Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
Citizen: An American Lyric is a book by Claudia Rankine. She is an influential author, poet, editor and essaysit
and has written among others, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and The End of the Aphabet. Her books and essays
center or racism, social inequalities and freedom of rights. In 2014, Citizen: An American Lyric won a national award. It is widely proclaimed
to be one of the best works of the Jamaican-born author. She even the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ worth $625,000 because
of the book.
Lyric is derived from the greek word lyricus which means originiating from or related to a lyre. The latter term, on the
other hand, refers to an ancient musical instrument used by the Greeks. A lyric is, therefore, a poem that can be sung
with the accompaniment of a musical instrument. It is also defined as a type of poem that expresses the feelings of the
subject. The difference between it and a narrative poem is that the latter is used to tell a story while the former
expresses emotions. The Oxford English Dictionary, defines Lyric as “(of poetry) expressing the writer’s emotions, usually
briefly and in stanzas or recognized forms”. Another definition is ” of or pertaining to the lyre, meant to be sung;
pertaining to or characteristic of song. Now used as the name for short poems (whether or not intended to be sung),
usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet’s own thoughts and sentiments.” In this essay, Claudia Rankine’s book is analysed to determine whether or not
it constitutes a lyric, having been aptly named so.
In the book Citizen, Rankine expresses her thoughts and feelings from the beginning of the book. She starts by saying,
“When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among
your pillows”. The introductory statement introduces the reader to subsequent paragraphs that emphasize more on emotion
rather than a narration.
Rankine’s Citizens is a unique because it contains elements of a lyric, yet it is not a typicl one. It conforms to a number
of conventions, including the fact that it expresses emotion and is not narrated. The book highlights the author’s
opinions and thoughts about racism. Whereas it cannot be sung, it is divided into a structurally coherent piece. A rhythm
becomes clear if read aloud. It is one of the characteristics that make it a lyric. Citizen is divided into clusters.
It expresses Rankine’s own thoughts. She attempts to get the reader to reason and feel the same way she does be describing
incidences that they can relate with. Although this aspect gives it the outlook of expressing the sentiments of a group of
people rather than one person, it actually focuses on an individual sharing experiences that may be similar to those of
In some parts of the text, it leans more on a narrative than a lyric. For instance, while using her unique way of
expression, Rankine states, “When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another
ten minutes.” She continues, “You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function
as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists
the medical term-John Henryism- for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying
to dodge the buildup of erasure.” The excerpt bears little semblance to a poem, and it borders on a narrative. However,
since this is a stanza on its own and the content is not a story but rather an imaginary situation, it should not qualify
as a narrative.
A narrative is defined as a story. It can also be described as an account of related events. The stanzas in Citizen are
connected as they hint at experineces of racism. However, each stanza is unique and is based on a diffeerent setting.
This disqualifies it as a story, and can, therefore not be classified as a narrative.
She constantly addresses ‘you’ in the poem, alluding to the reader. One line reads, “You are in the dark, in the car
watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color
when there are so many great writers out there.” It is intended to be a singular referral and not a plural
term as she relates her personal experiences or thoughts to that of an individual in the same circumstance.
The “You” is used in singular form and refers to an I rather than Is. Rankine (the author) relates her experiences (whether
imginary or real) with those of an individual, not a group.
The police have constantly been associated with institutionalized racism. Activits and the public have been vocal in