In a time of division and bitterness, Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poetry collection “Citizen” is relevant now more than ever.

A novel-length poem, “Citizen” takes readers into the depths of the Black experience, aiming to instill a sense of empathy within its readers with the daily pain of being a Black citizen in a whitewashed world.

“I do not always feel colored,” Rankine wrote, quoting Zora Neale Hurston. “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“Citizen” has the feeling of a diary accidentally left behind on a train, cataloging words, actions and events that are often too painful to be said aloud. Each page feels like a knife in your chest inching closer and closer to your heart — it’s not enough to kill you, but enough to hurt in the worst of ways.

A central theme of the novel is addressing the pain and the injustices that caused it. Rankine examines famous individuals who struggled to express their outrage in ways that would be acceptable by white audiences.

One of the people Rankine examines in this respect is tennis star Serena Williams, who has often generated controversy due to her reactions to questionable umpire decisions made against her. Rankine uses Williams’ career and on-court persona as a symbol of “a victorious or defeated Black woman’s body in a historically white spaces”.

“[Serena and Venus Williams] win sometimes, they lose sometimes... through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all — graphite against a sharp white background,”  Rankine said. 

Rankine also recounts the story of the dramatic FIFA World Cup Final in 2006 between France and Italy, where Italian defender Marco Materazzi allegedly racially abused French attacking midfielder Zinedine Zidane’s mother. In response, Zidane head-butted Materazzi two minutes before the end of the match.

“And there is no Black [person] who has not wanted to smash any white face he might encounter in a day out of motives of the cruelest vengeance,” Rankine wrote, reacting to Zidane’s head-butt. “[There is] no Black [person] who has had to make his own precarious adjustment... yet the adjustment must be made — rather it must be attempted.”

This idea of “self-control” in the face of white racism is echoed throughout the novel. As “Citizen” progresses, it becomes clearer that Rankine believes that the shock white people express at Black outrage comes from their ignorance of their own privilege. Many of the short scenarios portrayed by the novel center around this idea.

“Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive,” begins one scenario, “you hear one say to the other that being around Black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.”

Rankine seems to express throughout the novel that the problem lies not in the fact that Black people belong to some alien tribe, but that white people can’t be bothered to turn on the subtitles. It is that identification of some people’s unwillingness to listen and to try to understand, which makes “Citizen” as painful as it is powerful.

Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” is a lesson in the power of empathy — and the hurt caused by withholding it. Originally published in 2014, “Citizen” is just as relevant now as it was then.

Red Kwenda is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @RedKwendaWriter.

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