Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Paperback, 160 pages
Publisher: Penguin (December 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Tank

Citizen is a blistering work of contemporary American poetry. In this, her fifth book, Rankine puts forward the argument that the true definition of a “citizen” has been warped beyond recognition by deeply entrenched racism and prejudice that can end in death. She argues that a citizen doesn’t have to be designated as such by the literal meaning of the world, but can be remodelled through social activism, civic pride, tolerance and understanding.

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Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.  

Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation. Because you will spend the next two hours around the round table that makes conversing easier, you consider waiting a few minutes before entering the room.  

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.

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This book, published by Graywolf in the US, is the first acquisition by Donald Futers in his newly created role as poetry editor at Penguin. 

  • Citizen