Poetry, Politcs, and Personal Reflection: Redefining the Lyric in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
The world of poetics often views, and uses, lyric poetry as a self-reflective tool because of its ability to engage the poet in a deep exploration of their inner self. Thus, the subject matter of lyric poetry is typically unconcerned with society and the political world, instead offering insight into the poet’s innermost thoughts and emotions. In her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, however, Claudia Rankine redefines and politicizes the lyric form by using it to reflect on an overtly political issue: anti-blackness in America. More specifically, she mediates on the psychological trauma black people endure as a consequence of racial violence and microaggressions. Through her politically charged lyric, Rankine argues that, for black people in America, self-reflection and one’s innermost “private space” are often consumed by racialized thoughts and cannot be disconnected from the political world. Thus, Citizen’s lyric form offers all audiences—especially white audiences—a new perspective on anti-blackness in American society.
Through Rankine’s political interactions with the lyric form, she argues that to be black in America is to have even your most intimate self-reflections consumed by racialized thoughts. And though black people are perhaps the most marginalized group in American society—therefore the group most in need of a mental recluse from the political world—they’re unable to escape the aggressive world around them. Society’s aggression and abhorrence toward black people follows them into their innermost thoughts, often manifesting in exhausting and cyclical psychological trauma. Rankine even explicitly acknowledges this psychological trauma in the poem, referencing “John Henryism” a psychological condition in which victims of racism “achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11). More often, however, Rankine indirectly references this psychological trauma through the racialization of the lyric. The speaker frequently uses their “private space” to question the motives behind racist acts, or to reflect on the pain it has caused them. In one instance, the speaker of the poem reflects on their daily fear of being pulled over simply because of the color of their skin, saying “I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I knew. I just knew. I opened my briefcase on the passenger seat, just so they could see” (105). Here, Rankine’s poetry displays the daily thought processes of an American black person. Instead of slipping into the relaxing recluse of simple, non-political, thoughts on their way home from work, the subject engages in the exhausting chore of once again confronting their blackness and the “full force of [their] American positioning” (14). The narrator must think The world doesn’t protect me like it protects others. I could die today because of the color of my skin. And so, though the subject may have just had an exhausting day of work, they must protect themselves from a death that has struck so many innocent black bodies. Whether the subject “opens [their] briefcase on the passenger seat” so a police officer would recognize that it doesn’t hold a weapon, or so the subject would be seen as a “professional” not a “thug,” is unclear (105). Regardless, the subject is overcome with racialized thoughts that “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs” (7). The subject has no escape, and the lyric form works to communicate this ugly truth.
Another way in which the lyric form widens the reader’s perspective on anti-blackness in America is by inserting the reader into several racist scenarios—whether as the victim or as the aggressor. Rankine does this by copious use of the second person lyric, giving white audiences a peek into the suffering they don’t endure, and giving black audiences a new perspective on scenarios they endure daily—making them feel less alone in the isolating cycle of their racialized thoughts. In one instance, Rankine sets up a scenario in which you, the audience, approaches the house of a new therapist with whom you’ve only ever spoken with over the phone. And though the therapist “specializes in trauma counseling,” their racist assumptions ironically contribute to the trauma they’re supposed to protect you from: “At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry” (18). The second person lyric used in this scenario injects non-black readers into a scenario they may otherwise never experience—or even be able to imagine. Non-black readers are struck with the severity of the injustice going on around them—injustice they would be unable to fully understand or experience through other forms of political discourse. Specifically, non-black readers become aware of how it feels to be stereotyped because of skin color. American black people are too often pegged as thugs. They’ve done nothing wrong except for being born with dark skin, and yet society criminalizes them as “the guy always fitting the description” (105).
In addition to injecting non-black readers into the poetry as victims, Rankine also uses the lyric form to insert non-black readers into the role of the aggressor. In the above scenario, for example, Rankine isolates the aggressor’s apology in a single stanza: “I am so sorry, so, so sorry” (18). This isolation at the end of section causes the reader to change perspectives from the victimized lyric you to the aggressive lyric I. Once put into the role of the aggressor after feeling the pain of the victim, the apology from the aggressor seems insincere, insignificant, and inadequate. Definitely too inadequate to heal the pain of erasure or “the weight of nonexistence” felt by black people in America (139). Thus, the non-black reader questions their potential contribution to the crippling way in which American society treats its black citizens. And just as the black reader is struck with the “full force of [their] American positioning,” the non-black reader is as well. The difference, of course, being that the non-black reader is struck with the enormity of their privilege, rather than the severity of their oppression.
Ultimately, Rankine’s arguments about the inescapability of racial politics come together in the final sections of the poem, where she uses sighing as a metaphor for survival. American society convinces black people that they’re anger is unjustified, teaching them at a young age to “hold [their rage] at a distance for [their] own good” (25). And so, discouraged from voicing their rage out loud, they hold it inside their inner, private space, until it suffocates them. Sometimes, they even convince themselves that they can move past this pain, or “learn not to absorb the world” (55). In order to survive the utter exhaustion of being black in America, they “sigh” which “allows breathing” but mostly functions as “self preservation . . . it is not the iteration of a free being” (60). This contrast, between mere survival and actually living, or thriving, is crucial to Citizen’s vital, and titular, argument: that to be a “good” black citizen in America, one must “move on” or “let go” of injustice, or at least deal with it internally, keeping their anger from the outside world. Unlike white citizens, who have the privilege of using their inner, private, thoughts as a recluse from the political world, black citizens must use their inner private space to confront the aggression they face daily.
Rankine’s reflections in Citizen: An American Lyric widen the ways in which anti-blackness is discussed in American political discourse. Where many forms of political discourse formulate a conversation around racism that solely focuses on violent aggression toward black bodies, the lyric form in Citizen expands the conversation to psychological trauma as well. And through the insertion of the reader by the second person lyric, Rankine offers white audiences a better understanding of the daily struggles of a black person in America, and their inescapable nature of their racialized and politicized thoughts.
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