Visibility in Citizen: An American Lyric
What makes a good citizen if not following the laws, paying taxes, voting, and trying to accept the dichotomy among us as humans (CyberCivics, n.d.)? What if the law was unjust to your race and even after doing your civic duties, you still are not treated as a citizen? You are still not treated as a human being. In Claudia Rankine’s prosaic novel, Citizen (2014), she describes the importance of visibility and identity politics involving black minorities in America such as how black Americans are seen and heard or not, how people of color are treated through micro-aggressions as a marginalized community, and how an African American’s identity results in black trauma, white fragility, and the never-ending cycle of systematic racism. Rankine offers an educational solution within her civic poetry. However, prior to making any solutions, the public must first acknowledge where any of these inequalities exist. Rankine tries to dismantle the insidious demagoguery society has been upholding for years through her poetry protest. Protest poetry is fundamental in change as it has "swayed governments, toppled dictators and changed political systems. [...] They have [...] taken up the responsibilities of restoring political stability, social harmony and above all the sanity of a nation" (Srestha, 2000, n.p.). This hybrid poetic book addresses the blatant and subconscious racism in society, which compromises the citizenship and identity of black people (Robbins, 2019, p. 1). Rankine educates the public and forces white people to reflect on their actions. To better understand citizenship’s correlation to racism, we must take a deeper look at identity politics, which is “the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality” (Diangelo, 2018, p. xiii). Moreover, we must explore how people appear to themselves and greater communities. Marginalized people and their communities experience trauma from visibility in hyper-conscious and absent forms (Settles, 2018, n.p.). People of colour undergo mistreatment through hyper-visibility and invisibility. Hyper-visibility is “scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance” (Settles, 2018, n.p.). While invisibility is when the white standard appears as normal and the differing races suffer under this assumption (Settles, 2018, n.p.). This article will be discussing how black identities and citizenship are compromised through visibility in individual experiences and communities.
Figure 1: The Citizen book cover (left) and Claudia Rankine (right). Photo by Jeremy Allan Hawkins, November 20th, 2014.
The overall tone of Citizen (2014) is teeming with dark injustice. This can produce animosity in the reader, especially when a reader is a person of color who has had to endure the inequality presented before them (Beck, 2021, p. 199). Civic poetry is aimed towards the resistance of political issues; it is activism in a literary space catered towards fighting oppression in a neglected group (Quart, 2017). This civic poetry book responds to the hegemonic racism in society. Although we would like to believe identity frees us from the shackles of race, Robin Diangelo states in her novel, White Fragility (2018) that “perceptions of identity can grant or deny resources” (p. 25). This is harmful to the psychology of black individuals, as they do not experience the same freedoms as white people. Being a person of color is intrinsically reinforced by the ideology of individualism (Diangelo, 2018, p. 10). Thus, black identity is an individual matter being influenced by hyper-visibility in law enforcement, and malicious stereotypes. Diangelo (2018) states, “blacks and Latinos are stopped by police more often than whites are for the same activities and that they receive harsher sentences than whites do for the same crimes” (p. 63). Hyper-visibility works against black individuals as law enforcement discriminates heavily against them. An example of this is in Citizen (2014) when Rankine remarks:
[A]s the rioting and looting continued, government officials labelled the violent outbreak ‘opportunism’ and ‘sheer criminality,’ and the media picked up this language. Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death. (p. 116).
Rankine (2014) uses cacophonic and jarring language to reiterate that the police had racially profiled Mark Duggan, a defenseless black man, and killed him (Siddique, 2020, n.p.). Racial profiling is evident here as law enforcement uses such demeaning terms to describe the black crowd, who were rioting in protest of his wrongful death. This is just another example of how identity is married to black individuals and causes perpetuating stereotypes and trauma.
