Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Analysis of Section VII


At times you feel that you can float above your ache. Before even understanding what 'you' means, you are 'you'. You sit between existence and non-existence, as do all the pronouns. Patience bridges the you and 'you', the you that is addressable as soon as you wake up. In public, you are only half owned by the world, which is somewhat reassuring. The body can drown when it enters the earth, so you must care for it viciously.

Mouths and voices become disentangled when they address 'you' and your body. No memory should live in your body right away, and yet when you lay it down, it lays into those bodies. You wish that somebody could call out to you and not 'you'. Of all the things you are not, they seem to indicate that you are injured above all. The injury is "feeling you don't belong so much / to you-" (125).

A picture of watercolors, ink, and photographic cutouts shows a red fetus with shells for eyes, and arms grasping the neck, jaw, and mouth.

The waitress hands your card back to your friend instead of you, so you ask your friend what else her privilege gets her. "Oh, my perfect life, she answers" (127). You both laugh so hard that the restaurant starts to smile with you.

A father watches his child play in the street with other children. You cannot tell which of the many children are his, because it seems they are all part of his scope.

It's a new day and instead of humming, you just sigh. Trayvon Martin is on every radio station in the car. You and your partner stay in the car for a few more moments. "What feels more than feeling?", the narrator asks as if she is missing something obvious (131). Friends point out that our feelings don't necessarily have to be tied to what is, but this invites the question: what does 'what is' really mean?

We come to a time in which we want to love the world but have dust in our eyes. A life is supposed to add up to something, but words keep getting in the way. In order to remember, one must breathe and "to breathe you have to create a truce-- / a truce with the patience of a stethoscope" (135).

It is hard to tell stories without an ending. When a woman pulls up next to the narrator in her car, she decides to park elsewhere. The narrator does not follow her to ask about it because she has to go to the tennis court. There is no winning on this court, just a lesson.

This section ends with an impressionistic painting of a burgundy and brown sunset over a grimy harbor. On the next page, a close-up of the harbor shows a black person's leg with a rope around the foot among many dead fish in the dirt.


Section VII escapes the prose-poetic form of the rest of the book, using a more classic poetic emphasis on lines and line breaks. Although Rankine ruminates on similar themes, they are cast in a different light in this section. Suddenly, 'you' is a word to say out loud and to recite and to ponder from afar, as the poet might in a reading.

The section carries on the bleak tone of the rest of the book until, out of nowhere, a moment of joy explodes from the pages. With the joy comes a massive irony, though: the restaurant laughs along with Rankine and her white comrade without knowing that this laughter stemmed from a racist microaggression. In a reading at Harvard College, Rankine noted that she was searching through the book to find an uplifting moment for the reading, but could only find this one. Like the ending that has no ending, this somewhat positive experience serves mostly to open up the question of how to encourage positivity without ignoring issues.

A particularly interesting notion raised in this section addresses the critics of Section VI: emotions don't have to be tied to what is, because 'what is' is more in question than one might think given the inequities in racial treatment. Indeed, Citizen seeks to give the reader a portrait of the hidden life of a black person. As Newt Gingrich stated during the 2016 election cycle, white Americans "don't understand being black in America.” This is a keystone to the relevance of this book, even two years after its publication.

The final words of this section bring back to mind Serena and her black body on the court. The narrator uses sport to indicate the metaphor of perseverance in the face of adversity, but acknowledges that winning titles is not the end of the game. In fact, there is no end. There is only practice, only showing up, and only continuing to play.