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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 4 | Summary



The speaker describes what she does to make it through each day. Sometimes she "moan[s] like deer," and often she finds herself sighing. The sigh is a natural way of breathing, an "exhale of an ache." The speaker remarks that the world recommends forgetting her pain and suffering. The world also tells her not to wear sunglasses inside. However, sunglasses soothe her head, which aches from a buildup of feeling. For the speaker, the past builds up, and she is haunted by questions like, "Did I hear what I think I heard?"

Throughout this contemplation, the speaker is watching tennis on television with the sound muted. She turns the sound on when something goes wrong, and she sees the player get upset with the umpire. The umpire treats the player "as if regarding an unreasonable child." In the end of the chapter, the speaker is pressing her hands over her eyes against a memory-induced headache.


Memory is the primary topic of this chapter: it connects each of the pieces and creates unity in them. The theme of the body is common to each of the chapters in Citizen. In this section, Rankine investigates some of the connections between memory and body. The sighs and breathing are the speaker's physical way of coping with memory and the pain or frustration of the past. "Past" in this chapter does not refer only to the immediate past of the speaker but also to the historical past of the black American community. The pain of this past, on both the micro and macro levels, is sometimes too much for the speaker to bear. The physical manifestations of this are headaches and sighs. Rankine calls the body a "cupboard" for the past.

There is a sense that the memories and their physical manifestations somehow inhibit the speaker and rob her of a freedom. This is symbolic because of the history of black America and its root in slavery. The community is still bound by the pain of the past and also by systematic racism. The speaker alludes to this when she remarks that her sighs are "not the iteration of a free being." Even the speaker's feelings are outside her control; they're "something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds." Somehow, feeling and memory have hijacked the speaker's existence, so that she feels pulled this way and that by them.

In tennis, the speaker finds relief from her thoughts. The rhythm of tennis, with the sound turned off, helps her be empty of memories for a while. Rankine writes "here, there are no memories to remember, just the ball going back and forth." The hypnotic movement of the game helps the speaker step outside the confines of memory and feeling. Though it isn't a "cure for feeling," the speaker admits that it is a "displacement of effort, will, and disappointment." But the speaker also sees this emptiness as problematic in the sense that the external world tells her to let go and "move forward" from her memory and disappointment. The "external net" that shores up feeling or disappointment is an image of the world, or more specifically of white society. When Serena Williams, the player whose match the speaker is watching, has a conflict with the umpire, the image of the net recurs. She dumps "ball after ball into the net" in an attempt to "put her feelings behind her." This scene represents Williams's attempt to hold back her feelings and the greater history of pain and disappointment in order to continue the match. Rankine is making the point that the "world," or white society, gives the message to black people that they should move on from the past. But this is painful and impossible when the past repeats itself every day.

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