Along with the bigoted justice system is the ramification of hyper-visuality, which is present in the unjust stereotypes individual African Americans face (Settles, 2018, n.p.). Black individuals are under scrutiny in the public eye, and most forms of criticism stem from racism. Proof exists under “surveillance studies scholars [who] have recently […] emphasiz[ed] that citizenship is inextricable from surveillance—it specifically requires identification, cataloguing, tracking, and the discrimination of classes of individuals” (Clapp, 2017, p. 170). There are detrimental effects of analyzing black people under a prejudiced magnifying glass. Rankine (2014) highlights the umbrage in a poem, using repeated horrific words to reiterate the derogatory opinions black soccer players must endure from opposing teammates and audience members. She states, “[b]ig Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, n*gger” (Rankine, 2014, p.122), which lip readers interpreted from the language uttered at a World Cup soccer game (Hussey, 2004). The racist teammate uses offensive and untrue stereotypes to dehumanize the player and criticize him. Stereotypes are hostile and affect the individual’s mental health (Beck, 2021, p. xii). However, these are only some examples Rankine points out, which hyper-visual citizens must face alone.
Figure 2: Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 19.
Along with hyper-visibility comes the discrimination of invisibility in black citizenship. This hidden form of racism coincides with the idea that oppressed individuals do not have a voice, that their problems, their voices, and their existence are intangible to the people in power. These people, being the standardized norms, are the “white, male, middle- and upper-class, ablebodied” people (Diangelo, 2018, p. xiii). Black invisible bodies involuntarily relinquish any autonomy that they hold in society. This makes opportunities almost impossible for them to achieve and although meritocracy promises power for individuals’ efforts, they forget to mention it is only for the standard (Beck, 2021, p. 194). Diangelo (2018) mentions, “[i]ndividualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character. According to the ideology of individualism, race is irrelevant” (p. 10). This view is skewed because of white privilege as they do not take into account that racism is ubiquitous. Rankine’s (2014) poem says, “[a]nd still a world begins its furious erasure-- / Who do you think you are, saying I to me? / You nothing. / You nobody. / You” (p. 142). She uses line breaks to ensure the message that ‘You’, the person of color, is in a stanza alone. Being unheard, unable to speak for themselves, and invisible to the hegemonic standard was created to trap minorities (Beck, 2021, p. 194). For an individual black citizen in America, visibility is important. Yet, when they are under hyper-visibility and invisibility, they are unable to be citizens and are merely objects. This pattern follows the idea of community, which is how similar citizens interact with one another as a group (Settles, 2018, n.p.). Citizen (2014) itself is a shared account of racism that African Americans have had to face. Although they differ from story to story, the same message of oppression rings true in each case. Hyper-visibility of a black community highlights that other groups have different appearances based on melanin. This hyper-awareness gives unqualified judgements in other groups, as there is a long-standing history of stereotypes associated with certain skin tones (Settles, 2018, n.p.). Rankine (2014) says, “[t]hough a share of all remembering, a measure of all / memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a / truce-- / a truce with the patience of a stethoscope” (p. 156). There is a shared trauma among black people in history. This history is one of intolerance towards their race (Beck, 2021, p. xi). Rankine reminds us through the tool of the breath and the stethoscope that we all are human; no matter the amount of melanin you hold in your skin you are a person.
Figure 3: Nine African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding a banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention". [Between 1905 and 1915] Photograph.
This hyper-visibility has been cycled throughout history, such as in the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, as women fought for their right to vote (Beck, 2021, p. 7). Yet, it was black women who received the right after white women. Diangelo (2018) states, “[w]omen were denied the vote until 1920, and black women were denied access to that right until 1965” (p. xiii). Even though these women were all fighting for the same right, it was due to hyper-visibility in communities and a slight difference in their skin that divided them. Juxtaposing the hyper-visibilities in a community is invisibility, which is present on the screen of every TV. The lack of diversity in media is detrimental to the black community as they have no one to identify with (Beck, 2021, p. 194). Rankine (2014) uses paratexts such as the picture of a little boy depicted in blue lighting on pages 102 and 103. It says “BLUE / BLACK / BOY” (pp. 102-103).
Figure 4: Carrie Mae Weems, Blue Black Boy, 1987, toned gelatin silver prints with text on mat, 17 × 49".
This art piece by Carrie Mae Weems suggests the “‘shades of blackness’ people assign to themselves and others” (Albright-Knox, 1987). There is a panoply of skin tones in the world, and it is heartbreaking that only a few are shown on screens with the majority usually deafening white tones. Diangelo (2018) says, “[w]e gain our understanding of group meaning collectively through aspects of the society around us that are shared and unavoidable: television, movies, news items, song lyrics, … [etc.]. These dimensions of our culture shape our group identities” (p. 11). When there is a lack of color on the screen, it forms prejudice. As it comes from the same media, we all internalize it. Black bodies are then not only invisible onscreen, but have no sense of belonging in the world (Beck, 2021, p. 194). Rankine (2014) uses striking images to observe the real world we live in and challenge the media we interpret. Another instance of invisibility in black communities forms as gaslighting (Beck, 2021, p. 26). This can be gaslighting from other races, but can also happen within the community. An example of this is in Rankine's (2014) novel, shown in Figure 4 below:
Figure 5: Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 152.
