Citizen: An American Lyric won National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (2014) and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. The book combines prose, verse, and images, describing Rankine’s experience of racism in America. There are seven parts.
Part I begins with the narrator’s memory of a girl in her class asking her to let her copy her exam answers. Like the rest of the book, it is told in the second person.
You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James school on White Plains Road and the girl sitting behind the seat asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written […] You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better for cheating from an almost white person.
The book is full of incidents like this, cataloging the daily experiences of white racism, both overt and subtle, that Rankine and other black people face in the United States.
Part II is Rankine’s meditation on black tennis star Serena Williams and racist attacks Williams has experienced in her career. The next few sections (parts III-V) are more in the style of Part I, focusing on her personal experiences of racism.
Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect — context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public,” and not “among friends.”