more, Rankine composes an “American Lyric” on the effect of racism in what is currently a failing “post-race,” society.
In sections III through V, Rankine continues to describe individual racist encounters of all different kinds. As well as this, in part IV, she begins to touch on the effect of these racist encounters on the individual primarily through the utilization of poetry. Due to the fact that each passage in each chapter is written in the second person narrative point of view, as the reader, you don’t know if this is a composition of racist encounters of one singular person or a collection of many different accounts. Because of this, the velocity and effect of these encounters are increased. Ambiguity as an author is an important strategy, and Rankine is successfully using this technique to her advantage.
In section III of Citizen, we are reminded again of section I, as there are similar types of racist encounters. The first passage of the section is the one that has stuck out to me the most thus far throughout the novel. You and a friend are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood, and this friend says to you “You are late, you nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). She has never code switched like this before, and you are curious as to why she has done it now. Rankine then continues to talk about how perhaps you being late signaled the stereotype of “black people time” and so she attempts to respond with “black people language” (Rankine 41). As I read this racist encounter, it made me think about how commonly and easily college students, of all races, use the N-word in today’s society. Specifically, just on this college campus, I hear it used in everyday conversation more often than it should. The woman who was late was clearly made uncomfortable by the racist comment, and the woman who said it regret saying it and knew that what she said was wrong directly after. In the media, as well as in conversation today, racist slights are thrown around way too often, and way too casually. This is a problem and needs to be stopped. People are so entitled, and feel as if the words that they say won’t have an impact on other people’s feelings. However this is not the case, and no matter the circumstance, racism, in any form, is never okay.
In the article, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, the author argues that today’s society is experiencing a new Jim Crow era. She writes “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt” (Alexander, 262). In a country that is supposed to be blind to race, racism is present despite all historical and social efforts to abolish it. Alexander compares today’s society and racist tendencies in the United States to that of the Jim Crow in the 1950s. On pages 52 and 53 of Citizen, there is an illustration of two separate posters. The first poster reads “I do not always feel colored,” over and over again, and the second poster readers “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Rankine 51-52). This illustration reminded me of Alexander’s article due to the emphasis on color, or lack thereof. The artist does not always feel colored, however, they feel most colored, and most isolated when compared to the color white. Both Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander discuss racist encounters that take place today in the United States.
Why do you think Claudia Rankine utilizes a second person narrative point of view in her novel Citizen: An American Lyric?
Do you think reading a novel such as Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine has the potential to illicite change in racist tendencies and encounters in the United States today?
Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2016.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Penguin Books, 2015.