Both a motif and a symbol, the sigh represents a disadvantaged disposition to the world. The sigh is in direct conflict with the moan, which is a more acceptable means of communicating sorrow in society, because sighing seems to be more upsetting. For each sigh, the world responds with "stop that," and yet the narrator continues to sigh (71). The motivic value of the sigh reminds the reader of the emotional experience of the narrator, often addressed as 'you' instead of by name. In a sense, the response to Citizen is included within the text itself through these sighs.
Initially brought about by describing the various racially charged incidents in the career of renowned tennis-player, Serena Williams, the game comes to represent much more than the sport the reader may know. The line judges observe and address Serena's black body, and the whole complex seems to reject her presence. Fouls are called when they are not deserved; outrage ensues at times; and emotions are bottled up at other times. Serena boycotts certain tournaments and seeks victory at others. Tennis is a symbol for the black person's experience in the world. Coming to court is the same as taking on America's racial problem.
Blue light (Symbol)
This symbol appears when Rankine brings the reader into less concrete examples of racial tension. No longer bound by time or space, a blue light appears out of the distance. The narrator seems to want to be bathed in it, but this will not happen. The blueness represents many things: blues music (born out of the sorrows of American blacks), a vision of beauty that excludes black people, and the blue sky, a symbol of the American dream that does not seem to have room for black people. The fact that this blueness is in the form of light means that one cannot ignore it: our eyes are always drawn to the light, for better or worse.
Leaves occupy a similar abstract space as the blue light. Rankine says leaves are "more vibrant wet," "even the dead ones" (16). This is meant to symbolize the plight of black people in America and the wetness of optimism. The dead leaves can be thought of as simply historical figures who sought racial equality. They blow in the wind of a storm and Rankine's poetry is stirring more storm clouds in from the horizon. When the storm is not present, it presents a "calm you can't digest" (89).
Pronoun Repetition (Motif)
“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done—” (174). The motif of repeated and altered pronouns is meant to symbolize a connection between all people affected by the racial tensions in America. The conflict of understanding one's identity in this climate pushes Rankine to reconsider what "I" or "you" really means. In the end, they are rendered meaningless and this slew of different pronouns comes to replace these words when possible.
Bloodshot Eyes (Symbol and Motif)
“On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush” (107).
“Yesterday called to say we were together and you were bloodshot and again the day carried you across a field of hours, deep into dawn, back to now, where you are thankful for” (89).
Bloodshot eyes are a symbol for the tiredness and unpresentability of black people in America. The pink sky is in direct opposition to the desirable blue light and becomes associated with this bloodshot symbol. Bloodshot eyes call attention to the instruments of sight, and indicate that perhaps the subject has been desperately trying to see and has worn out the eyes. Drug use, a possible escape for the condemned, may also result in bloodshot eyes. As Rankine mentions frequently, the black body is an injured body. The bloodshot eyes are just one symptom of a greater problem.
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.