Friends, it’s been a tough week. With 150 people dead in Baghdad from a suicide bombing, 28 dead in Bangladesh after the Holey Artisan Bakery hostage crisis, and with the U.S mourning the death of two black men fatally shot by police officers, it has not been an easy week. This is not to mention the death of five law enforcement officers in Austin, Texas.
In the wake of this heartbreak, I turned to poetry. Whether it was reading Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam once again, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” or re-reading Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, I spent my week clinging to their words. This is the only way I know how to grieve.
To my friends who are speechless in regards to the shooting of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I recommend Citizen. It is not only a powerful read, but it’s a great reminder of the consequences of racism. Through the use of poetry, nonfiction, and artwork, Citizen both haunts and challenges our views of what being black in America means today.
Through her use of 2nd person narrative, Rankine puts readers in the shoes of the speaker, making Citizen emotionally gripping: ““ . . . he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black! I didn’t mean to say that, he then says. Aloud, you say. What? he asks. You didn’t mean to say that aloud. You transaction goes swiftly after that” (44). I love Citizen because it spends no time beating around the bush. Its words are straightforward and blunt, breathtakingly honest and raw: “When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers” (16). Rankine’s words are a shout for America to wake up. They understand that silence is no longer an option
For me, what was most powerful about this collection is the ways in which Rankine highlights the many micro-aggressions that she and others of color face everyday. These instances are told in the most candid way possible: ““he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there“ (10). Aside from this, Citizen also engages readers with a discussion about tennis player Serena Williams, as well as Hurricane Katrina and the ways we disregarded the victims.
In total the collection is 161 pages of nonfiction/poetry, as well as artwork. The art in Citizen is also stunning, as is the cover of the book. This collection should be read by every high school student in this country because it is nothing less of an extraordinary. I think that reading this collection is an empowering statement against racism, and I am confident that readers of this blog will feel this way too.
Cover of Citizen courtesy of Graywolf Press. I do not own this cover.
Photo of “Uncertain yet Reserved” is courtesy of artist Toyin Odutola. I do not own this photo. Check out her website.
Buy Rankine’s collection here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.
We believe books that nourish the individual spirit and enrich the broader culture must be supported by attentive editing, superior design, and creative promotion.”*
Listen to Claudia Rankine read in the video below.