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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 6 | Summary



Each of the passages in this chapter is part of a series of "situation videos" made by Rankine and her husband, John Lucas. Rankine reads her poetry as the script over the video. The first poem describes the desolation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Black and impoverished communities were hit particularly hard, and their losses were compounded by the slowness of aid. Between this section and the next is an image by artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, titled "Uncertain, yet Reserved." This image of a black man's head gazing at the viewer serves as a transition to the following section, a piece written for the memory of Trayvon Martin. Martin was a young man who was fatally shot in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community. Martin, a high school student, was visiting his father and his father's girlfriend in the community at the time of the shooting. Controversy erupted after the shooting because Martin was unarmed and the shooting was by all accounts racially motivated.

In the second passage "In Memory of Trayvon Martin" Rankine writes a sort of ode to her brothers' broken hearts. When she uses the term "my brothers," readers may assume she is referring to black men in general and the injustice they endure. Between this poem and the next, Rankine includes a photograph of a public lynching. The photograph has been altered to erase the people who have been lynched.

The third passage describes the murder of James Craig Anderson, a black man who was killed in Mississippi by white teenagers in 2011. She reflects on some of the language of the press and defense at that time, such as the murderer was "just a teen." Rankine does this in order to highlight the ways in which the behavior of white men is often excused, particularly in the media, while black men or boys often suffer harsher treatment. This language contrasts sharply with the treatment of the boys in the Jena Six case, as Rankine demonstrates in the next poem. Included between the third and fourth poems are two images by John Lucas entitled "Male II & I." The first image depicts white men's heads and faces, and the next a collage of the heads and faces of black men. In the following poem about the Jena Six, Rankine illustrates the deeply racist and threatening provocation of nooses appearing in a tree on a high-school campus. Rankine's poem draws a connection between this incident and the following incident of six black boys beating up a white boy and being sent to prison for it. The poem concludes with a triptych, or three-piece work of art, by Carrie Mae Weems called "Blue Black Boy." Each of the three words appears under the same photograph of an African American child.

The fifth passage of this chapter tells the story of a man who is pulled over by police because he is black and supposedly fits the description of some suspect. Rankine is illustrating in this poem how the stop-and-frisk laws of Louisiana give police increased power to detain or arrest black people based on racial profiling. An untitled Glenn Ligon silkscreen follows this poem. In the image the faces of black men have been partially erased with charcoal.

"Long Form Birth Certificate" is a poem about the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In "In Memory of Mark Duggan," Claudia Rankine has a conversation with another writer about the Hackney Riots and the death of Mark Duggan. She prompts the writer to write about Duggan, but the writer insists Rankine should write a piece instead. Radcliffe Bailey's installation "Cerebral Caverns" concludes the poem.

In the next section, Rankine highlights another instance of racism in sports, referencing the public's response to a confrontation between Zinedine Zidane and a member of the opposing team. Interspersed throughout the piece are strips of images from the footage of the incident where Zidane headbutts another player. In "Making Room" Rankine illustrates a scenario in which an assumedly white woman refuses to sit in the empty seat next to an assumedly black man. The speaker feels empathy for the man and sits next to him. The final poem is one stanza of three lines, stating that "black people are dying" as a result of white men's inability to resist stereotypes.


This chapter of Claudia Rankine's Citizen is distinct in its length and subject matter. Each poem or passage, except the final two, addresses a specific event in recent history. The overall message of this chapter is that racism is still alive in the modern world and that black people are paying with their lives. Rankine moves between poem, prose, and mixed media to detail or pay homage to each tragedy in this chapter.

Each of these pieces is stylistically unique. Words can propagate erasure and distort the truth, according to Rankine. Yet her poems also illustrate the importance of words in seeking catharsis and justice. In "Black-Blanc-Beur" Rankine uses repetition to mimic the force of the racist and hateful slurs hurled at players. Repetition also lends power to "Hurricane Katrina." The speaker says repeatedly "Have you seen their faces?" asking the reader and America as a whole to contemplate the victims of Katrina. Also, the implication is that many of the faces of those who died or lost everything in Katrina were black.

Rankine also uses varying techniques of pacing to give each poem its own energy. The structure of "Hurricane Katrina" is irregular, giving a sense of a shattered reality and confusion. In contrast, "Jena Six" combines long sentences with repetition for a sense of swirling out of control. Each paragraph or stanza is a single rambling sentence, lending a frenetic energy to the poem. Throughout the piece the speaker repeats images of hardness, ropes, and trees. These images allude to the nooses that white students hung in the school tree, and from there to the dark history of lynching.

Rankine's poems are rife with double meanings and metaphor, particularly regarding colors. Words like "darkness" and "night" are sometimes references to blackness and sometimes references to ignorance or a general unwillingness to see what is happening. In "Making Room," the "darkness" seems to represent both, while the "white light" that "flickers by" is likely a metaphor for white people passing by. The final stanza of the chapter references both police and white society in general with the word "policing." The poem juxtaposes "white men" with "black people" around the lines "police their imagination." In "Jena Six," the line "toward a dawn sun punching through the blackness" echoes the violence of white teenagers hanging nooses in the school tree. The "dawn sun" and "blackness" standing in place for white men and black men, respectively.

The pieces of Chapter 6 continue to explore the issues of erasure and identity and the power of words. Rankine uses historical events as concrete examples of situations involving these themes. Ownership of black bodies is a particularly prevalent theme in this section. Police, white society, the justice system, and the media all lay claim to the bodies of black people in one way or another. In "Jena Six," the speaker describes an incident of a black boy being beaten as "blows taking custody of his body." This illustrates how bodies can be claimed through violence as well as language. The primary exception is Hurricane Katrina, when suddenly no one in America wanted to claim the black bodies that were piling up. In "Long Form Birth Certificate," the change in oath of office from "President of the United States" to "President to the United States" raises some questions about ownership. Perhaps part of Rankine's implication here is that part of America didn't want to claim Barack Obama. Therefore, he is not "of" the United States but just acting as president "to" the country.

Many of the images in this chapter also deal directly with the topic of erasure. The doctored photograph of a public lynching is the most straightforward example. In the photograph, a crowd of people stand around a tree, where presumably someone has been lynched. However, Rankine's husband John Lucas has edited the photo to remove the body of the lynched person. This is not a form of censorship, so as to save the reader from confrontation with a brutal and upsetting image. Instead, it demonstrates how history is being selectively overwritten. When black people are told to "move on" or "let go" of the painful and horrific parts of their past, it, in effect, also erases important parts of history and identity. The Glenn Ligon image also speaks to this erasure. The artist uses charcoal on silkscreen to make an image of black faces look as though it is dissolving. Radcliffe Bailey's "Cerebral Caverns" harkens back to a time in history when eugenicists spouted theories on the connection between skull/brain size and mental capacity. Of course, these theories put people of color, particularly black people, at a disadvantage and only worked to buoy the idea of white supremacy with false science.

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