Citizen, An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine, Citizen, An American Lyric
(London: Penguin, 2015)
First published: 2014

You and your partner go to see the film The House We Live In. You ask a friend to pick up your child from school. On your way home your phone rings. Your neighbor tells you he is standing at his window watching a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy is walking back and forth talking to himself and seems disturbed.

You tell your neighbor that your friend, whom he has met, is babysitting. He says, no, it’s not him. He’s met your friend and this isn’t that nice young man. Anyway, he wants you to know, he’s called the police.

Your partner calls your friend and asks him if there’s a guy walking back and forth in front of your home. Your friend says that if anyone were outside he would see him because he is standing outside. You hear the sirens through the speakerphone.

Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric (2014), offers a blatant political commentary of modern-day America on the difficulty of constructing one’s identity as African American. In this excerpt, a seemingly trivial scene takes a turn for the worst with a simple ringtone. With this phone call, time is suspended. The reader is left to face this racial landscape, establishing the importance of spectatorship, whereby race, racism and racial injustice confer a different meaning to every action henceforth. The telephone, essence of modern-day communication, becomes a weapon. The ominous and off-hand comment from the white neighbour ‘anyway, […] he’s called the police’ precipitates the horror, foreshadowing possible fatal consequences, witnessed by a powerless narrator and reader. The traumatic moment eludes time, embodying the perpetual imminence and immanence of death. Rankine’s adoption and reshaping of the lyric unveil racial politics, linguistic injury and microaggressions.

With this excerpt, Rankine anchors her work in the wake of the present and ongoing abjection of black people in society. Through the telephone, death is embodied by cyclical repetitions of internalised microaggressions.

by Mariane Gallet