Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Themes


There are several different vehicles that carry identity, as we discover by reading Citizen. One of those vehicles is who we truly are - the 'self-self', as Rankine refers to it. But this identity, the one with which we all identify most, is encumbered by several other identities which are placed upon us based on physical and historical contexts. The 'historical self' is perhaps the most troubling in America, because with it comes connotations of personal worth and hierarchical social dynamics with whiteness on top and blackness on bottom. This is presented most clearly throughout the book through skin color, but also includes things such as hair texture. Another identity is formed by culture. Although this book deals mostly with Americans (Rankine herself is from Jamaica), there are several different cultures that co-exist within America. When a man refers to a couple of black teenagers playing around in a Starbucks as "niggers" (p. 25), one might assume that his inappropriate use of this loaded word refers not only to the color of their skin, but also to their style of communication - their culture. Identity weaves in and out of every interaction and serves as the ground from which every other aspect of life must sprout from in Rankine's Citizen. Its significance cannot be overstated.


Microaggressions, those unintentional or just unsubtle acts of racism occurring in everyday life, are just one of many forms of judgment present in this book. While some characters are hung up on not being able to make their own judgments under institutionalized anti-racist policies such as affirmative action, others mistake negative judgment of character for prudence. One example of the latter comes in when the narrator's neighbor calls the police on someone who she thinks is a loiterer (or perhaps even a thief), when in reality, the person is the narrator's friend waiting for her to come home. This misunderstanding, born out of good will, is simply a misjudgment based on negative unjustified stereotypes. Although judgments must be made in some situations, Rankine's book shows us that we must be careful to understand the facts grounding (or contradicting) our own judgments. It is a mistake to assume anything about all people of any race.

Power via Sports

The literal and metaphorical tennis match held throughout the book gives us a glimpse into the life of Serena Williams as well as the life of black Americans. Whereas the umpires and line judges continue to underestimate their own personal biases against Serena for her black body, it is clear that many calls are utterly unjustified. She keeps calm at times, but at other times cannot help but release her rage at the rigged system. We do not even know how to understand her opponent's playful costume in which she stuffs her jersey and shorts to look more like Serena, because of how much flack Serena has already gotten from others in the game. The motif within the tennis match is the commitment to continue playing, just as it is with Zidane on the soccer field. Rankine says, "I don't know how to end what doesn't have an ending" (188), and that is why one continues to come to the court.


Just as history plays into identity without permission, history also embeds itself in the products of black labor. The section about Hennessy Youngman's assertion that a flower painted by a black artist will be seen as a "slavery flower, flower de Amistad" (46) is the core of this issue. We must leap away from history in this case: history cannot continue in any one direction so long as black persons are associated even in the most mundane manner with slavery. In short, "the past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow" (84).

Personal Lament

This theme, like identity, serves as one of the grounds from which everything must sprout. Perhaps lament is not the right word, because it is more of an explanation for a lousy feeling. It is as if every story is trying to heal the constant headache experienced by those of color in America. In a way, it is not an explanation either, because it does not explore the interactions as if in pursuit of sympathy for the racist perpetrator, but rather asserts the presence of racism as it is, not trying to explain it at all. To explain it is to justify it and that is the farthest thing from the goal of this book. The explanation is only for the headache. The various narrators describe the details of their pain through personal lament, for lack of better words.

Presentation as Proof

As mentioned in the 'Personal Lament' theme, the burden of justification for racist acts lies beyond these narrators. The justification's facts are certainly in question, and that is where the theme of 'Presentation as Proof' comes in. Some critics have complained of Rankine's over-reliance on the poetic form in national-scale aggressions, citing that "poetry is a terrible method for transmitting real information... The elegy for Trayvon Martin works because Rankine imagines, inhabits, and replays the actual events, of which we too have some knowledge. The elegy for Mark Duggan works insofar as it portrays a social friction between two middle-class artists, but I’m not sure it goes much further than that. Its too-smooth equation of the UK and LA riots, of Mark Duggan and Rodney King, flattens and reduces detail in a way familiar in political language but difficult to work successfully into poetry" (Laird, "A New Way of Writing About Race"). Whether this method is successful in all applications or not, it empowers personal experience in a way that has profoundly affected literature.

Sharp White Backgrounds

Rankine quotes Zora Neale Hurston several times throughout the book, but one of the most poignant and frequently cited of these quotes is: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." This is especially evident in sports like Tennis, which have a thoroughly posh white history, but it is also evident in everyday circumstances, such as when speaking with colleagues in London or on an airplane or near police vehicles. The sharp white background is American life; for whites, this background is basically invisible until they can see from a black perspective, like the many perspectives offered in this book.