Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Analysis of Section I


Rankine begins the first section by asking the reader to recall a time of utter listlessness. In this memory, a secondary memory is evoked, but this time it is the author's memory. You are in Catholic school and a girl who you can't remember is looking over your shoulder as you take a test. Sister Evelyn does not know about this cheating arrangement. A picture appears on the next page interrupting Rankine's poem, something that the reader will get used to as the text progresses. It shows the back of a stop sign with a street sign on top labeled 'Jim Crow Rd'.

Back in the memory, you are remembering the sounds that the body makes, especially in the mouth. A cough launches another memory into your consciousness. A friend called you by the name of her black housekeeper several times. She never acknowledged her mistake, but eventually corrected it.

Words can enter the day like "a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse" (15). This reminds you of a conversation contrasting the pros and cons of sentences beginning with ‘yes, and’ or ‘yes, but’. ‘Yes, and’ leads to a narrow pathway with no forks in the road. Suddenly you smell good again, like in Catholic school.

It's raining outside and the leaves on the trees are more vibrant because of it. It's a moment like any other. We categorize such moments just as we categorize the incongruous things that people say and who said them. One example is the employer who says he had to hire "a person of color when there are so many great writers out there" (15). The narrator contemplates why this person feels comfortable saying this in front of her. Best to drive through the moment instead of dwelling on it. This reminds the narrator of a medical term "John Henryism–for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism" (16). The physiological costs are high.

On a plane, a woman and her daughter are reluctant to sit next to you in the row. On campus, another woman remarks that because of affirmative action her son couldn't go to the college that the narrator and the woman's father and grandfather had attended. Her son went to another prestigious university instead. A friend mentions a theoretical construct of the self divided into the 'self self' and the 'historical self'. Although this is meant to help avoid misunderstandings, oftentimes too much is understood.

A neighbor calls while you are watching the film The House We Live In to say that "a menacing black guy" (20) is walking around your house. No, this is just a friend of yours, you explain to your neighbor, but it's too late. Your neighbor has already called the police. When you get back, apologies are exchanged and you tell your friend to use the backyard next time he needs to make a phone call. He says he will call wherever he wants. "Yes, of course, you say" (20).

A man in line refers to boisterous teenagers in the Starbucks as ‘niggers’. You say there's no need to "get all KKK on them,” to which he responds "now there you go" (21). The rain begins to fall.

When a man knocks over a woman's son in the subway, he just keeps walking. The woman grabs his arm and tells him to apologize. A group of men stand in solidarity behind the woman as she solicits his apology.

You are told to use the back entrance of her house because this is where patients go to get trauma counseling. The door is locked so you go to the front door where you are met with a fierce shout. The therapist is yelling for you to leave, and you manage to tell her that you have an appointment. "I am so sorry, so, so sorry" is her response (23).


The first section of Citizen combines dozens of racist interactions into one cohesive chapter. Memories are told through a second-person point of view, inviting the reader to experience them firsthand instead of at a distance. At a glance, the interactions seem to be simple misunderstandings - friends mistaken for strangers, frustrations incorrectly categorized as racial, or just honest mistakes. But when the interactions are put together, the reader can understand the "headache-producing" (13) capacity of these interactions. As the chapter progresses, so does the strength of the negative feeling produced. In the very last story, the racist realization is shouted down on the narrator. No longer can 'you' abide by these misunderstandings, because you understand them too well.

Many of the interactions deal with a type of racism that is harder to detect than derogatory slurs. These are called microaggressions. Many of the interactions also involve an implicit invitation to take part in these microaggressive acts. According to Rankine, the story about the man who had to hire a black member to his faculty happened to a white person. Microaggressions exist within and without black communities, among people of color and people of privilege.

The movie that the narrator had gone to see brings about a terrible sense of irony, because The House We Live In (dir. Eugene Jarecki, 2003) is about racial injustice. It is part of a 3-part PBS documentary series called "RACE - The Power of an Illusion.” Whereas Citizen focuses on the minute-to-minute racism of everyday life, this documentary series focuses on systematized racial inequalities. Both this series and Citizen combine intentional and unintentional racism to awaken the viewers to such injustices present in their own lives.

The childhood memories are particularly interesting because they give the reader a sense of otherness right from the start. This narrator, who seems to be a version of Rankine herself at this moment, remembers a different time with a different racial make-up than the one in which she currently resides. In a way, Citizen becomes a modern manifestation of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the United States from a French perspective in 1835 in Democracy in America. But even Tocqueville could not estimate the extent to which microaggressions would come to rule the lives of many in the states.