Upon its publication in 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on growing up black took the U.S. by storm. University of Southern California professor Claudia Rankine‘s Citizen: An American Lyric is Between the World and Me‘s lesser-known cousin, but this book-length poem is just as relevant and important as Coates’ work. Rankine’s poetry details years of micro-aggressions from acquaintances and strangers alike, as experienced by the author, her friends, and black celebrities.
Micro-aggressions against members of marginalized communities happen every day, but they seldom get the recognition they deserve. They’re small doses of diet prejudice, and they’ve become a part of many privileged folks’ everyday thoughts and speech. If you haven’t heard of micro-aggressions before, trust me: you’ve still heard them; they were just too culturally entrenched for you to notice.
The stories in Citizen are all told in the second person. Rankine’s purpose, of course, is to put readers in the bodies that racism targets. Her poem strips white readers of their privilege. They might see themselves and their behavior in the aggressors, but they aren’t given the benefit of explaining it away with any “I’m not racist, but…” sentiments. For many of us, Citizen will be the closest we ever get to experiencing everyday racism.
Like Between the World and Me, Citizen becomes difficult to read, at times. Rankine’s stories hit close to home and deep. Whether your cheeks burn from the memory of a personal slight, or you see your own prejudices reflected in the micro-aggressions Citizen‘s subject experiences — you feel the sting of reality, without any fantasy to temper it.
The final section of this excerpt from Citizen details the experience of a black patient reporting to a therapist for the first time. Upon ringing the doorbell, the woman who answers — who may be the therapist herself — yells, “Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?” The patient receives no benefit of the doubt, even from a person who operates a business out of her own home, that they might have come there for assistance. The woman initially finds the idea that the criminal has an appointment incredulous, and for only one reason: she sees a black body and assumes it belongs to a criminal, without any evidence other than its blackness.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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