Poetry in Motion

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright and professor. She collaborates with her husband, photographer John Lucas, to create videos. Citizen: An American Lyric is a collection of prose, poetry and visual art that speaks to the everyday experience of racism.

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)


Rankine has described Citizen as a series of microaggressions. It’s true that none of the incidents escalates into a lynching or a police killing. And yet violence is the subtext in each of the works that comprise Citizen. It is the constant threat that the next inadvertent comment, painful joke or pointed insult will explode.

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. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence that you are bucking the trend.

The microaggressions Rankine describes were not all aimed at her. She dissects the treatment meted out to Serena Williams on and off the court.

Interviewed by the Brit Piers Morgan after her 2021 Olympic victory, Serena is informed by Morgan that he was planning on calling her victory dance “the Serena Shuffle”; however, he has learned from the American press that it is a Crip Walk, a gangster dance. Serena responds incredulously by asking if she looks like a gangster to him. Yes, he answers.

In a video entitled Situation 7, Rankine and Lucas capture in words and images a Black man occupying a train seat no one wants to share.

The Hidden I

Rankine chooses the unusual 2nd person to narrate many of the prose works in Citizen. Behind her “you” hides an I. Rankine doesn’t want to hear her friend greet her with “You are late, you nappy-headed ho.” She doesn’t want to reply.

Rankine’s tone veers from vernacular to high-falutin, active to passive tense. She plays with form.

As he walked across grass still green from summer walking out of the rain a step beyond into a piece of sky dry all day for him in this moment a shelter as he sat beneath the overhanging branches of the “white tree” surprising himself at the center of the school yard thinking of the slight give in the cushions of the counter seats he had read about in textbooks did the hardness of the ground cross the hardness of the seats in the buses as he waited to be noticed listening to the lift and fall of the leaves above him?

As the boys walked across grass a darkening wave as dusk folded into night walking toward a dawn sun punching through the blackness as they noosed the rope looped around the overhanging branches of their tree surprising themselves at the center of the school yard thinking this is how they will learn the ropes did the hardness in the history books cross the hardness in their eyes all the eyes with that look without give did they give that look to the lift and fall of the leaves above them?

Claudia Rankine, “December 3, 2006 / Jena Six”

The hidden I, the passive tense, the formal flights of fancy. These seem to me to be acts of self-defense against a truth too awful to face.


Citizen won the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. It was a finalist for the same award in the category of criticism. This blurring of boundaries caused one UK critic to declare of Citizen: “That’s not poetry; it’s sociology!” I wonder whether Citizen violates some internal Dewey decimal system by defying categorization.

Rankine has attested to the fact that the events described in Citizen did happen. There is a value to saying, these things are true. But in case you were wondering, Rankine can command the poetic register, too.

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of stuck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat slices thought and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.

Claudine Rankine, “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin”

The cover of Citizen is a detached hood. It’s something Trayvon Martin might have worn the night he was killed. I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.

6 June 2021 | Karen Kao