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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Themes


Rankine examines this overarching theme of racism within the context of microaggressions, identity and history, and the body.

Racism and Microaggression

Racism and its manifestation through microaggressions (comments or actions that subtly express prejudice) are the core themes of Claudia Rankine's Citizen. Through poetry and prose she examines the toll that racism in all its forms takes on the black community and specifically on the speaker of the poems. Microaggressions are words or actions that, often unknowingly, reveal an attitude of prejudice. Rankine gives countless examples of microaggressions throughout Citizen. In the first passage of Chapter 3 a friend uses language that targets and stereotypes the speaker's race, which surprises and hurts the speaker. In another instance of microaggression a cashier asks the speaker if she thinks her card will be declined. This action reveals the cashier's preconception about black people: they are either poor or irresponsible and have bad credit. Rankine relentlessly details these microaggressions, illustrating the constant barrage of prejudice that African Americans live with.

The racism does not end with microaggressions, however. Rankine also addresses larger, more overtly threatening and institutional forms of racism. The poems of Chapter 6 in particular move through a series of examples of racism in American society and the justice system. Rankine addresses shootings and killings of black men. In the case of Trayvon Martin the shooter is a white neighborhood watchman. In another poem, she writes about James Craig Anderson, a 47-year-old black man who was killed by white teenagers yelling white-power slogans. These acts are not microaggressions: they are deadly manifestations of hatred and racial prejudice. The speaker illustrates the emotional toll of living both with a daily onslaught of unconscious prejudice and in the larger shadow of fear that comes just from being black in America.

Erasure in History and Identity

Intertwined with the theme of microaggressions is the issue of erasure. Erasure is a complex theme, and Rankine explores its many angles in relation to race and the history of black America. Historically, erasure involves the adjustment of African American narratives to erase parts of the story that white America is uncomfortable with. This includes glossing over events, insisting that people's individual experiences didn't happen and urging the black community to "let go" of the past. Through her speaker, Rankine illustrates why this is deeply problematic. The speaker in Rankine's poems feels the double burden of both the racist experiences she internalizes and the voices telling her to "move on" from those experiences. The speaker receives no support or validation to help her process the microaggressions she lives with or her relationship with the pain of black American history. Instead, it seems everyone around her urges her to "let go" of those feelings. This effectively causes her to feel that her identity is being erased or suppressed. As a result, the speaker begins to feel confused and conflicted about her identity.

Erasure is also connected to visibility, Rankine points out. She makes the distinction between "visibility" and "perception," insisting that "no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived." When a person or group is perceived through the lens of prejudice or stereotype, this is a form of erasure. Perception, instead of increasing visibility, covers and rewrites a person's identity to better match the expectations of the perceiver. In this way, the actual identity of the person becomes less visible or, in other words, becomes "erased."

The Body

The role of the body is inextricable from the existence of racism and issues of erasure. Without a visible body to cause people to form assumptions or prejudices, neither of these other issues would exist. Rankine brings up the issue of "ownership" of bodies, specifically black bodies. In placing expectations on a person based on their skin color, the perceiver is also claiming a sort of ownership over that person's body. The body is the thing they are basing their prejudice on. Rankine also insists that "the body has memory." The speaker of the poems describes the way the body holds on to pain and negativity. Emotional pain and memory become part of a physical experience. Indeed, "the body is the threshold" for words, which cross the line of the body and enter the person. In this way, cruel or racist words are both an emotional and physical violation to the person to whom they are directed.

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