“And despite everything the body remains … [and] the headaches [too].” Rereading and understanding the connections in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

We have already talked about the importance of the content and the way Claudia Rankine develops her own story in her own way, making the reader feel involved in the situations she is depicting. Citizen: An American Lyric, as we know, is divided in different parts that differ from one another in the way they are written: sometimes paragraphs that portray different racism acts, sometimes stories that require more explanation, as for instance, the Serena Williams’ one… 

Today I would love to go a little bit further and get a bit deeper in the meaning and transcendentalism of the book by analyzing the different images she is using and the different connections we need to understand by the language she is using.

I will start by the very beginning, the cover of the book:

The purpose of Rankine’s “lyric” is to address how prevalent racism is and how we all participate in this. She wants us, the readers, to understand and feel uncomfortably aware of every single act of discrimination, to read what she has to say in two ways: as the victim, and as the oppressor. She tries, and success, with every little detail. 

The cover is the first part of a book we encounter… what does this imply? In an interview with The Believer, the interviewer states he associates the image with slavery, Rankine then explains “it’s a hoodie that the conceptual artist David Hammons made in 1993, two years after the Rodney King beating”, who was a survivor of an act of police brutality. Then the author talks about the murderer of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old student that was shot in 2012, she claims that “the sense that he brought on his own death by dressing like a hood, made many believe Hammons made the piece in response to his murder. But Hammons knew or knows already.” Let’s focus on these last words. Rankine wants the reader to understand that racism and racist acts transcend beyond time and space, and, as she presents along her work, are still present today.

As we read the first pages, we find the quote “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black” found in a documentary by Chris Marker that deals with issues of the nature of human memory and how personal and global histories affect us. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBYY9LSxylw) When I was rereading the book for the second time, it caught my attention the similarity of this passage and the one in page 46: “Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he [, the friend she is addressing] needs you to account for that.” (Rankine) This made me think of the relevance of that first line, as the incompatibility of happiness and being black is stated, and will be proved though the book. 

Images continue being a crucial part of this book, and this section we find only three, but I will address two:

*I can’t paste the second picture, but it is the one in page 74*

These two images have a double duty, first of all, they make the reader feel uncomfortable and uncertain of what is going on as we don’t really understand the meaning of the second one or why the first one is written the way it is written and what she wants us to get from the message. And also, by using these images, Rankine wants us to realize the importance of the contrast of colors, as they are the first pictures in black and white that we find in the book; the first one presenting a text written in black on a white background that slowly degenerates and stars being unreadable but that presents a pattern of two sentences that reads “I do not always feel colored… I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This message makes us pay attention to a black text in a white background in an ironic way, since all the book is written in the same way: black typing on white pages; but she wants us to pay attention specifically to this one image, and she wants us to realize how the letter start to fade. On the other hand, the second image is challenging this, the common thought of a white background and black images on it, as it is presented the other way round.  

I would also like to address the different connections the author has been using with language through this section, she continues paying attention to Serena Williams’ story, but this time she wants the reader to feel what she is feeling, Rankine is comparing the feelings and frustration of the tennis match Williams lives with feelings in reality, a daily fight: a match that transcends; as we see in these examples: “The ball isn’t being returned. Someone is approaching the umpire. Someone is upset now.” (Rankine 64), “though you can retire with an injury, you can’t walk away because you feel bad”. (Rankine 65)

I also find very interesting the way Rankine talks about headaches in a figurative way. In page 61 we find out “the headaches begin” (Rankine), in page 62, “the headaches remain” (Rankine), and, finally, in page 69 “despite everything, the body remains” (Rankine)… she is addressing how tiring the daily fight gets, how these “headaches”, this pain, begin… and remain; but, in spite of the pain and the memory, the body remains, she stands still, and so does every victim of discrimination.

