Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s collection of prose and poetry, catalogues the microaggressions and blatant racism black Americans face on a daily basis. From things as seemingly small as being called the name of a different black person to incidents as awful as being reported to the police as a suspicious figure in an affluent neighborhood, these moments build up to a constant hum of “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?”
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did she just do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?”
In addition to her personal stories and stories shared by friends, she recounts instances of systemic racism that have played out on the public stage, from Serena Williams’ handling of racism at the US Open to the deaths of black men such as Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown.
Books like this are always relevant, but they are even more so in the light of the recent protests in Baltimore (and in New York, and in Ferguson, and…). As a white person, I haven’t experienced the daily injustices my black neighbors face, and I can’t understand their simmering rage. But I can listen. I can learn about the ways we have failed our black citizens. I can do my best to try to understand and to have empathy. I can urge everyone on Facebook who has condemned the rioters for their use of violence against a system that has been violent against them for generations with impunity (or insist that we live in a post-racial society) to read books like Citizen and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I can tell all of you to go out and buy a copy of these books immediately. (Do it.)
Citizen is a powerful, heartbreaking portrait of the small and large ways black people are made to feel invisible and incredulous and unsafe, and I think it should be mandatory reading.