The Subjectivity of You in “Citizen”

In many cases, experience outweighs classroom learning or lecture when it comes to education. Simply being told something does not mean that an individual will understand a concept. Only through encounters can some truly learn an idea. Rankine uses this as a device in her writings. She does not merely invite the reader to experience her experiences; she forces those willing to experience it. In her work, Claudia Rankine’s repeated use of the pronoun “you”makes the reader the subject of her work. While reading this part of Citizen I used a Marxist critical lens to better understand the social hierarchy Rankine works to dismantle. During her poem, Rankine hails her audience by saying, “Hey you—” (140). By hailing her readers directly, Rankine “[I]nterpellates individuals as subjects” (Althusser 119). Interpellates means to give an identity to something. By calling out to her reader, Rankine uses her power as the author of this book to make the reader the subject of the poem and helps her audience understand her position by switching the roles of the narrative. I believe that this gives a new meaning to the following excerpt:
           You are you even before you grow into understanding you are not anyone, worthless, not worth you. (139)
This excerpt helps the reader understand the deep-rooted, sometimes subconscious institution of racism in America. Rankine invites the reader to imagine being seen as worthless in the eyes of a society before the reader is even born. In this way, Rankine makes her argument by forgoing the writing convention showing, not telling by having the reader experience first-hand what she argues. Rankine employs this strategy again when she says, “what happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you” (141). The audience experiences Rankine’s experience of not owning her life. This idea of ownership stems back to the middle passage when Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. Their experiences, their home, and their autonomy ripped away from them so that they held no ownership over their life. Rankine needs her audience to not only be aware of this fact but live it. Only through this experience can someone truly understand the pain, the injustice, and the inequality of the situation. And, the moment you question this ideology and this institution, “you are pulled back into the body of you receiving” (141). Rankine makes clear that the current system condemns the questioning of itself and has measure to defend itself from someone dismantling it: having them pulled back and become a receiver again. Rankine shows the ridicule people experience when showing any autonomy. The persona of the poem takes on an authoritative tone in the following excerpt:

Who do you think you are, saying I to me?

You nothing.

You nobody.

You. (142)

The pronoun “I” holds a special place in the English grammar: the only pronoun capitalized in any point during a sentence. It also holds the place as the subject of a sentence (me being in the objective case.) The word “you,” on the other hand, remains the same in the subjective case or objective cases. The persona ridicules the audience for assuming they have any power in this society, they have the right to individuality and they have the freedom to define themselves. Instead, the persona of the poem flips it on audience and tells them where they stand in the social hierarchy. Rankine experienced all the problems she has her audience live, and she realizes that silence and tolerance only perpetuates the problem. She recognizes that her audience needs to experience this social injustice in order for them to see that it exists. This shared experience will be used as a first step in dismantling a society that promotes and institutionalizes racism. The first step starts with the individual experience and blossoms from there. Thank you all for reading my ramblings! Here are a couple of questions I’m hoping to get your opinion on:

1. Does Rankine use any other elements in this poem or in the story to make the reader the subject of the story other than using the pronoun “you”?

2. Do you think the subject of the story is not the reader (“you”)? If so, who is it?

3. How do you think the final images of the story contribute to how Rankine includes the reader in her text?

17 thoughts on “The Subjectivity of You in “Citizen””

    1. Hi Alex. First off, I thought your post was so insightful and a really interesting topic. As we have talked about it in class, the word “you” is so powerful that it can actually make you feel like the story is about yourself and your own experiences. But, to answer your question, if the pronoun “you” is not about yourself I think in a weird way, the book is trying to show you what it is like looking in from the outside. For example, Rankine states, “Nobody notices, only you’ve known, you’re not sick, not crazy, not angry, not sad- It’s just this, you’re injured.” Maybe, Rankine is telling this story about someone else going through these experiences and we are bystander’s throughout the story trying to understand what they are going through. I do not really know if this makes much sense, but if “you” is not ourselves, this is what I believe it may be.

  1. I agree with your post, Alex! I believe the subject of the story is you throughout the novel. We are suppose to realize our wrongs and realize from the other perspective what’s actually STILL happening in the world today. I’ve noticed Rankine use many other devices to show the reader the subject of the story is “you”. Many times reading the parts of the book I’ve noticed that Rankine doesn’t use quotes or descriptive adjectives (to sort of get a better feel of what’s going on) when shes referencing dialogue. Two people could be having a conversation in the book but she doesn’t formally introduce dialogue as it usually would be introduced with quotations , you have to physically put yourself into the situation and figuring out what’s going on and imagine what the situation would look like in your mind. In an example on page 45 “And when the woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black woman could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationships as you realize nowhere is where you will get away from here.” (Rankine). From this you have to picture how she is saying it and how she might look when shes saying it, there’s no formal quotations or verbs describing how she said it. You just have to envision in your mind the situations and its quite easy to realize this is a white woman who most likely has a snotty attitude towards the narrator. The final images of the book are suppose to leave you thinking for sure. I didn’t even really know what I was looking at until I went to the back of the book to look at the titles of the photos. She wants the readers to think over the book and overall meanings put together with all the separate stories she told. The last thing she wants readers to remember is that this is still a very relevant issue in todays politics even though colored people have made it a long way since slavery.

