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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Quotes


And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don't forget.

Speaker, Chapter 1

The "it" in this sentence is the speaker's friend accidentally repeatedly calling her by the friend's black housekeeper's name. The speaker never addresses her friend about this hurtful little microaggression and inwardly wonders why. The speaker frequently notices her reticence to "call out" microaggressions and hints that some of her reasoning might be that it is just too constant and exhausting to address.

However, here she reflects on why she doesn't confront her friend for something that clearly bothers her and that she never forgets. The speaker illustrates how microaggressions often get passed over in the moment, but they do not fade.


This other kind of anger in time can prevent ... the production of anything except loneliness.

Speaker, Chapter 2

The "other kind of anger" is the real, deep anger that the speaker notes often "resides" behind the "sellable anger" of black artists. This is the anger, Rankine goes on to later explain, that can erupt out of a person and earn them the label of "insane." This anger is connected to the disappointment of a person not able to make themselves seen because they are perceived through the lens of a stereotype or prejudice. Unlike the "sellable anger" of the artist, this anger is not productive. The only thing this anger "produces," Rankine argues, is a sense of loneliness.


Her body ... is ... governed ... by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules.

Speaker, Chapter 2

When Serena Williams lost her temper at an umpire, she was called "insane" and criticized heavily by the media. Williams's body was "trapped in disbelief" in the moment when suddenly the people around her were no longer playing "by the rules."

When Williams plays tennis, she plays by a set of prescribed rules. However, when the umpire blatantly miscalls a situation, presumably because of a racial prejudice, Williams suddenly finds those rules thrown out the window. The painful hypocrisy in this situation is that, when Williams also steps outside the rules and loses her temper, she is the only one reprimanded or derided.


Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.

Speaker, Chapter 3

Rankine explains a realization that hurtful language is not entirely about erasure. While it does cause erasure, hurtful language causes pain because the receiver is "present" and "addressable." So black people find themselves caught in an in-between space where they are both invisible and "addressable," present and erased.


Feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds.

Speaker, Chapter 4

The speaker expresses her belief that feelings create a person's identity. If this is true, hurtful language can erase or alter identity. For the speaker, whose feelings are under constant barrage, there are times when it seems that her feelings "vandalize" her thoughts or her rational mind.


It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard.

Speaker, Chapter 4

The "it" in this statement is "the past." In this line Rankine uses metaphorical language to illustrate how memory and the body are connected. The body becomes a storage place for memories but is also directly affected by them. The pain of the past "buries" itself into the body, so that the person carries those painful memories with them.


Words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains.

Speaker, Chapter 5

The "words" are the hurtful or racist words of others, projected onto black bodies. These words seek to "encode" or put their own vision of blackness onto a person, effectively overwriting that person's identity and individual self. But no matter what words people may let slip or hurl at another, the body remains unchanged. There is a sense in this line that the body should change to reflect the inner change that happens from these experiences.


Nobody coming and still someone saying, who could see it coming, the difficulty of that.

Speaker, Chapter 6

In "Hurricane Katrina" Rankine highlights the pain of the situation where so many poor black communities were left to fend for themselves during the disaster. The hurricane was projected to hit New Orleans, so there is verbal irony in "who could see it coming," because despite the projection the city didn't take adequate precautions. Because the communities were black, Rankine implies, it should not be so surprising that the government and aid groups basically abandoned them.


Because white men can't / police their imagination / black people are dying

Speaker, Chapter 6

In this verse Rankine implies that the prejudice-influenced assumptions of white men are a root cause for black people being killed. This is specifically applicable in cases of police shootings, which Rankine alludes to with the use of the word "police" as a verb.


It wasn't a match, I say. It was a lesson.

Speaker, Chapter 7

Though the concluding sentences of Citizen refer specifically to a tennis match that the speaker's husband asks her about, they also encompass many other meanings. The author doesn't "win" because the situation with her and the racist woman in the parking lot was not a "match." The "lesson" could refer to the speaker learning something. It could also indicate that racism is meant to teach a lesson to the people it targets, so "winning" is not possible. The lesson may also be the intention of Rankine's book, educating people about the daily difficulties faced by blacks.

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