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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 1 | Summary



Using the second person, the speaker sets up a scene where she feels too tired to sleep and begins wandering back through memories. These memories begin with school and move through adulthood. Each memory contains a race-related element. Her first memory begins with smell. A white girl in the speaker's class asks the speaker to let her cheat from the speaker's test paper. She tells the speaker that she smells good and looks "like a white person." In the next flash, the speaker describes the type of moment that drowns "like thunder." She gives the example of a good friend mistakenly calling her by the name of the friend's black housekeeper. These or other "wrong words" make the speaker sick, and she describes this experience like vomiting on her blouse. Suddenly, she doesn't smell good anymore; she smells rotten. But the blouse gets washed and smells good again. The implication lingers, however, that the hurtful words cannot be washed away. Both the words and the moment stink. In the midst of this vignette, Rankine includes a photo of a street sign that reads "Jim Crow Rd." The photo highlights the modern persistence of racism because the "Jim Crow Laws," or segregation laws, targeted the black population.

In another scenario, the speaker rides in a car with a new boss. The boss tells her that he is forced to hire her despite the fact that "there are so many great writers out there." This implies that he views her as an inferior writer who has been hired only because of her skin color. The speaker feels hurt and confused by the conversation but continues without confronting it. In another scene a woman she doesn't know joins the speaker for lunch at a café. The woman only wants to complain about how affirmative action kept her son from getting into the same college the speaker attended. The speaker's friend makes a distinction between "historical" selves and the "self self." The historical selves sometimes cause conflict to arise between black people and white people, even when they are friends.

A neighbor calls the police on the speaker's babysitter, insisting that there is a threatening man outside. The neighbor apologizes for his mistake, and the speaker asks the babysitter to talk in the backyard next time. The babysitter responds that he may talk on the phone wherever he wants. In another memory, the speaker has a confrontation with a man who called some teenagers "niggers." He brushes her off. The speaker watches a man knock down someone's child in the subway. The man walks off without apologizing, and the speaker feels for the little "unseen" boy. In the final scene of the poem, the speaker goes to the house of a trauma therapist for a first appointment. The therapist screams at her to go away, assumedly because the speaker is black. When the speaker explains she is a patient, the therapist apologizes. The final photo in this chapter is of a sculpture of a caribou with a crying girl's face.


In this first chapter of Citizen, Rankine establishes the style that she will continue for the rest of the book. She writes vignettes and snippets of memory using the second person. However, the you in the narrative does not refer to the reader; it is the author's way of presenting her autobiographical experience. The use of second person here serves to challenge the reader to step into the author's shoes. Rankine draws the reader into her vulnerability, pain, and awkwardness, forging a connection between herself and her reader.

Rankine writes in a style of poetry called "prose poetry." The prose poem is distinct because it does not use conventional line breaks. Instead, prose-poem lines wrap in standard paragraphs and thus look like prose on the page. Prose poetry still incorporates poetic elements, such as alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm. Rankine's poetry typically takes the form of the prose poem, and the pieces in Citizen present no exception. The prose poem is effective in Citizen because it is both poetic and presents an accessible narrative.

Rankine's poem may read like prose, but it incorporates many of the conventional elements of poetry. These elements lend power and beauty to the writing. For example, an instance of alliteration in the first paragraph immediately sets the poetic tone of the writing. Rankine writes "its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds." This sentence is laden with alliteration and assonance with its use of the starting letter d and the vowels e and i. The sentence is also incredibly image-focused, describing the moon behind a "low, grey ceiling" of clouds. The images of smell and rain repeat throughout this poem, both in a literal sense and a metaphorical one. A classmate tells the author she smells good, and later in the poem a terrible "smell" comes from "wrong words." "Wrong words" alludes to cruel or racist comments that get under the speaker's skin. The author describes rain falling and also uses the image of rain to describe other situations, such as "irritation beginning to rain down." These repeating images, in both concrete and metaphorical form, tie together the author's flashes of memory.

All of these vignettes deal with the topic of race in one way or another. Most of them detail memories of outright racism or microaggressions committed against the speaker or someone around her. What's distinct about most of these memories is a lack of accountability. The people who hurt the speaker or others around her never acknowledge what they do. A friend doesn't acknowledge her mistake or the pain it causes the speaker when she accidentally calls the speaker by her housekeeper's name. However, the speaker also acknowledges that she never holds her friend accountable either and asks herself why not. The repeating scenarios of feeling paralyzed or being brushed off connect deeply to the speaker's hesitation to hold perpetrators of racism accountable.

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