Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Analysis of Section II


A picture of Hennessy Youngman (aka Jayson Musson) accompanies the first page of Section II. On his YouTube channel, this YouTube artist encourages black artists to watch the Rodney King video while working to create an angrier exterior. The narrator explains that this is meant to uncover the expectations of commodified anger in black artists. Therefore any real anger, such as that experienced in Section I, cannot produce sellable art, but only loneliness.

This type of anger provides presence where erasure occurs. However, it can also be seen not as anger, but rather as insanity. One example of this is at the 2009 Women's US Open final when Serena Williams allowed her rage to be seen. At this point, Rankine places the reader in the point of view of a posh tennis-watcher: "Oh my God, she's gone crazy, you say to no one" (27).

Zora Neale Hurston once said, "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background"; the narrator uses this statement to frame the situation of Serena being a black player in an overwhelmingly white sport. The most notorious oppositional force in her career has been the umpire Mariana Alves, who made five bad calls against Serena in one match back in 2004. The narrator suggests that it must have been Serena's black body that was "getting in the way of Alves's sight line" (29). The next year, the tournaments would install line-calling technology to challenge umpire callings via replay.

The body has a memory of its own; when Serena is back on the court, she will be watched by a line judge who calls her out for stepping on the line during a critical serve. The announcers denounce the call, and numerous replays cannot indicate the moment of foul. Serena explodes at the line judge, having been thrown against a sharp white background. She is insane.

On September 11, 2011, Serena goes after the Grand Slam cup once again. Some speculate that she wants to prove her "red-blooded American patriotism" to become "beloved by the tennis world" (31). She hits a swift ace down the line and yells in celebration just as the ball passes her opponent's hitting zone, making Serena's shout a foul. Serena confronts the umpire and we start to think this might be a repeat of 2004's bad calls.

When Serena won at the 2012 Olympics, announcers said that she was "Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world... akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church" (33).

A picture of a human form bent over and covered in a tapestry of sewn flowers interrupts the page. Hennessy Youngman, the YouTube figure from earlier in the chapter, also made a video about how to become a successful artist. He says that a black artist cannot paint a flower without it becoming a slavery flower, thereby creating a relationship between the white viewer and black property rather than black people.

When told that the dance she had performed was called a Crip Walk, a gangster dance, Serena asked if she looked like a gangster. The comment is taken and received lightly, in a day's fun. She went on to win every match in 2012, and commentators would "remark on her ability to hold it together" despite questionable calls as usual (34). Although Serena continued to boycott the Indian Wells, a competition whose crowd was overtly racist, her seemingly new attitude was difficult to parse. Was it dissociation from the previous Serena who had been thrown against a sharp white background, or a truly calmer and impenetrable psyche?

The section ends with Serena's tennis opponent, Wozniacki, playfully embodying Serena’s physical attributes by stuffing cloth in her shirt and shorts on the court. A picture of her smiling blond figure accompanies the final page.


This section directs its focus toward the public image of the black body. The YouTube artist gives an example of what it takes for a black image to succeed against a sharp white background, while Serena, a far better known 'black body', fails to conform to this image. At times her genuine rage comes off the wrong way, as if curated by the image that Youngman puts forth, and at other times she protests against her own rage. Questionable calls line this section in a similar way to the way in which microaggressions line the first section.

At the core of this section lie deep conflicts. Where anger is justified, it should not be expected or commodified. And where art is a way of controlling one's own understanding of the self, it becomes used by the masses to reassemble the previous notion of that person's self. The human form covered in a flower suit shows that the skin can be hidden and that art can, at great cost, undo preconceived identity. Nobody can look at this form, covered in flowers, and make an assessment based on the 'historical self', because a flower person does not have a history. The black body, on the other hand, has a deeply ingrained history from the moment it is born to the earth.

The last analytical problem in this section is one that remains open at the end of the chapter: what do we make of Wozniacki dressing up like Serena? Is it a playful imitation of an opponent, as Novak Djokovic has become renowned for in Men's tennis? Or is it racially charged, as we see by the stuffing of the bra and the butt of the underpants? Are these attributes things we associate with black bodies, or just with Serena? Can we separate the two? The narrator has no answer for the reader, yet we feel that somehow this dress-up is pinned between the two opposing forces at play throughout the book.