Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book of prose poetry in which many read as narrative essays and poetic memoirs. Rankine has a powerful style in which she conveys a heavy message about racism with a quick punch of one to two lines. The images interspersed throughout the book serve to add to Rankine’s content instead of distract.
Simply looking at the front cover image, a black hood, brings forth multiple messages about race and personhood. First, Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and there is word art of this quote in the book. The black hood stands out against a white background symbolizing how a black person feels most black when put against a crowd of white people. The black hood is singular, conveying the isolation felt by people subjected to racism. The black hood is empty showing how a black person is invisible. It is a hood that has the negative connotation of an uneducated, dangerous gangster. All of these topics are encapsulated by the image of the black hood and Rankine explores them in Citizen.
Rankine’s situation videos are among her most breathtaking work because of the layering of images, colors, sound effects, her voice, and her words. In Rankine’s situation video “Stop-and-Frisk,” a couple of young black boys are trying on hoodies in a clothing store. Police sirens pulse in the background, creating a sense of emergency, but the scene playing out is mundane, teenagers shopping for clothes. The police car lights flare and block out the boys’ faces representing how black people are not seen as people. Throughout Rankine repeats the line “And you are not the guy, but still you fit the description. Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” There is the tension of the questions will these boys shoplift? And implicit in that question is race with the prejudice that some people “look” more likely to steal. The scene ends with the boys paying for their items and walking out of the store and into the possibility of fitting the description.