Citizen: An American Lyric


The cover image of a hoodie is the work of David Hammons, first exhibited in 1993. Hammons' "In the Hood" is a disembodied hood from a generic dark green hoodie, mounted on a wall like a hunting trophy. Wire props up the rim of the hood, so it holds its shape as if it were covering an invisible head".[5] Although it was exhibited over twenty years ago, it is a reminder of Trayvon Martin's death because he was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by George Zimmerman. The "hoodie" acts as a symbol of fear; in the case that young black men wearing a hoodie are stereotyped as dangerous and suspect, a theme that Rankine covers later on in chapter 6.

The first image in chapter one of Rankine's book is an image with a street named Jim Crow Road. The original website from where this image originated states, "In 2007, there's still a place called "Jim Crow Road." It runs through a typical southern neighborhood, past a strip mall with a Curves franchise, past a few gated McMansions, a small country store, and the white house's seen here. The road crosses behind an Elementary school, right past the playground. One wonders if the kids there are still being taught what Jim Crow means, in Hall County, which adjoins Forsyth County, known for its infamous "sundown town" that existed well until the '80s" (Murphy).[6] Rankine attacks a different part of your brain when using an image, and her reasons for that is to interject abstractness to force you to rethink the historical picture, and ask the reader to go out of their way to do some of their own research. She does this to not only keep interest but for you to do thinking on your own. This image came from either Georgia or Florida from an upper-middle-class neighborhood. An inherently racist street name is followed by white houses, a white fence, and a white car, a historical reference to the name of the road, Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States during the reconstruction period until 1965. The image comes after the story where Rankine tells about how in catholic school the teacher did not notice the white girl cheating off her paper, referencing one central her themes on how blacks are seen as invisible. Her reasons are to show a literal setting of the type of neighborhood she is from and is talking about. The image reinforces the idea that even in a suburban area, where if anyone has money white or black, that you can not escape the racism being that a street with that name actually exists. It provides to Rankine's argument that racism is an invisible institution, as an infrastructure of the community desensitizes racism from the people living there, because they have lived there so long the do not see the problem, adding to the bigger picture of how this upper-middle-class neighborhood is similar to middle class America, representing the ongoing problems not only in the book but in America.

The illustration on page 87 shows a young black male, appears to be no older than 16 and is filled with vibrant colors consisting of yellow, blue, green, and orange. Toyin herself says that, “this piece actually speaks of identity and how malleable it is. Its not something that you can really pin point with certainty, its very kind of…suspect I think” (Odutola Shaiman Gallery[7]). This image follows a heavy chapter about Hurricane Katrina, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan, James Anderson, as well as a detailed description of the infamous Zinedine Zidane head-butt. This chapter included the struggles that the black community as a whole underwent during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Rankine uses a quote from a local person present in New Orleans during the hurricane, “…it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that” (Citizen, Pg. 83). The glare which resonates from the young boy’s eyes suggests an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and distress similar to the majority of the black population; however, the boy’s conscious decision to keep his chin elevated suggests that he has an optimistic view of life yet. The chapter touched upon an entire community of people feeling as if they were the last to be saved in an emergency situation, if at all. Another survivor on the scene stated, “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us” (Citizen, Pg. 84). “I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come. He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment”(Citizen, Pg. 84). In a separate yet very close analysis and comparison of this illustration, Toyin Odutola created this picture and placed a multitude of muted colors versus brighter, more iridescent colors to illustrate the creative energy channels flowing through the young boy’s body. These channels represent the many experiences that he has gone through, both conscious and unconscious. The dark background also emphasizes the vibrant colors, forcing the viewer to strain their eyes, just as this boy has had to do growing up with no standard model to interpret his experiences. The illustration creates an almost stained glass affect, exhibiting the variations of the boy’s experiences thus far. Further thought brings you even deeper into the idea that these colors represent the more or less tarnished parts of the boy’s view of the world and himself.

Cerebral Caverns is an art piece portraying thirty human-sized white plaster heads lined up in a wooden cabinet with four shelves and glass doors. The artist, Radcliffe Bailey, is "a descendant of former slaves and Civil War soldiers who fought for the North" (Jackson, Cadance). Bailey's work is known to use themes and concepts from his own life and his family's history of involvement in ending slavery (Jackson, Cadance). The piece "recalls the infancy of anthropological and ethnological studies during the nineteenth century" where scientist such as Samuel G. Morton used "human skulls as evidence to support theories of racial hierarchies" (Wolf, Alana). Skulls like the heads in the cabinet were used in scientific attempts to justify racism and slavery. The heads deny this concept of scientific racism "by simultaneously bearing distinctive... African facial features associated with blackness while [also being] cast in a bright white finish" (Wolf, Alana). Rankine places an image of the cabinet in chapter six of Citizen following the Mark Duggan excerpt on page 119. Rankine used Bailey's piece because it reminded her of a line in Citizen that states "the past has ‘turned [our] flesh into its own cupboards’" (Believermag[8]). Rankine is relating the black body to the wooden cabinet in Bailey's art piece. Through the image, Rankine points out that African Americans "have had to hold the history of this violence," slavery, and racism "in our bodies for centuries" just as the heads in the image have likewise been preserved on the shelves of the cabinet for centuries and used in support of racism, slavery, and violence (Believermag). Rankine also relates the placement of the heads to "the way bodies are stacked on top of one another in slave ships" (Believermag). She believes that "the heads are speaking to each other, almost as if they are asking the question, ‘Did he just say that?’ ‘Did I just hear what I think I heard?’" (Believermag). These questions refer to responses made by Rankine throughout Citizen after instances of microaggressions. The way in which both the black body and the heads hold a history of racism and question instances of microaggressions supports Rankine's purpose of relating the history of slavery and racism to the present form of racism in the form of microaggressions.

Joseph Mallard William Turner's The Slave Ship is displayed on page 160 and the final image of the book. It is a reminder of the trips taken in the 1800s across the Atlantic which carried many black slaves. While that took place in the 1800s, the image being presented at the end of the book, showing African slaves being discarded into the ocean, Rankine seems to infer Americans have not moved forward from the days of slavery and still value black bodies as less than, or simply cargo that can be discarded. "The racial system taught Americans to associate blackness with slavery and to accept this as the " natural " place of African Americans".[9] The theme of black bodies being valued as less than is presented numerous times throughout the book.

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