Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Analysis of Section VI


This section is broken into segments, beginning with one entitled "August 29, 2005 / Hurricane Katrina." These poems are the basis of a video collaboration called Situations, as well.

The first poem contrasts the "fiction of facts" which "assumes randomness and indeterminacy" with the necessity of visual presence (73-75). In the midst of emergency, nobody is to be found and it is hard to separate this occasion from the many that divide the haves and have-nots. Their story has not ended, not even with their homecoming, upon which they found their dead child. A man ponders what the water wanted, as if this tragedy were in the past and not the present. An abstract painting, showing a black male made of bright gold and blue riveted metals, finishes this poem.

The second poem, "February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin," the narrator asserts that her brothers, who are notoriously normal, doing things like waiting and saying the narrator's name on her birthday, have been imprisoned. She distinguishes this verbiage from going to prison. A pink dawn offers a different path away from the terrible history of segregation, poverty, felonies, hanging, and the metaphor of a lynching tree as having taken root in the body. This is the blue sky. The narrator is on the phone with her brother, continuing to talk though he has all but hung up the phone. A black-and-white photo of many white people gathered under the base of a tree features one man in the center who points up at the darkness that is cut off by the photo's edge.

"June 26, 2011 / In Memory of James Craig Anderson," the third poem, puts together an image of a pickup truck that, through juxtaposition, creates a black object. The truck has run over a black person, and the aural landscape would suggest that it is proud of this. It's not a hoodlum driving the truck, either: it is "just teens," no gang, "just a teen," "with straggly blond hair," "a slight blond man" (84). "James Craig Anderson is dead" becomes the anthem of the final stanzas (85). The next photos show a pattern of close-up shots of white men and bars on windows and generally being enclosed. A replica with black men’s faces compliments the picture, but the windows and bars are replaced with fences, barbed wire, and trees.

The fourth poem, "December 4, 2006 / Jena Six,” brings a boy into contact with many natural things, such as trees and grass, that now have connotations that he cannot escape. The textbooks taught him these things, but they could not teach him that he would be "walking into a fist punching through the blackness" (90). Whereas this black boy's limbs are already criminalized, the other boys are just being boys. A black and blue 3-photo album appears next. Each photo is the same young black boy, and the captions below each are ‘BLUE’, ‘BLACK’, and ‘BOY’, respectively.

The fifth poem does not have a date; rather, it just bears the title, "Stop-and-Frisk." A police vehicle comes to a screeching halt and the narrator must get on the ground, despite the fact that he only fits a description and is not the criminal. Another man knows he will be pulled over, and prepares with an opened briefcase on the passenger seat and the word yes rolling about his tongue. The police officer won't tell you why you are getting out of the car and getting on the ground, although you both agree that you were not speeding. Less than a block from his house, a house the officer could not likely afford, his voice finally uttered, "Go ahead hit me motherfucker" (96). Yet, the narrator is well aware of the fact that "you can't drive yourself sane" (94, 96, 98). The narrator is told to stand naked after the charge of exhibiting speed is decided upon. You still are "not the guy and still you fit the description" (98). A half-burned black-and-white photo of black people in a crowd ushers in a segment entitled 'long form birth certificate' to complete this poem. It focuses on silence as a life-long inevitability, and finishes with a twisting of the oath that the President takes upon taking up office: "And what had been 'I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States ...' becomes 'I do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully ...'" (101).

The sixth poem, "August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,” begins by taking up the issue of silence in a different light. While trying to get away for a moment, the creaking stairs fill the sonic landscape; it is never silent. The narrator begins to converse with a painting of a male novelist and herself. The UK media covered the Rodney King-LA riots differently than the US. Images and accounts of looting took over, and the murder of an unarmed man by the police goes quietly away. The killing of Mark Duggan was not caught on tape, and a male colleague asks the narrator if she will write about it. You ask if he will, but this irritates him. The narrator asks, "how difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?" (104.) Whereas black responses were necessary, white ones were not. Somewhere on his face is "an answer to question" (105), which refers to an early quotation from Dostoevsky. A picture of a bookshelf covered in white busts of black men's faces ends this poem.

"October 10, 2006 / World Cup," the seventh poem, follows an escalation of events involving two players at a soccer match, one of which (Zinedine Zidane) is of Algerian ethnicity. Small strips that encompass every frame of the interaction accompany the text as it progresses. The first part of the event is another player hounding Zidane with racist epithets, and the second part is Zinedine head-butting the player in the chest. The narrator focuses on words as the worst form of segregation, calling them "simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred" (109). The poem is built up of paraphrases and quotations from Zinedine, Franz Fanon, William Shakespeare, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and many more. The aggregate of these quotations are the unmistakable difficulty of reproaching loaded words of racism with unimaginable equal force day in and day out.

The eighth poem in this section is called "July 29-August 18, 2014 / Making Room.” A woman stands on the subway even though there is a seat available next to a man. You take this seat. As soon as a different passenger gets off, the woman sits down. Your body has spoken for you, attempting to fill in this silence where the empty seat once was. You look at the man’s reflection in the window, which is shrouded in darkness from the subway tunnel. A woman down the train asks a man to switch seats so she can sit with her daughter or son. The man next to you finally turns toward you. If you are asked to move, you will tell them that you are "traveling as a family" (114).

The final two poems have no text. They are entitled "November 23, 2012 / In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis" and "February 15, 2014 / The Justice System.”


The longest section by a large margin, Section VI turns out to be around 60 pages, depending on the edition. It moves out from the abstract world of the last two sections and into the nitty-gritty details of historical events. As New Yorker writer Don Chiasson notes, Rankine has said that this is an attempt to "pull the lyric back into its realities." This is also the section most heavily criticized because of its attempts to tie politics, a highly fact-driven field, into poetry, a highly emotion-driven field. Its reception is mixed, however.

One of the section headers also indicates that the section’s words are comprised of CNN quotes. To keep with the trend of quoting, James Baldwin is frequently quoted in these passages as well. In fact, roughly half of this section is comprised of quotes from both African-American and white historical figures.

"Making Room" is used as a script for Public Fiction at Hammer Museum, whereas the others are used for a video collaboration with Rankine's husband, John Lucas. This is also the only poem told in the second person in this section. This may be to remind the reader that 'you' are always part of the story and the associated injustices. Like in the rest of Citizen, blackness is only mentioned where it is used through language. For example, in "Making Room,” the reader can easily identify the cause for the woman who is standing instead of sitting next to the man: he is black.

For those who know Zinedine Zidane, the soccer player mentioned in one of the stories, there may have been some confusion, because Zidane is a French man. His ethnicity, however, stems from a region of northern Algeria, whence many French people hail. His skin has perhaps a slightly more olive tone, but an American would never assert his blackness based only on visuals. This moment is important for Rankine and is included to show that racism, too, is not just skin deep. It encompasses the historical constructs surrounding citizens regardless of their seeming integration into a society. Even where borders seem to have been broken down, the traces remain.

The blank poems at the end can be seen as a protest to these events as well as an inability to respond. This is hardly the first time that the reader has confronted this tension.