  2. Hey Alex, great blog post! I enjoyed how you delved deeper into the meaning of “you”, even connecting it all the way back to the Middle Passage! It really puts into perspective the ongoing problems of identity and ownership of one’s self.
    To answer your questions:

    I believe in the final passage on 159, where she uses ‘I’ as the subject, had a much more powerful impact than if she had begun using ‘I’ in the beginning. The whole book was spent putting us in all the situations and micro-aggressions, that when Rankine finally used ‘I’, I didn’t register it as her own self, but as my own self, if that makes sense. The instances where she used ‘you’, were her own retellings, but the last passage was just me….. myself, I. I hope this makes sense to everyone else!

    I do not think that there is one concrete answer for who the subject of the story is, and that’s the beauty of Rankine’s work of art. Any way you interpret it is the correct answer. The subject could be the reader, white people as a whole, black people as a whole, an imaginary person, someone, no one, Rankine talking to herself, etc. The list goes on.

    I think the final images show Rankine’s struggle with navigating her life with the micro-aggressions she and others experience. On 147, to me it looks like a metaphor for her inability to speak out. She has to eat her own words, like the person in the picture looks to be eating its own arm? There’s also a hand choking the figure, like she chokes her own responses to racism in everyday life. The last picture that spans across pages 160&161, is an invitation to the audience of very real and very tragic events in African American history. Both images are visceral and invoke feelings of pain, discomfort and anguish. These are the feelings that Rankine and others have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and I believe that Rankine included these images to be a part of her world.

  3. Hey Alex! I really enjoyed your blog post and the analysis of the poem. I think your points on the writer using “you” in order to make the reader feel like their the subject is very true and I agree with you on that note. To reiterate, I think that we (the readers) are the main subject of the book. I think the writer does this because she may want to make us more aware of not only our actions, but the people around us actions as well. Sometimes we may be blind to certain situations happening right in front of us, which is something the reader brings attention to. For example, when the white women parks her car and sees a black woman in another right across from her she, “backed up and parked on the other side of the lot” (159). The white women clearly felt threatened by the other women’s race and automatically made assumptions about what could potentially happen simply because of her appearance.

  4. Hi Alex!
    I loved reading your “ramblings”. I especially loved your ending statement of “the first step starts with the individual experience and blossoms from there”. I could not agree with that statement more. In order for society to grow above racism and become united regardless of our differences, we must first focus on our individual identity. I think the ending of Rankine’s book strongly supports this idea of fixing a big problem by focusing on the little issues that feed the problem. In this case, the big problem is injustice and racism and the little issues are people. We feed this social problem together and have no true, single way to end it. As Rankine states on one of the last pages of her book, “I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending” (159). The reader could interpret this statement in two ways. One interpretation is that Rankine does not know how to end the book because she has more stories involving racism, pain, and microaggressions. The other interpretation, that may be her main point, is that Rankine does not know how to end these bigger problems because they do not have an ending. Her last words are “it was a lesson” (159). When I read this, I interpreted it as her claiming that this entire book is a lesson to the world. One that she hopes forces people to realize and understand that this major problem is not only one that exists in a history book. It is not one that only a single group faces. It is a problem that has gone on for way too long. It has been covered up by way too many excuses and people. It needs to be addressed head-on. Rankine wants people to use her book as a lesson. She is educating us on social injustices with the hope that we learn from what she taught us in 161 pages. Lessons themselves are crucial to life but it is only when they are applied, that they truly become powerful.

  5. Hey Alex, love the blog post and how well into detail you went in evaluating and dissecting this story. What I have noticed throughout the story, is Rankine is blunt, extensively. She does not seem to be beating around the bush with whatever topic she decides to bring up; or incident. She uses terms and phrases that grab the readers attention and making them really feel that “you” concept she is using consistently.

    I also believe the “you” could go both ways. A lot of the topics she delivers to the reader are well-known events that just about everyone could remember happening or had heard about. So in this case, I personally believe that when Rankine says “you”, she is referring to society as a whole. I also believe that yes, the “you” concept was pointed towards the reader, but I believe that she had a bigger idea in mind when she says “you” as this story is extremely powerful in a lot of ways. I just find it hard to believe that with such detail and anger, she is just targeting the reader, but society in general.

