Freshly minted MacArthur “genius” Claudia Rankine is best known for her book Citizen: An American Lyric, an unflinching account of the frightening and depressing reality of being a black woman in America. Combining poetry, prose, and visual imagery, Citizen forces readers to confront the daily barrage of racism that black women face, and explores their feelings of rage and numbness as a result.
Rankine describes everything from the microaggressions she encountered while talking to a white man in a grocery store, to the structural racism that black residents in New Orléans experienced during Hurricane Katrina.
If you aren’t familiar with Rankine or haven’t read Citizen, here’s a primer. Below are 10 of the book’s 10 most striking quotes:
On racial profiling:
“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
On black rage:
“And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance…to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no black who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment…yet the adjustment must be made—rather it must be attempted.”
On enduring and persevering:
“This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.”
“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.”
On how history lives on in the black body:
“Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.”
“As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.”
“A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the cafe you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something—she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?—her son wasn’t accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater’s legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn’t seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.”
“In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.”
“You wait at the bar of the restaurant for a friend, and a man, wanting to make conversation, nursing something, takes out his phone to show you a picture of his wife. You say, bridge that she is, that she is beautiful. She is, he says, beautiful and black, like you.”
“Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is a threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”