“The purpose of art,” James Baldwin writes in a passage cited by Claudia 

Rankine in her latest book, Citizen, “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Collating scenes from popular culture, personal histories, speculative video scripts, news media, visual works by black artists, and theoretical meditations, Citizen interrogates the proliferating answers that continue to obscure the hidden questions of race in contemporary American society over half a century after Baldwin’s remark. Such work offers no answers of its own, for Citizen is, if nothing else, a book of questions:


What did you say? (14)  

What? (28)  

What did you say? (41)  

What did you say? (43)  

What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean? (47)  

What is wrong with you? (54) 

Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just  do that? (55) 

Is it cool?  Are you cool? (88)

Where did you imagine you were going? (113)

Who do you think you are, saying I to me? (136)

Who shouted, you? (139)

What feels more than feeling? (146)

What is? (146)


Even this fractional cento of Rankine’s interrogatives will show how Citizen opens the field of second-person address as an imaginative resource for investigating the mis-identifications of race in our historical moment. On one level, Rankine’s second-person poetics addresses the fungibility of black identity under the contemporary police state: “[a]nd 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” (103). But an a priori examination of first-person ontologies subtends the phenomenology of racial profiling throughout the text as well:


Sometimes “I” is supposed to hold what is not there until it is.  Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it.


This makes the first person a symbol for something.


The pronoun barely holding the person together (70).


Tactically speaking, Rankine disavows the first-person register of complaint—“Don’t say I if it means so little, / holds the little forming no one” (137)—in order to invert the optics of race in Western culture. Transposing her narratives of racial insensitivity, abuse, humiliation, and outrage onto a fictive “you,” she deftly inducts the reader into the pronominal position of the racialized subject: “[a]fter it happened I was at a loss for words.  Haven’t you said this to yourself?  Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?” (7).  Yes, the reader might respond, I have said this—“I was at a loss for words”—to myself. But no, she might reflect, I haven’t said this to a friend who called me by the name of her black housekeeper. Faced with Rankine’s unsettling (and unsettled) questions, we momentarily experience race as a riddle without an answer in our present forms of collective life. Readers of Citizen will not easily forget the serial incidents of disregard and violence directed toward Rankine’s “you” in this work:


She tells you you smell good and look like a white person (5).


He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there (10).


At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black! (44)


And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here (45).


When the waitress hands your friend the check you laugh and ask what else her status gets her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles (142).


How can one person suffer such repeated disregard and offence without becoming ‘overly’ sensitive? Questions of sensitivity, sensitization, and negative affect run throughout Citizen: “[t]he worst hurt is feeling you don’t belong so much // to you” (140). But the more closely we examine Rankine’s second-person subject, the more complex these questions become. “To everyone who generously shared their stories, thank you,” Rankine writes in the book’s acknowledgments. We discover, only at the end of this grievous testament, that we may have been reading the story of a composite you from the beginning. Perhaps the most brilliant innovation of Citizen lies in Rankine’s construction of this composite “you” which—as the dark double of Whitman’s first-person polity—allows us to register a plurality of unanswerable injustices through the felt urgency of an individual subject.

—Srikanth Reddy

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