Citizen in the Classroom, Citizen in the World

Citizen: An American Lyric 

by Claudia Rankine  

A Powerful Catalyst for Conversation in Classrooms and Communities

 

 

"Our classroom has actually become a safer space for difficult conversations because of our access to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In a group that includes visiting international students, kids from the Detroit suburbs, from real Detroit and Compton, senior English majors and first-year pre-med students, people both queer and straight, Christians, Buddhists, and devout atheists, we've managed to come to a place in which we can really talk to each other. In our little room, at least, with Rankine’s text as a provocation and a guide, we have found a way to be citizens."Diane Seuss, Kalamazoo College 

 

What is Citizen?

Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric is an innovative work of poetry, prose, and visual images that addresses racism in America. Rankine introduces the concept of microaggressions, or small instances of racism in everyday encounters. Some of these are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in public and private life, in sports, online, on TV, everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform, and stay alive, and Rankine's work puts you into this space. The book has won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the Forward Prize for Best Collection (UK), the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, and the PEN Open Book Award. It has sold over 180,000 copies since its October 2014 publication.

 

How could I use Citizen as a teaching tool?

Citizen has maximum impact in the classroom because students can grapple with the difficult issues Rankine raises in a safe space. The book can provide an entry into discussing inequality through a political or personal lens, in addition to being an example of an artistic response to current events. Instructors have requested free desk copies for use in everything from creative writing to political and feminist theory courses. Several colleges and universities, including Washington University in St. Louis, Howard University, Grand Valley State University, and Keene State College, have adopted Citizen for campus-wide reading programs.

 

In addition to schools and universities, community organizations have used Citizen to start conversations about race and social justice, including the YWCA in Minneapolis, MN. Citizen is now an NEA Big Read selection; grants are available to support community reading programs using the book. Graywolf has created these discussion questions as a starting point for a dialogue. You can also email us at citizen [at] graywolfpress [dot] org to connect with a staff member if you have specific questions about teaching or discussing Citizen.

 

 

Where can I read more about Citizen's critical reception?

The following sources link to formatted pdf documents.

The New York Times, "Claudia Rankine's Citizen."

The New York Times, "A Poetry Personal and Political: Claudia Rankine on Citizen and Racial Politics."

The New Yorker, "Color Codes."

NPR, "In Citizen, Poet Strips Bare the Realities of Everyday Racism."

Slate, "The New Printing of Citizen Adds a Haunting Message About Police Brutality."

The Washington Post, "Claudia Rankine's Editor on the Genius of Citizen."

The Paris Review, interview with David Ulin "Claudia Rankine, The Art of Poetry No. 102."

 

Are there other resources I can access?

Claudia Rankine's website has additional work exploring the themes of Citizen, including a series of video essays called "Situations."

Claudia has also launched the Racial Imaginary Institute as a way to further explore the questions raised in the book.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston compiled these discussion questions in collaboration with Graywolf.

Southern Humanities Review has put out this resource for students and teachers.

Los Angeles Review of Books looked at Citizen from multiple angles: Roundtable I, Roundtable IISymposium ISymposium II

Suzi F. Garcia wrote this piece about teaching Citizen for The University of Arizona Poetry Center's blog.

At Teachers & Writers, Phylis Meshulam detailed the lesson plan she developed for sixth grade students to engage with Citizen.

The City of Charleston, SC, received an NEA Big Read grant to make copies of Citizen available to residents, as reported by the Post and Courier.

 

Why are there textual differences between different copies of Citizen?

Careful readers will notice differences between copies of Citizen from different printings. Citizen has gone through thirteen separate printings as of May 2016. You can find out which printing you're reading by looking on the copyright page of the book. Below the ISBN toward the bottom of the page is a line of numbers. The lowest number in that line is the book's printing.

 

The majority of a book's content does not change from printing to printing, but sometimes authors feel that changes are necessary in order to respond to current events or to further refine or clarify their texts. In Citizen, this can be seen in Rankine's changes to several pages in the book, but especially her changes to page 134. By including the names of additional African Americans who have been killed since each previous printing, Rankine is further underscoring the devastating urgency of Citizen's message. In this pdf, you can see page 134 from the first, second, third, eighth, and tenth printings of Citizen, one after another. Page 134 from the 12th printing is shown below; Citizen is now in its 17th printing. The Slate article listed above also discusses these changes: "The New Printing of Citizen Adds a Haunting Message About Police Brutality."

Page 134 from the 12th printing of Citizen

 

Photo credits

First photo: Claudia Rankine speaking to students at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, in March 2015. Pictured with Mark Conway, director of the Literary Arts Institute of the College of Saint Benedict.

Second photo: Claudia Rankine signing books at ALOUD at the Los Angeles Public Library in October 2014. Photo credit: Gary Leonard