I have been paying attention to the imagery and pictures of this section, and my question is, do you think the images play such an important role? How do you think they work in the context of the whole book? Do the images break the ideas or the feelings you have while reading the text… or do they intensify them? And also, during this months, we have been addressing the importance of storytelling and having a voice, Rankine is aware of it as she indicates in page 61 when she compares narrative to creating lives. How do you think she is employing the act of telling stories? Do you think her method is effective? Why (or why not)?


Here is the link to Rankine’s website just in case you want to learn a bit more: http://claudiarankine.com/

Bonus (II): 

I found this caricature of Serena Williams and I just wanted to leave it here and see what you all think

Works Cited:

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.

The Believer interview: https://believermag.com/logger/2014-12-10-i-am-invested-in-keeping-present-the-forgotten/

7 thoughts on ““And despite everything the body remains … [and] the headaches [too].” Rereading and understanding the connections in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric”

  1. Hey Alejandro! First off, I loved your blog post! I think you had a great in-depth analysis of why the images are important, the different connections the book has, and the language used. To answer your question, I think the images definitely play a significant role in this American lyric. Since the book can be difficult to follow at times because of its complex language, the images help give the readers a better understanding of what’s going on and being talked about. In addition, the images give more emotion toward the text and force readers and open their imagination more. For example, when Don Imus an American radio personality calls the Rutgers women’s basketball team, “Nappy headed hoes” (42) the image of the five African American women give an explanation as to why he would call them that. Since they are Black its intended that their features such as their hair is nappy and their race makes them “hoes”.

  2. Hi Alejandro! I really liked your blog post because you focused more on the analysis of the images throughout the book, which is why I do believe that the images play a key role in the book. They are so important for the readers because instead of it all just being words that some people might not be able to connect with, a reader can understand the emotion or meaning behind some of the images. For example, at the end of the first chapter, you see the image of the dog and it gives you a clear sense of what you are looking at and supposed to be interpreting. Rankin quotes, “It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” In regards to your second question, I think the images intensify the readers’ feelings because they add so much more meaning and power over what you are thinking.

  3. Hi Alejandro! I honestly loved how you incorporated images into your blog post, it allows the reader to get a more in depth understanding of what’s going on. I do believe the images play an important role, without them I believe we wouldn’t be able to get such an in depth understanding and be able to fully look at what the author is explaining. Images are a way for people who may not be able to fully understand the text to be able to still relate and pull in their thoughts. The images intensify the meaning behind the book. The author uses story telling as a way to pull in real world examples (such as Serena Williams and Trayvon Martin) to pull at people’s emotions and get them to understand that the topics of discussion are really happening in the world around us. Personally, my favorite image in the book so far is on page 74. It’s all black and then at the bottom there is a girl in grey and white. It allows us to look at the contrast and see the emotions incorporated, the darkness of the world around the girl.

  4. Hi Alejandro – I love that you focused on the visuals in Citizen and included the cartoon at the end. Your blog post connects and expands on the ideas we discussed during Stephanie and Lilly’s facilitation last week concerning the images. I’d like to think that I put as much thought in to them as you have, but I didn’t, so I appreciate your observations and they’ve made me take a look again. That comment you made about racism and racist acts transcending time and space was excellent. It’s clear to see how much thought you’ve put in to analyzing the text and it’s helped me further analyze it, too. This inspired me to not only look at the images but the colors in the lyric. I noticed that the colors blue and red were repeated in the situations. On pages 75-76 and 79, for example, the colors red and blue multiple times with imagery like “Red wine,” “red-tailed hawk,” “blue ceiling,” and “taking over blue”. I think it’s safe to say that when we hear the colors red and blue we usually think of red, white and blue. We associate that with freedom because that’s what we’re taught in school. This made me think of how the speaker doesn’t feel that free because of other people’s assumptions and opinions limiting her.

