Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Essay Questions

  1. 1

    To whom does Rankine refer when she uses the pronoun 'you' throughout the book?

    'You' is an open-ended pronoun, just as every other pronoun becomes throughout the book. Rankine demonstrates a detachment from the pronoun 'I' by juxtaposing the personal sense of self with the self that is entangled with history through race. Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that 'you' can hold no more meaning than 'I', because it has the same function: to address a single entity, which is actually a false conglomeration of incongruent factors. If 'you' refers to anything at all, it must be more than what we think of as a person whom the reader might address or who might address the reader. 'You' refers to the reader, the author, and everybody else alongside each of their historical selves. It is a wide-open invitation.

  2. 2

    How does Rankine use negative space in telling the story of Citizen?

    There are two prime examples of Rankine's brilliant utilization of negative space in this book. The first comes with the introduction of Serena Williams against a "sharp white background," to quote Zora Neale Hurston. The tennis court with its umpires and crowds serves as a negative space upon which Serena is cast like a shadow. The second example is a little more obvious: there are no words to two poems at the end of Section VI, indicating another sort of negative space. Rankine utilizes this effect in order to demonstrate both an inability to describe the heinousness of the acts indicated in the titles and also the inability to continue writing at all. This negative space shows exhaustion nearly to the point of giving up. But the book continues on, just as Serena returns to the court.

  3. 3

    Some critics have said that Citizen only presents content, whereas others have said that it has an agenda to teach readers a particular lesson. Is one of these opinions correct? Why or why not?

    Of course, neither critical opinion is "correct," but for the purpose of argument, we might say that Rankine's goal in writing this book was more aligned with that of the first critical opinion. Instead of telling the reader that race is a false entity, that there is no science behind it, and that all assumptions based on race are really based on immaterial and therefore incorrect judgment, she instead relies on example to demonstrate this lesson. By taking up an unbiased tone - one that simply details the emotional experience of one who is not racist, but who witnesses racist acts - Citizen accomplishes a presentation that speaks for itself without pressing an agenda.

  4. 4

    Pick an image from the pages of Citizen to dissect. Explain why it appears in a particular section and give a brief interpretation of what it might mean in the context of the poem.

    The Jim Crow Road sign placed atop a backward stop sign in a residential neighborhood appears in the first three pages of the text. Of particular importance is the line that precedes it: "The route is often associative" (1). The street sign appears in this section to demonstrate just that point. We have what seems to be an innocent scene, a quiet suburban neighborhood in the heart of America and what seems only to be a sign to indicate one's place on a map also indicates one's place outside of the map. The Jim Crow Road sign tells everybody where they are and where they should go, but depending on the color of one's skin, those destinations must be different. It foreshadows Rankine's heavy reliance on Zora Neale Hurston's powerful words: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background."

  5. 5

    What was the most surprising microaggression that you read in the text and why?

    The most surprising microaggression was the one incited by none other than the author herself. When the police had been called by her neighbor on her friend, who waited outside her home for her, the narrator's response was to ask her friend to simply make phone calls in the backyard next time. Since he is not the criminal that the narrator's neighbor thought he was, he said that he would call anywhere and anytime he liked. He was right. The narrator had been trying to protect him from others' racist tendencies without considering that this very act made a racist out of her.