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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 2 | Summary



Rankine introduces the YouTube video series called "Art Thoughtz," created by Hennessy Youngman, including a screenshot from one of his videos. She uses the concept behind these videos—to encourage black artists to "market" their anger—as a launching-off point to talk about racism and anger. Underneath this "sellable anger," she writes, is often real anger and loneliness. This anger can sometimes explode and make a watcher think the angry person is crazy. Rankine recounts her reaction to watching tennis player Serena Williams lose her temper in the Women's U.S. Open semifinal. She admits thinking in the moment that Williams had "gone crazy" but then she asks what "a victorious or defeated black woman's body in a historically white space [might] look like."

This question haunts the rest of this piece as Rankine details Williams's movement through the tennis world from 2004 until 2016. In 2004 an umpire blatantly made multiple bad calls, causing Williams to lose the match. At that time, Williams contained herself to finger shaking and saying "no" multiple times. At the 2009 U.S. Open, however, Williams lost her temper at a bad call and swore at the umpire. This earned her a lot of criticism. Rankine points out that this loss of temper was a buildup of anger finally boiling over after weathering a lifetime of racism.

Rankine paints the portrait of Serena Williams spending her career battling the voices talking about her body as if they own it. Yet, Williams is conversely never recognized as the ideal American sportswoman, despite being one of the best tennis players in the world. In this section, Rankine includes a photo of a wearable fabric sculpture, and a photograph of tennis player Caroline Wozniacki making fun of Serena Williams. In the second photograph, Wozniacki has stuffed towels in her shirt and skirt in a caricature of Williams. Rankine points out that this drew little outrage from the press, but Williams becoming angry at a bad call prompted censure. Placing these incidents side by side highlights the hypocrisy of the situation and the willingness of society to turn a blind eye to racism.


This piece reads much more like an essay than the previous piece does. In it, Rankine discusses the "anger" that wells up in black people, caused by racism and its direct effects. She examines this type of anger specifically through the experiences of Serena Williams, the acclaimed American tennis player. This anger, according to Rankine, is extremely isolating. She calls it "ordinary and daily anger," as opposed to anger that is manufactured so that a black artist may sell themselves as an artist. This anger exists in the interplay between ownership, perception, visibility, and erasure. Ownership of one's own self, be it an idea or one's body, is a struggle for the black American. In Williams's case, the media and the public all clamor to take ownership of her body, objectifying and stereotyping it. In the case of many black artists, the problem is how American consumers always view their idea or product in the context of their blackness.

Rankine also sees the body as a "threshold" for experiences that affect the person inside it. The body is the means through which words are received. In the context of the black community, the body becomes a means for receiving racism, microaggression, and abuse. Having a black body changes the way society perceives a person. Williams's body is "trapped in a racial imaginary." She is more than her body, but society treats her according to various typecast expectations surrounding her body. Her anger erupts because suddenly the rules that everyone else is judged by no longer seem to apply to her.

In the course of this piece, Rankine delves into the concept of visibility and erasure. Visibility is something that most people desire and that is often denied to the black community. When a black American woman like Serena Williams does become visible in public, Rankine illustrates that this does not "alter the ways [she] is perceived." She is visible, but she is perceived via the stereotype of what society says a black woman is like. Her real self is both affected and erased by this perception. The public eye allows no space for her to be a complex person with a complex history, but instead seeks the most race-based possible explanation for anything she does. This is doubly problematic because these assumptions are not based on a nuanced understanding of Williams's experience as a black woman in America but on a stereotype. These assumptions help create the "moments lived through" that Rankine says "resilience does not erase."

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