This artist is on a mission to reflect the power of his Black subjects
Discussion questions for ‘Citizen’
Our July 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Claudia Rankine on our Google form. Rankine will answer reader questions about “Citizen” on the PBS NewsHour at the end of the month.
WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down
- “Because white men can’t police their imagination black people are dying,” Rankine wrote in 2014. Why does this still ring true today? Does the current debate about policing and race in America feel different in any way than it did six years ago?
- Rankine demonstrates how “microaggressions” play out in the everyday lives of Black Americans. What are your experiences with microaggressions and did her poetry illuminate for you how they affect people?
- What did you make of Rankine’s use of visual art alongside her text?
- From Serena Williams to Zinedine Zidane, many of the people Rankine writes about have long been cultural figures. Did her writing change the way you thought about these popular icons?
- What was one line from Rankine’s work that stayed with you? Why?
- What did you think of Rankine’s use of the second person in writing about her own personal experiences of racism?
- In the following passages, what emotions or observations come up for you?
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible–I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
Boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity heaving butting heads righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence charging forward in their way experiencing the position of positioning which is a position for only one kind of boy face it know it for the other boy for the other boys the fists the feet criminalized already are weapons already exploding the landscape and then the litigious hitting back is life imprisoned.
Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.
Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go.
Again Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.
— From “Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine