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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 5 | Summary



The introductory phrase to this chapter, "Words work as release," establishes the chapter's focus on poetry and the power of words. This poem explores the relationship between words and identity. In the following pages, Claudia Rankine uses wordplay to investigate the nuances and context of the word "black." She uses it in the phrase "hold everything black" in place of back to subvert expectations and imply a sense of identity.

In the next chunk of the poem, Rankine discusses the use of first- and second-person pronouns, acknowledging her choice to write in the second person. The first-person "I" is problematic, according to Rankine. The speaker is told that the first person "can't pull [her] together," which alludes to a struggle with identity, or what is in a person. Identity is deeply connected to history, and the speaker calls the past "a life sentence." This implies that the speaker, or the black community in general, cannot escape the prison of the past. Rankine includes a photograph of a piece titled "Black Angel" by artist Mel Chin in these passages. The author describes Chin's work as seeking to "[unleash] the potentiality of images trapped by historical context." The final passages of the poem take on an increasingly fragmented tone, until it ends with the question "whose are you?"

In the final few pages of Chapter 5, the speaker shifts back to her recounting of microaggressions. She is skipped in line by a man who literally does not see her. A man at a bar shows her a picture of his black wife, wanting to connect with the speaker over her and his wife's mutual blackness. The speaker drinks wine and goes to the gym to cope, trying to shake off the weight of these encounters.


In this poem, Rankine investigates the use of poetry to express and examine difficult issues such as identity. In order to do this, she shifts purposefully to a more recognizable poetic style in this chapter, employing line breaks and more metaphorical language. Because this chapter deals with identity confusion and erasure, as well as how words can affect these issues, the poem is correspondingly chaotic and unclear at times.

The presence of many contradictions in this piece is significant. These contradictions allude to a range of issues. On one level, identity, which is such a central topic to this poem, is full of contradictions. This type of internal contradiction is suggested in phrases like "dusk at dawn" and "'I' is supposed to hold what is not there until it is." In the second sentence, the "I" refers to the first-person pronoun, which the speaker finds difficult and elusive. On an entirely different level, however, contradictions also indicate the absurd nature of the expectations placed on black Americans by larger white society. Even when black people "play by the rules," they often find themselves cheated or accused of breaking the rules—or the rules are changed on them. Rankine gives an example of these in the previous chapter about Serena Williams. The commands "stand where you are," "anyway, sit down," and finally "why are you standing?" presented in an authoritarian voice, reflect this type of absurdity.

Rankine continues to explore the idea that words can affect identity. Identity extends both to the internal and external person, which is significant because the social perception of the body is the root cause of racist behavior. There is an expectation in white society of what blackness is—how black people talk, their strengths and weaknesses. This expectation activates upon seeing a black body, and that expectation works to rewrite the black person's identity to conform to a stereotype. Rankine describes this in her lines "words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains." She is explaining the process of erasure, though she also uses the words "redact" and "disguise" to talk about how words can be used as weapons to repress, rewrite, and erase inconvenient realities. Words "cover" and "encode" black bodies, giving the speakers or writers of those words ownership over them. Black American identity lives somewhere between a struggle against stereotypes, erasure, history, and a "white background." To this effect, the first-person "I," which represents the self, becomes more difficult to pin down. There is so much external noise affecting a person's perception of themselves that it becomes difficult to know where that noise ends and one's real identity begins.

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