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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

There are multiple distinct sections in the final chapter of Claudia Rankine's Citizen. The first passage is a nonnarrative poem with more conventional line breaks. This piece deals with loss of and confusion around identity. Identity is not passively lost but is actively taken away, erased, and distorted. Rankine asks, "And always, who is this you?" The conclusion that can be construed from society is that the black identity is worthless. The speaker states "You nothing. / You nobody," echoing the message society gives black people. This message advances a sense of erasure, both of self and of memory. This passage ends with an image called Sleeping Heads by Wangechi Mutu. The image is a collage that depicts a head that implies violence in the splatter of blood from its eye and the hand at its throat.

Next there are two vignettes. These are distinctly more narrative than the previous passage. In one vignette, the speaker and a friend are can laugh about a microaggression and the friend's privilege. In the second vignette, the speaker watches a father stand guard over a children's block party in her neighborhood.

The last passages of Chapter 7 loop back around to reference poems from the beginning of Citizen. The speaker "returns ... to [her] own sigh," which is "no longer audible." She tells the story of listening to news reports about Trayvon Martin on the radio and her husband getting into a confrontation. Afraid of police, the speaker pulls her husband back into the car.

In the next passages, the speaker expresses confusion around feeling. She wonders why no one wants to acknowledge or talk about the same feelings she struggles with. There is a sense that the outside world sees the speaker's feelings as invalid because they are a response to what she "perceives" and not to "objective" reality. The slog through daily microaggressions and sadness is overwhelming for her. She writes, "That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you," communicating the daily pain and struggle of being black in America. Rankine's final poem describes an experience with a woman in a parking lot who changes parking places so as not to be near Rankine. Rankine goes inside to play tennis and tries to ignore the slight. She tells her husband later, "It wasn't a match ... it was a lesson." Citizen ends with two final images. The first is a painting titled The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner. The second is a close-up photograph of a detail of The Slave Ship, where fish attack a drowning slave.

Analysis

This final chapter contains a mixture of narrative poetry, nonnarrative poetry, and prose poetry. While the passages are all connected by theme, subject matter, and word choice, they are also each distinct pieces that could stand as individual poems. They deal with the themes and ideas that Rankine develops throughout her book, giving final attention to each. Rankine chooses each style, whether nonnarrative poem or prose, to best communicate the piece's theme or concept.

When Rankine uses nonnarrative poetry, the poems are often repetitive and require close reading to make sense of many passages. She frequently uses line breaks to create instances of double meaning and sometimes also to make the reader pay close attention. In the first passage she writes, "You are you even before you / grow into understanding you / are not anyone." Breaking the middle line after "you" creates two meanings. Before the reader moves to the following line, it seems as though the poem is saying that people are themselves even before they come to understand themselves. But, the next line utterly changes the reading. Rankine's enjambment turns the lines to argue that people are themselves even before they come to understand that they "are not anyone," i.e., insignificant.

This idea of insignificance claims importance in the chapter. Rankine discusses how society often brushes off black people's feelings as being "over sensitive" or not based in reality. This re-writing, this erasure has multiple effects. It tells black people that their feelings are false and unimportant and also creates confusion for the speaker around what her feelings actually are. She is told repeatedly to "let it go" and "move on." This sends the message to the author that her feelings are invalid and that the memories that have played a significant role in her life are worthless. Rankine highlights this general attitude to point out how invalidating and painful it is to an entire community of people. White society uses these tactics in order to avoid accountability and to assuage their own guilt. Rankine nods to this in the line "Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on." It is both a testament to black citizens having to repress their feelings in order to survive and also to the way white society barely even sees black people as citizens. This powerful line also provides the book's title.

Previous chapters dealt with physical and verbal erasure and violence. In Chapter 7, Rankine continues to explore this thread in the form of injury. She asks, "How to care for the injured body," when it is "the kind of body that can't hold / the content it is living?" Rankine is not just asking the reader this question but posing it to herself and to the larger universe. It is as though she is asking, "How is one supposed to do this seemingly impossible thing?" not because she expects an answer but in order to highlight its impossibility. This is the impossibility of living each day as a black person in America, she says repeatedly. This injury, this pain erases the sense of self, illustrated in the line "the worst injury is feeling you don't belong so much / to you—." Rankine emphasizes repeatedly how powerful words can be, how heavy they are to carry. Using an elegant two-part simile, she writes that when "words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes."

Rankine brings her collection full circle with the final passage of Citizen. Tennis and microaggressions star in this piece, as they have in many passages throughout the book. A microaggression in the parking lot before Rankine heads to the court to play tennis provides the stage for her final line. She tells her husband, not really referring to the match at all, that "it wasn't a match ... It was a lesson." A match implies equality, impartiality, and a fair game. A lesson implies a teacher who occupies a higher place and a student in the lower one. Serena Williams learned in her "match" that playing by the rules still isn't enough. A less pessimistic reading of this final line, however, just implies that education is critical to overcome racism—even if the education is one of empathy.

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