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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Symbols


The Pronoun "I"

The way Claudia Rankine uses second person throughout Citizen creates a sense that the pronoun "I" is always lurking beneath the surface. The speaker's avoidance of the first-person "I" is symbolic of the identity conflict that the speaker communicates to the reader. To the speaker "I" is a powerful word that indicates an ego and a clearly defined personality. But because of memory, the daily struggle with racism, and erasure, the speaker struggles with who she is and how to process the world. The speaker also sees "I" as containing a contradiction. Rankine writes that "sometimes 'I' is supposed to hold what is not there until it is." The "I" is a placeholder for identity, which ultimately, the speaker argues, "comes apart the closer you are to it." It is also a symbol of the speaker's feeling of a lack of cohesion in her identity. The experiences of her daily life cause her to feel fragmented; she says to herself that "the first person can't pull you together."

The last page of Chapter 7 features a few instances of "I," indicating that Rankine may come to terms with it by the end of her work.


The symbol of smell appears throughout Chapter 1 of Citizen. Rankine uses smells to reflect the speaker's emotional state. The body is an important theme in Rankine's work, and smell is a way that the emotional state manifests physically. At the start of Chapter 1 the speaker shares a memory of her school years. In the beginning of the memory she recalls that she smelled good. After experiences that are hurtful, the speaker enters a space where disgust at what she feels takes over her body. In this statement the bad "smell" is a symbol of the disgusting feeling. The speaker describes how she experiences the cycle of being put down and of being spoken to hurtfully, and then finding the strength to move on and put the bad feeling away by washing out the smell.

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