Look, I’ll be honest: You can find much better book reviews of this National Book Award-nominated poetry book from Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, from NPR, The New Yorker and the New York Times, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t lay down some ink on what I thought was an engaging, thoughtful and compelling book. Not to mention, it’s rare that I read a poetry book, believe it or not, even though I love poetry. So, I was excited to discover this book from a friend’s recommendation and read it.
So with that said, this poetry/prose book deals with contemporary America, the proverbial, “What does it mean to be black in America in the 21st century?” Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Serena Williams, and smaller, so-called microaggressions get play here, too.
What this collection of poetry and prose amounts to is the expressed, manifest lived experience, day-to-day, as well as the more known national events, of black people. Their encounters with white people — or rather, what they often do to minimize conflict with white people.
Basically, what it feels like to live in an America where white people believe it’s a post-racial one, but black people feel its racial overt quality every day, dehumanizing them, de-legitimatizing them and turning their skin into fodder to the larger, white narrative.
Mhmm, I really like this line that best sums up the book and what I’ve just said from Holly Bass at the Times, ““Citizen” throws a Molotov cocktail at the notion that a reduction of injustice is the same as freedom.”
In particular, there’s a great bit on Serena Williams, lambasting the tennis establishment for more or less co-opting her body and her attitude to fit her into the mold of the “angry black woman,” trying to play tennis — a white person’s sport.
“Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context — randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out, “I swear to God!’ is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship,” Rankine said.
Let me give you a taste of her work with this passage I particularly would have highlighted with a highlighter if I was a fucking maniac that desecrated beautiful works of art:
“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 sliced through and when we open our mouths to speak, blossoms, o blossoms…”
“And still 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.”
Speaking of which, throughout and including the cover art, there is a much beautiful art to feast on with the eyes.
This collection of poetry allows us to live in that space, to get a handle on it, to see what is seen through their eyes, what is felt in their skin.
If we allow ourselves, too, of course.