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Poetry Book Review: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” by Grace Augustin

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a 2014 critically acclaimed poetry book that makes an intelligent and thought-provoking addition to the current conversation of race, politics, and inequality. For this book, Rankine is a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, winner of the Poets and Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award, just to name a few.

But you don’t need to look at awards to be drawn in by Rankine’s work. Just turn to the first page, and you will immediately be drawn in.  Rankine forces you to become more than simply the reader: with her use of second person, you become the subject.

Throughout her book, Rankine challenges the fine line between prose and poetry, such as by using carefully selected images.  At times, these photos help the reader to form an alternate meaning of the text. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, she places a picture of a crowd of people after a two-page poem that is “In Memory of Trayvon Martin”.  The faces of the all-white crowd are clearly visible against the ink-black night sk. In the right center of the photo is a man, white button-down shirt rolled up, pointing with his left arm, body turned but face looking right at the camera.  Just to the right of the man, and behind him, is a tree. The image description located in the back of the book indicate that this is a picture of a public lynching that occurred August 30, 1930. The image is haunting more because of what it suggests than what it actually shows, a reminder of how little this country has learned from its past errors.

In other places, Rankine uses images to create a deeper understanding, such as a photo of professional tennis player Dane Caroline Wozniacki.  She is smiling and has towels clearly stuffed in her top and shorts in mockery of Serena Williams, behavior that Rankine wryly noted was “all in good fun.”  Rankine placed this image at the end of a section that used tennis champion Serena Williams to begin an intelligent discussion of the treatment of black women, particularly of those who are in the public eye.  The picture serves as an example of how white people sometimes embrace certain aspects of the culture of other races without having to face the social disadvantages that come with being a member of that race. Astutely, Rankine writes that by mocking Serena, Wozniacki “finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s ‘angry nigger exterior’ behind.  At last, in this real, and unreal, moment, we have Wozniacki’s image of smiling blond goodness posing as the best female tennis player of all time.”

Rankine argues that microaggressions are not to be ignored, as they can be used to slowly wear a person down and are a way of dehumanizing others.  She demonstrates that considering such moments to be trivial or inconsequential falsely deems one’s story to be illegitimate. Rankine also acknowledges the community present among blacks, such as in recounting a story in which a black youth got knocked over by a white man in the subway, and kept walking without stopping to apologize or see if he was okay.  “The beautiful thing,” Rankine wrote, “is that a group of men began to stand behind [him] like a fleet of bodyguards…like newly found uncles and brothers.”

By telling these stories of ignorance, of discrimination, Rankine shows how much weight is behind those moment, and empowers the reader to face such conflicts with grace and courage.

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