"I love language because when it succeeds, for me, it doesn't just tell me something. It enacts something." — Claudia Rankine in Guernica
Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, published by Graywolf Press in 2014, is the first work of poetry to become a New York Times bestseller for multiple weeks on the paperback nonfiction list. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, and was also a finalist for the award in criticism, the first time in the history of those awards that a book was named a finalist in more than one category. "A classic that will be read, referred to and reflected on for generations"(Lit Hub), Citizen is a genre-bending work of art combining lyric prose with internal monologues, visual art, slogans, photographs, quotes, a screen grab from YouTube, and film scripts. It is a touchstone for talking candidly about racism. And it is a time capsule of contemporary headlines and key figures, with references to, among other things, Hurricane Katrina, the tennis champion Serena Williams, the 2006 World Cup, and the fatal shooting of Florida resident Trayvon Martin. "So groundbreaking is Rankine's work that it's almost impossible to describe," writes the Los Angeles Times. It "forces you to observe: what's outside the window, what's on the television, what's at the margins of the painting, and what's happening—whether you admit it or not—at the margins of your mind" (The Believer).
Through a series of vignettes, the book recounts everyday moments of racism "of a kind that accumulate until they become a poisonous scourge: being skipped in line at the pharmacy by a white man, because he has failed to notice you in front of him; being told approvingly, as a schoolchild, that your features are like those of a white person; being furiously accosted by a trauma therapist who does not believe that the patient she is expecting could look like you" (The New Yorker). "I started working on Citizen as a way of talking about invisible racism—moments that you experience and that happen really fast," Rankine told The New Yorker. "They go by at lightning speed, and you begin to distrust that they even happened, and yet you know that you feel bad somehow." She asked friends to share stories of those moments, and then combined them with stories of her own moments and those she observed in our culture. "We are social animals, " she told The Spectacle. "We want connection. We want ... understanding. We want intimacy. But if the terms of that intimacy feel dishonest, or feel only possible with the acceptance of your erasure, then that's painful." Rankine frequently uses the second person "to say, 'Step in here with me, because there is no me without you inside this dynamic'" (Buzzfeed).
The book's unusual trim size and heavier paper hint at the beauty and weight of what readers will discover inside its pages, as does the book's cover art, a 1993 piece called "In the Hood" by artist David Hammons. Similarly, the artwork inside the book reverberates off the words. "I was attracted to images engaged in conversation with an incoherence ... in the world," Rankine told BOMB Magazine. "They were placed in the text where I thought silence was needed, but I wasn't interested in making the silence feel empty or effortless the way a blank page would." Amidst a piece detailing Williams' frustrations on the tennis court is a photo of a "Soundsuit," an art piece by the fabric sculptor, dancer, and performance artist Nick Cave. "If the person wearing this suit stood up, what you would see is a dark black covering," explains Rankine to The Believer. "But if she bent over, than you got this kind of beautiful color that was acceptable, even dazzling, to whoever was looking. I thought this enacted the public expectations for Serena, the desire for her to look a certain way."
Among the many other awards Citizen has received are the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry, the Forward Prize for Best Collection in Great Britain, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry; the book was also named a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize in Great Britain, and was performed on stage at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. Rankine "is a writer whose genius must be trusted," says her editor at Graywolf, Jeff Shotts. "Often the vision is larger than the page ... but then seeing the multi-faceted ways that she finds to present the work inside the vessel of the book is amazing."
Asked what her motto is, Rankine refers to the collagist Romare Bearden. "He said, 'There are all kinds of people, and they will help you if you let them.' As somebody who collaborates a lot, I take that to heart, and I certainly would hope that other people would see me as one of those people who would help them, if they would let me" (Radio Open Source).