Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric was released in 2014. It is one of his many works that are difficult to categorize. Many people, though, have characterized the book as both a literary work and a criticism. It is mixed with photographs, criticism, and sculpture, and hence can be called a lyric essay, which corresponds to works that have a variety of mediums and presence in what can be considered a hybrid form. In the novel, Rankine discusses some of the world’s inadequacies, not just in the United States, and offers some optimism for the future. This paper provides a literary analysis of Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric in four ways. First, how one might read it as a work of social and/or environmental justice criticism or activism. Second, how one uses the language, narrative and literary/rhetorical devices to engage with both social and environmental issues. Third, the text’s primary thematic concerns and how it uses the formal techniques to achieve its critique. Fourth, how the text’s historical context informs the author’s interpretation. Fifth and last, the text’s specific critique.
One might read Citizen: An American Lyric as a work of social justice activism. Rankine talks about some of the realities in the world including racism that persists including the remarks that people make, the glances and the implied judgements that based on racism. She addresses racism and other things that continue to flourish in places that the explicit acts of such discrimination have been prohibited. From Chapter One, the author sets the stage for social activism with prejudice and racism as one of the major themes. In the whole book, Rankine describes the instances when statements that are largely prejudicial are uttered in the company of blacks and in contexts where friends speak freely. Every verse of the book seems to contain a racial basis and portrays the pain that comes with prejudice and racism. The use of stories from different people including males and females, whites as well as blacks of different ages reinforces the author’s arguments on race or racism and imaginations.
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine uses language, narrative and literary devices to engage the readers with the social issues. The language used in the book plays a critical role in conveying the author’s message. She uses language including calling of names among the black women as well as calling of names among the other racial group. The effects of her language use can be heartbreaking. It brings about both removal and the inexorable visibility (Matrix Education). In all the instances and individual’s skin tone is put against a stark white background which makes people of color to doubt their identity.
In most parts of the book, the author uses the second person, that is “you.” The use of “you” play a critical role since the relationship between the author and the reader is vital in getting Rankine’s message across more effectively. The use of second person shows that the reader is actually the speaker (Matrix Education). It helps the author to create a better unity of people rather than jut telling the story of an individual. Also, book switches from one speaker to another, even though one might not realize easily especially when the author fails to inform the reader. The author indicates that the stories are from various people including males and females as well as from both black and white people.
Also, the author uses metaphors and similes. First, author talks about someone claiming that they ought to use their “skin as wallpaper” believing they could not win. Wallpaper is a used as metaphor to mean the invisibility of the blacks’ skin. Also, it is a metaphor for the high visibility that blacks experience at inconvenient times. While a painted wall draws attention to other things, a wallpaper only draws any attention to itself so long as one is not used to its existence. Second, the book talks about the past being a life sentence and a blunt object that aims at tomorrow. The author does not indicate whether she concur with the statement but acknowledges it effects on self. It gets the reader’s attention to the struggle between past self and the real self. Lastly, the book also talks about people soon becoming ready to live with the dust in their eyes. Here, dust in the eyes refers the persistent discomfort and the impaired view of the world like it is supposed to be.
The setting of the book is in the United States of America and London. In addition to that, the author uses irony in most of the stories in the book. First, the neighbor who calls on the police on a friend who is just outside the house. Second, one’s therapist who thinks that the client is an intruder. Third, the waitress who give back the credit card to the owner’s friend rather than the owner. Further, the author also uses protagonist versus the antagonists which involves race-consciousness versus racism. The book also uses major conflicts as a literary device which are evident through the aggressions in the events that range from politics to economics and vary from the local to international scope. The main theme in all these conflicts is the assumed racism and its numerous manifestations.
In the book Citizen: An American Lyric the author also uses motifs, allegory and symbolism. The author uses pronoun repetition which is a motif. It symbolizes the relation between everyone affected by the racial tension exist in the United States. The conflict of gaining a proper understanding of an individual’s identity in the U.S. pushes the author to look at what the “I” or “you” actually means. At last they are all deemed meaningless and replaced by the same words whenever possible. Apart from that, the book talks of blood shot eyes. “Yesterday called to say we were together and you were bloodshot and again the day carried you across a field of hours, deep into dawn, back to now, where you are thankful for” (89). Bloodshot eyes symbolize both tiredness and the lack of presentability among the black people in the United States. The eyes demand for attention to the objects of sight and show that the probably the individual has tirelessly been struggling to see and has finally worn out the eyes.
On the other hand, the leaves symbolize the plight blacks in the U.S. and the optimism. The author talks about the more vibrant leaves and the dead ones. The dead leaves symbolize the dead people who struggled for racial equality. In addition to that the author also uses tennis to represent a lot more than the sport that the readers may know much about. The match officials seem to address Serena Williams black body rather than the game and even the whole complex tends to ignore her presence. The referees call for fouls even when none is deserved. The game shows the black people’s experience.
Citizen: An American Lyric’s primary thematic concerns include identity, history, power through sports and judgment. The book uses several vehicles to convey identity one of which is what the author refers to as “self-self.” It is the identity that all humans identify the most; however, it is affected by many other identities that placed on individuals depending on both the physical and the historical contexts. The author argues that America seems to be struggling with the historical self. The author represents it through skin color and other things like the hair texture. Many cultures co-exist in America and the use of the words like “niggers” against black people for instance refers to blacks’ skin color and their way of communicating with each other (Perry 87). Apart from that, history finds itself in identity without permission. It is also tied so much to the products of past black labor. The author argues that it is not possible for history to carry on in one direction if blacks are still associated with slavery. The past is just a life sentence, a blunt object that aims at the future (84).
In addition to that, the tennis match that is both literally and metaphorically played in the book gives one an insight of Serena William’s life. It is clear that the match officials are biased but she releases her rage at times but she maintains calm most of the time. Finally, the book presents the many forms of racism including the intentional and the subtle actions that convey racism that happen in day to day life. For instance, a narrator’s neighbor alerts the police to come for a person she thinks is just loitering when the person is actually the narrator’s friend and is chilling for her to return home. The misunderstanding arises from goodwill however, it is grounded on unfounded and negative stereotypes.
The text’s historical context plays a big role in its interpretation. All the themes that the book addresses have a strong bearing on the history of the United States and London as well as the other parts of the world. America is one of the country where very significant cases of racism still persist (Perry 53). Identity is one of the main themes and the struggle between the two identities, that is the historical and the cultural is what grows into prejudice and racism that the author addresses in the book. The historical context allows the reader to interpret the book from the point of undermining of the black people and the racism that continues against them to date. It helps the readers to understand that the issue of racism that is witnessed in the world today started from long ago during the days of slavery and that it cannot be solved by taking just one direction when blacks are still associated with slavery to this day. It is all these that informed the author when writing the book. It is clear that the book’s specific critique is race or racism and the imaginations and or perceptions.
Matrix Education. Literary Techniques Part 2: How to Analyze Poetry and Prose. 22 February 2017. Web. 13 December 2017.
Perry, Richard. “Race” and Racism: The Development of Modern Racism in America. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.