    The final pages in the story are pretty graphic. But, yes I’d have to say. In the picture, there is a black person underwater, surrounded by fish, with a boat what seems to be a pretty good distance away from he or she. I feel like the black person drowning is “you” in the story, the fish smothering that person are the problems that Rankine has brought up throughout the story, and the ship is the solution to the problems but that solution, is way out of reach in this society. Her images are powerful but after I was done reading this, these images hit me hard.

  6. Hi Alex!
    Great blog post and I love taking a deeper look at Rankine’s use of “you” again. I do believe that the reader, “you” is the subject of the story, but I still feel there is a large disconnect between the reader and the people who have actually been in the situations that are described. Although we do feel the discomfort and unpleasantness from reading about the situations, I don’t think there is a comparison to how one would feel if it truly happened to them. Rankine says “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the dissapoinments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” (Rankine 116). Her use of “you” is more of a challenge to make us uncomfortable and see how much of an impact her stories could have on us, although even she knows that for some of us we have nothing to compare them to and can’t get an accurate idea of the real feelings that the victims would feel in these encounters.

  7. Hi Alex!
    I loved the interpretation of the poem, especially when you added how “she recognizes that her audience needs to experience this social injustice in order for them to see that it exists”, racism is still a major issue in society and we desperately need to find a way for everyone to acknowledge the issue and figure put ways to make everyone feel accepted and welcomed. I have not noticed any other elements in the poem or story that addresses the reader like “you”, however, if anyone has found any please let me know, id love to see them. I believe she uses “you” to address the reader, yes. This is a way to possibly allow people to see a glimpse of what it is like, struggling with racist behavior around you as a person of color. She is addressing a complicated issue, however, it must be discussed. I’m honestly not sure what to think of when I see the images on pages 160 and 161, those confused me.

  8. Hi Alex, great post! It’s clear just how much thought you put in to this. To answer your question concerning who exactly the “you” is, I feel that it’s open for interpretation. Initially, I believed that “you” was supposed to be the reader. Why else would she use the word “you”? She was trying to immerse the readers in these situations. But a few classes ago, Professor Savonick mentioned how she felt a slight disconnect because while reading the situations, she said she’s not actually there, she is where she is (I hope I’m summarizing this right). I read parts of the lyric again and I can see where that feeling of disconnect comes from. I feel that the more you read the lyric, and the more Rankine exposes the readers to (the list of names, the photographs, even more situations) the reader feels less like the “you”. Or perhaps that’s just how I read it. I think this was done so with intention; it’s as if this writing strategy emphasizes the problems with racism. She causes the readers, the “you” to feel uncomfortable in a way that highlights these ongoing issues. Maybe the “you” is Rankine as well, or at least towards the end. It feels as if she’s writing to herself at times because of how emotionally vulnerable she is. The “you” is everyone and herself. I definitely think that the “you” throughout the lyric changed, even though it didn’t. I’m not sure how to explain it but I think the speaker changes, or the you goes back and forth between being inclusive and exclusive to demonstrate the effects of racism.

  9. Hey Alex! Your blog post was amazing and addressed very important points. Your first sentence really drew my attention. No one would know how to do anything without learning hands on. A thought is totally different from an action. This goes for anyone really. Therefore, people won’t do something unless they see it being done by others. I believe that this is why racism is still such an issue today. I also liked how you dug deeper into the past to show us readers how long issues like this have been occurring. It really puts it all into perspective.
    The use of the pronoun “you” in this book is a little confusing too. You could see that it could be used in so many different ways. To me, I believe it’s being used towards us, the readers. How Rankine says “Hey you –” on page 140, shows us how she is trying to draw the worlds attention to what she is saying.

  10. Hey Alex, this post was really insightful and I totally agree with it! To answer your first question, I think it’s notable to add that on page 159 Rankine finally includes the pronoun “I” that you mentioned in your post. For her to finally resort back to using this pronoun at the end of the book after she’s made her point is significant in that she has finally influenced the audience to experience these situations. I definitely think she makes a point to make the subject “you” but it isn’t as direct as we think. Yes, she includes this to help us get into the shoes of the POC to recognize the struggles they go through but in no way are we ever going to truly realize what they go through so the main subject is the POC. For me, it was hard to make out the pictures perfectly on the last two pages. The one thing I did catch from it was that there seemed to be this leg that looked like it belonged to a POC individual with a shackle around their ankle that doesn’t look necessarily attached to anything, implying that there is hope to break free from these societal restrictions.

  11. Hey Alex! I am so glad that you analyzed the poem in a deep way and the way you interpreted it. I completely agree with you in the fact that Rankine wants the audience to experience the social injustice of racism, but I also think she does that in a way to make the reader feel uncomfortable, to understand how racism prevails in society because of everybody’s actions.

    I don’t really think there are other elements to make the reader the subject apart from the “you”, but I certainly believe the reader is the subject of the story. As for the images, I think sometimes they illustrate so well the part of the text the writer wants us to understand but other times they completely throw us into confusion… making us focus more and try to understand better… They make us spend more time reading and analyzing, getting deeper into them than what we would by just continuing reading without paying attention to them.

  12. Hi Alex!
    I really enjoyed reading your “ramblings”! I especially liked reading your detailed perspective of ‘you’ because I too had similar discoveries on it. And to answer your second question, if I believe the subject of the text is anyone but the reader, I believe there is a way to see it both ways. Obviously the more pronounce and clear subject is the reader, with Rankine’s continuous use of the word ‘you’. The reader is automatically thrown into the text almost feeling ad experiencing everything Rankine is explaining. However, there is also the possibility that the reader isn’t the subject, the subject is actually your subconscious of who you first see when you read these racist remarks. For instance, when I read page 127 on how the waitress handed a women’s card back to her friend instead of her, she asked her friend what else her privilege gets her. Her friend responded with “oh, my perfect life”, and they both break out in laughter. To go back to my point that us as the reader may not be the subject but that our subconscious of who or what we think of first when read these racist actions/ remarks. When I first read this page I didn’t think of myself I thought of instances where I experienced someone making these remarks or a specific scene in a movie where these remarks brought me back to that specific moment. Overall, I believe there is the flexibility of us as the reader to be the subject of the text but also it could be anyone you first think of when you read what Rankine has been through or has seen others go through.

  13. Hi Alex,
    I really enjoyed your post, as it gave me more information on an idea that I feel strongly for as well. I feel that the idea that Rankine does not own her own life, society does. You state that “she recognizes that her audience needs to experience this social injustice in order for them to see that it exists” and I believe that’s why she forces the “You” on her audience. Rankine wants toopen her readers’ eyes to a world of experiences that they may not have experienced. Without knowledge of these horrible experiences, the readers cannot place themselves in Rankine’s shoes.

    Regarding your questions: If the “you” is not the reader themself, it is for the part of society that is failing to realize that change needs to occur. Rankine is also targeting the audience memebers who are still on the edge of seeing the harsh realities of racism. If people don’t see the need for change, it will be difficukt to actually see a difference in the world. As you stated, “The first step starts with the individual experience and blossoms from there.” I believe this goes off of the fact that the use of “you” starts with the individual reader, but then opens itself up to the large audience that still needs to support the change .

  14. Hi Alex, I enjoyed reading your blog post and I also like the different examples and quotations you used from the book. I also think the word “you” is a very strong pronoun that Rankine uses throughout this book. In some circumstances, I feel like some readers may overlook the ways in which Rankine incorporates this word into her different stories. It is interesting because the word “you” addresses the readers and Rankine doesn’t know much about the readers or much about their race or their ways of thinking. I feel like Rankine is holding us as readers somewhat responsible for the way society and she seems to assume that we all have racist ideas somewhat embedded in us. Rankine uses other pronouns to address other people throughout her stories rather than only addressing the reader. “I, they, he, she, we, you turn only to discover the encounter to be alien to this place.” (Rankine 140). In this part of the book, I feel like Rankine is using all of these different pronouns to somewhat group us all together. Apart from being a human is having your own identity and similar to how the criminal justice system and even social groups many African Americans together Rankine is doing the same thing to the reader. Grouping us all together allows for the readers I think who isn’t a minority to get a sense of what it is like to be grouped and to have no identity. I think the subject of the story is “you” but I also think Rankine is trying to address all different types of people and drawing our attention to a huge problem in a society that people tend to look past. She wants us to know that this is an issue and that it affects everyone in society despite their skin color or class setting. The ways in which Rankine uses you is so powerful and she uses it in ways to almost guilt the readers and humble at times as well she also uses it to anger and get a reaction out of the readers as well.

  15. Alex,
    I thought that your blog post was very insightful and went in much greater depth than just scratching the surface. I thought it was important how you analyzed certain words like, “Interpellates” I thought defining and analyzing those words helped your in making crucial points Rankine was bringing across through her diction. To discuss your question, “Do you think the subject of the story is not the reader (“you”)? If so, who is it?” I believe that Rankines intentions aren’t necessarily to make the reader the subject, but using the second person “you” point of view makes the content hit closer to home for the reader and puts the reader in the oppressed persons shoes. On page 116 Rankine says, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the dissapoinments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” The way in which she explores the words “foreign” and “body” highlight how the reader is not meant to take the point of view persoannly as them, but it is meant to make the reader uncomfortable.

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