    I looked up the symbolism behind red-tailed hawks because I thought that was a very specific animal to include and wow did this surprise me. If anyone is familiar with chakras, the red-tailed hawk symbolizes the root chakra. According to wildgratitude.com, “The first chakra relates to situations and circumstances around family, friends, and community. Here is where our insecurities around being abandoned, outcast, and left alone are held. Here are our worries about being humiliated. To have red feathers at this chakra that is characterized by the color red amplifies the power of this message and demonstrates how integral these hawks can be in helping us work through healing wounds around our sense of belonging in tribes” (https://www.wildgratitude.com/red-tailed-hawk-symbolism/). I was blown away when I read the part about situations involving the community and a sense of belonging. I feel like that ties in everything we’ve read thus far and I was too excited to not include this part. Whether or not Rankine had this symbolism in mind, this makes everything full circle. Birds are also able to fly which implies a certain amount of freedom, something the speaker wants. The speaker mentions comparisons to being treated like an animal, so I feel that this symbolism adds even more depth to the topics discussed in Citizen.

  5. Hey Alejandro, good job and dissecting the pictures and bringing even more ideas and perspectives for us to chew on. I’m glad you brought up the cover photo, I was wondering if it was about Trayvon Martin, and I’m saddened to find out it goes back even farther than that, but I am also glad that I’m now more aware.
    To me, great writers create art in a way that you need to re-read the passages in order to see the nuances and absorb the words. They make you take a moment and appreciate what you’ve just read. Rankine is a great story-teller, and the use of powerful pictures with powerful words really leave us as the audience with a whole lot to digest. You have done a phenomenal job explaining the stories and feelings behind the pictures Rankine uses in this book.

  6. Hi Alejandro!!
    First, I just wanna say that I loved the incorporation of the picturesin your blog post! It was so helpful while I was reading. It made it easier to comprehend the ideas you blogged about because the images were right in the blog post, it was super convenient. Aside from that, I really enjoyed the overall stucture and organization of your post. I also really thought about your questions placed at the endof your response.

    I feel as if Rankine includes the murder of Trayvon Martin as another horrible example of the aggressive transcendance of racism. Trayvon Martin was not doing anything wrong, yet he was murdered based off of how he was clothed. Now, thisis something we see everyday. It is terrible to see how police brutality has continued, as well as worsened. Rankine writes, “the sense that he brought on his own death by dressing like a hood, made many believe Hammons made the piece in response to his murder. ” Not only does this additon to the story add to the idea of racism’s transcendance into culture, but it is also added to really hit home to the reader. Trayvon Martin’s story was one, of the many, that was pushed into the media, making this murder well known. Rankine wants her audience to feel upset, thus she provokes emotion using this story.

    I believe theimages play a very large role in Rankine’s story. She uses them to provoke a deeper understanding of the stories she is telling. She forces the readers to actually see what she is talking about by using these examples, much like that Serena Williams caricature shows the sad truth of how much of the public viewed her after her devasting loss. Like we see in many examples here, images in Rankine’s book only intensify the feelings she is giving off in her writing

  7. Hello Alejandro!
    I genuinely enjoyed reading your blog post! Your points on the importance of images and language in Rankine’s novel are powerful – great job! Personally, I really enjoyed how you began your blog post with the focus point on the image that is on the cover. For me, the image provokes a fear of unknowing. The dark black hood looks as though it has been completely ripped of a sweatshirt that someone was wearing. I also noticed that the hood has a thin piece of wire running along the outside, where the strings are. This got me thinking, usually, the string around a hood is used to pull in order to cover one’s head or face completely with the hood. Whether that is to stay warm from the cold or to hide one’s self, the strings allow the hood to close. However, a wire is not very movable and restricts the hood from closing. This wire holds the hood in place and provides an empty space within the hood. In a way, the wire is exposing the “empty face” within the hood. Similar to how white people almost expose black people. It is as if the black hood is on a ghosts head however, we cannot see the ghost due to the white background. This concepts directly connects to the one presented in the image on page 53. Except instead of a black hood sitting against a white background, Rankine writes “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”. Visually, the words are bolded in black and rest on a white page. Each story Rankine writes is centered around the racism she encounters among white people. This is why she feels most colored (aka most black) when she is thrown among white people, who limit her and constantly remind her of the color of her skin.

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