After being told for so long that you are misinterpreting racist comments that leave a sour taste in your mouth, you begin to swallow the poison. Swallow your own voice, especially when there is a lack of help from your own community who you identify with. The persona is gaslit into thinking her feelings are invalid because the racist comments endured seem to slip under everyone’s radar. It is in this moment, with the punctuation of the question mark Rankine (2014) uses, that something racist is clearly happening because if it was not, why would the black person's body be ejecting the comment, even though other people said it was nothing? They mean you are nothing. That is invisibility. That is being invisible in your own community (Beck, 2021, p. 194).
In an interview with the author Claire Schwartz (2016), Claudia Rankine states, "[t]his life exists with realities that complicate one's attempt to exist" (p. 1). She suggests it is almost impossible to exist with the confounding and very dire problem of visibility. Therefore, what are our responsibilities as citizens and human beings other than voting, paying taxes, and allyship? The protest poetry book Citizen (2014) eliminates the pretty poetry and instead provides us with something profound as it strives to educate the public on the matters of citizenship affecting our identity politics and how citizens of marginalized groups are affected by hyper-visibility or lack thereof.
Beck, Koa. White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. Atria Paperback, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2021. E-Book, https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=rb88EAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP11&dq=suffragette+movement+and+racism&ots=frL6pNSWHn&sig=0FAJPRjC2tCqptfAQnObff1IHAw#v=onepage&q=suffragette%20movement%20and%20racism&f=false.
“Blue Black Boy.” Albright-Knox, 1987
Clapp, Jeffrey. “Surveilling Citizens: Claudia Rankine, from the First to the Second Person”. Spaces of Surveillance. 2017. Pp. 169-184.
Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility. Beacon Press, 2018.
Hussey, Andrew. "World exclusive: Zinedine Zidane’s journey from the rough back streets of Marseille to Madrid has been marked by racism, political controversy and superlative football. The world’s best player tells Andrew Hussey of his pride in his Algerian heritage, his rage to be the best - and reveals why his talent can still be engulfed by flashes of violence". The Observer (2004). https://www.theguardian.com/football/2004/apr/04/sport.features.
Quart, Alissa. "Political Poetry for Our Times". BillMoyers (2017). https://billmoyers.com/story/emergence-of-civic-poetry/
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.
“Responsibilities of U.S. Citizens.” CyberCivics,
Robbins, Amy Moorman. American Hybrid Poetics: Gender, Mass Culture, and Form. Rutgers University Press, 2019. E-book.
Schwartz, Claire. "An interview with Claudia Rankine". TriQuarterly (2016).
Settles, Isis H., et al. “Scrutinized but not recognized: (In)visibility and hypervisibility experiences of faculty of color.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2018,
Siddique, Haroon. “Mark Duggan Shooting: Can Forensic Tech Cast Doubt on Official Report?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/ng-interactive/2020/jun/10/mark-dugganshooting-can-forensic-tech-cast-doubt-on-official-report.
Srestha, Ananda P. "Protest poetry: the voice of conscience. (Research Note)." Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol. 27, no. 2, July 2000, pp. 259+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A81890925/AONEu=anon~114eb728&sid=googleScholar&xid=896d882b. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.
Figure 1: Photo by Jeremy Allan Hawkins, November 20th, 2014. https://thehairsplitter.com/post/103124853622/direct-addresson-claudia-rankines-citizen-an.
Figure 2: Photograph on iPhone of Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014, p.19.
Figure 3: Nine African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention". [Between 1905 and 1915] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/93505051/>.
Figure 4: Carrie Mae Weems, Blue Black Boy, 1987, toned gelatin silver prints with text on mat, 17 × 49". https://www.bookforum.com/print/2104/claudia-rankine-s-poetic-reflections-on-invisible-racism-13924.
Figure 5: Photograph on iPhone of Rankine, C. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014, p.152.