"Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor."
The first paragraph of Citizen offers an entrance into the complicated web of subjects that will tell the story in its pages. There is no location, but rather an overwhelming dark feeling. The moonlight, symbolizing the goal of America's mission to land on the moon, is no longer present. The ambitions of the narrator's great country are all but extinguished in this dark and lonely space. The temperament of this opening paragraph eases the reader into the abstract arena of the rest of the book as well.
"...if 'a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad', thereby intimating that any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property, which was the legal state of things once upon a time"
Here, Rankine quotes Hennessy Youngman from a YouTube video in order to make a point about the inability of black people to separate their selves from their historical selves. This is a struggle for black artists specifically because their art will be read within a historical lens even when that is not the intention of the artist. Youngman sarcastically encourages viewers to embrace this fate in order to achieve success.
In a way, Rankine does embrace this fate throughout Citizen by interpolating the poetry with pieces of art that are entwined with race relations. The difference is that each of the pieces of art presented seem to grapple with race in a boldly intentional style, which is unlike Youngman's desire to draw a flower and allow it to be simply a flower.
"Maybe the content of her statement is irrelevant and she only means to signal the stereotype of 'black people time' by employing what she perceives to be 'black people language.' Maybe she is jealous of whoever kept you and wants to suggest you are nothing or everything to her. Maybe she wants to have a belated conversation about Don Imus and the women's basketball team he insulted with this language. You don’t know. You don’t know what she means. You don’t know what response she expects from you nor do you care"
This is one of the first situations in which the narrator feels compelled to give herself an explanation for why a racist comment has been hurled her way. Her justifications are no straw men, either. The feeling of being outside of 'black people culture' and wanting to show solidarity by utilizing the communication modes that this interlocutor has identified as appropriate is clearly well-intentioned, but it misses the mark. Perhaps, as the narrator notes, the speaker is trying to stir emotions in the narrator because of jealousy or a desire to express a part of an argument. In the end, though, the narrator is understandably annoyed by the speaker's attempts to engage her with what she thinks is 'black people language'. No justification overcomes the stirred emotions of a direct insult.
"Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect—context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not […] Only then do you realize you are among 'the others out in public' and not among 'friends'."
This is a paramount realization for the narrator because it demonstrates the possibility for a world that is unembarrassed by its own racism. In public, racism often manifests in the form of microaggressions and other subtle acts, but among 'friends', racism can be fully embraced. Context allows for friends to be friends, but it also allows enemies to be friends.
"to live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter. Sighing upsets"
This passage hearkens back to the traditions of minstrelsy, in which black people were expected to fulfill certain tropes that were not accurate to who they truly were. Instead of sighing and sulking about their sorrows, they were expected to moan and sing the blues. Rankine is correct when she says that moaning elicits laughter: it is a common trope within blues music for the lyrics to be filled with mourning, but the audience meets this with laughter, as if to identify with the sorrows in a community. But the narrator does not care to laugh any longer. This passage demonstrates a desire to leap away from the history of black tropes and expectations. If a sigh is felt, a sigh shall be had.
"You begin to move around in search of the steps it will take before you are thrown back into your own body, back into your own need to be found. The destination is illusory. You raise your lids, No one else is seeking. You exhaust yourself looking into the blue light. All day blue burrows the atmosphere. What doesn’t belong with you won’t be seen."
Space and time find themselves warped in Section V, where Rankine seeks to place the body of a black person. There is no space for it, as the world stands, as America stands. The blue light that the narrator refers to has come become a motif for the person searching for a personal space and time. The blue light signifies the search for identity, an optimistic light at the end of the tunnel, tinted by the literal blues. This can also be seen as a reference to Toni Morrison's first book, Bluest Eye, which places great emphasis on finding personal visions of beauty outside of the mainstream skinny, white, blue-eyed, blond-haired vision of beauty. The blue represents this cultural ideal, which needs to be busted apart for its racial exclusivity.
"Yes, and you do go to the gym and run in place, an entire hour running, just you and your body running off each undesired desired encounter."
Running in place is just another way that sport evokes power. Instead of sitting and sighing, the narrator makes a concerted effort to move, even though the moving does no good – it is better than not moving at all. In an optimistic turn, the narrator even suggests that this purposeless act may even get something done: the undesired encounters, or 'microaggressions', as we've come to call them, can be sweated off the body. Whether this is act is successful or not, the body must try.
"You can't drive yourself sane."
This short quotation brings to light the toughest issue invoked in the book: what do we do once we recognize racist acts? While the narrators have been driven to sighs, running in place, and even insanity, nothing seems to help. The 'historical-self' holds the hand of the 'self-self', and any language or art produced by this black body is changed from its original nature just as a result of where it came from. Sanity is the baseline for human life, but this apparent baseline quickly drops from existence as one realizes that one is 'a black person'. This may be particularly true for the author, because she grew up in Jamaica and came to understand blackness in America with an outside perspective.
"How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?"
This question, posed to a white male colleague in London, has two sides. The first side is that it should not be difficult for her colleague to understand the terrible nature of racism in today's world, but the second side is an honest pondering - whereas this shouldn't be difficult, it is. Why is that? Is there some impenetrable barrier between the races, that don't even scientifically exist, which prevents understanding of each others' circumstances? The obvious logical answer is 'no', but the theory and the application don't seem to match up. The solution to this communication breakdown is Rankine's book itself: the answer lies in poetry.
"Yesterday, I begin, I was waiting in the car for time to pass. A woman pulled in and started to park her car facing mine. Our eyes met and what passed passed as quickly as the look away. She backed up and parked on the other side of the lot. I could have followed her to worry my question but I had to go, I was expected on court, I grabbed my racket."
An egregious microaggression sets the narrator off for the last time. The dilemma of whether to follow up and call the person out for their racism or to simply ignore it crosses the narrator's mind. In some cases, the narrator has acted on this impulse; at other times, the futility of such action has overwhelmed and overtaken. The only way forward is to play the game, a metaphor that Rankine presents many times in the book. Although we cannot say that the book takes on an optimistic tone, it does offer an adage akin to Samuel Beckett's life philosophy: "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Everything is as it was of old. There's never been anything else."
Citizen: An American Lyric Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Citizen: An American Lyric is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.