Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

I am sad and I am angry.  I’ve been struggling with questions in my mind these past few days, since the horrible hate crime occurred in Charleston, SC.  Nine innocent people murdered – by all accounts, good people, kind people, who welcomed a stranger into their sanctuary for bible study.  I’m a mom and I want the world that my child inherits to be better than this.  I want us to be better than this.  Yes, this is the action of one evil-hearted, selfish person, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.  Our society so enamored with violence and a culture still so steeped in racism, both overt and subtle, was the soup in which his hatred and ignorance brewed.

When I finished Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, it was just days after the murders.  I struggled with how to review this book of prose poems and essays and images.  It’s so slim, but so potent, powerful, searing.  One can read it quickly.  But it contains so many incidents of racism that it becomes overwhelming at times.  On planes, in line at Starbucks, in an office conference room – story after story of white people saying and doing ridiculously offensive things, so crazy you can’t believe educated people would say those things.  But they do.  And they have.  And it just makes me sad, and embarrassed for us, for everyone.

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After a list of four black men killed by policemen, this powerful passage:

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

That word, police, as a verb.  Devastating.

Another striking passage, after one more “What did he say?” incident:

Come on, get back in the car. Your partner wants to face off with a mouth and who knows what handheld objects the other vehicle carries.

Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour.  You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.

Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.

I think everyone should read this book, plain and simple.  It would be an excellent book group choice.  There is so much here to unpack and absorb.  White people like myself have the luxury of experiencing this book as words on a page.  Black people have to live this daily.  Uncomfortable conversations must take place, and people – white people –  have to be brave and speak up when confronted with both subtle and overt racism.  Silence about race feels easier sometimes, when you’re so scared of offending someone.  I can’t be silent anymore.  Silence feels like complicity.

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