Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ shows what racism really feels like

Studio 360
Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s book of poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” won the the National Book Critic Circle Award in Poetry, and was the first book ever nominated in two categories — poetry and criticism. That reflects the book’s varied literary approaches as well as its timely, acute critique of contemporary American culture.

Some of the most affecting poems relate moments of casual racism, some of which Rankine herself experienced; others, she tells Kurt Andersen, she collected from friends. The book documents in painful detail the psychic damage that everyday slights inflict on African Americans.

The book combines lyric poetry with prose poems, pastiche and visual art in unusual ways. Rankine says poetry is uniquely qualified as a medium to grapple with the problems that interest her. Rather than simply condemning racism, “Poetry allows us into the realm of feeling, and it’s the one place where you can say ‘I feel bad,’” she says. In poetry, “feeling is as important as perception and description.”

But “Citizen” also contains outraged responses to the killings of unarmed black men that have shaken the country over the last few years. The book’s cover image is a 1993 artwork by David Hammons that depicts a sweatshirt’s hood, reminding us of the way Trayvon Martin’s killing turned hoodies into protest symbols. For Rankine, racist violence is on a spectrum with a casual slight she might endure at the supermarket. Because if that rude shopper finds himself “in a position of power — on a jury, organizing Katrina evacuations, or if you arm that fear and call it policing — then you’re going to get these explosive events,” she says.

The title, “Citizen,” suggests an optimism that hasn’t been dimmed.

“One hopes that when you step out with that passport, that it overrides racial distinctions — sexual, gender, all of those things,” Rankine says. The poems of “Citizen” detail the ways, large and small, in which citizenship does not override those distinctions.

(Originally aired February 12, 2015)

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