BY THE TIME you read this, Claudia Rankine may have already won this year's National Book Award in poetry, and if she hasn't, something has gone wrong. Rankine's NBA-nominated Citizen: An American Lyric is one of the best books I've read all year, and easily the most necessary. You can tell why by looking at the cover photograph, David Hammons' 1993 "In the Hood": the sliced-off top of a faded black hooded sweatshirt, disembodied and evocative of every possible meaning such an image has come to signify. You might think of lynchings. You might think of Trayvon Martin. You might think of the Ku Klux Klan. And you'd be right.
To read Citizen is to revisit some of the most damning miscarriages of American justice over the past decade: Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six case, and the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan are only a few of Rankine's subjects. Citizen works on a macro- and micro-level, moving between national news and numerous micro-aggressions in the everyday life of an unnamed narrator ("you"): a neighbor calls the police when he sees one of your friends on the phone outside your house; a woman changes parking spots when she sees you in the car next to her. Citizen reveals the adverse cumulative effects of internalizing these daily acts of oppression: "You take in things you don't want all the time," writes Rankine, until "the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn't be an ambition."
Serena Williams is at the heart of one of Rankine's case studies on the cumulative effects of racism, in a section that early readers of her book considered too "angry," but without which Citizen would almost certainly be a lesser book. Rankine dissects the absurd duality of Williams' prodigious athletic success and near-constant mistreatment and criticism from tennis officials, commentators, and other players, perhaps best encapsulated by the American media's criticism of Williams at the 2012 Olympics. "She brought home the only two gold medals the Americans would win in tennis," writes Rankine. "After her three-second celebratory dance... the American media reported, 'And there was Serena... Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world... What she did was immature and classless.'"
Williams' story, of course, does not end there. She goes on to, in Rankine's words,
"[blossom] again into Serena Williams." She alters her behavior, and the media loves it, calling her "grown up," and cloyingly tying the change to her being "a woman in love." Rankine sees something more sinister: "You begin to wonder... if she is channeling [Hennessy Youngman's] assertion that the less that is communicated the better," she writes. "This type of ambiguity could also be diagnosed as dissociation and would support Serena's claim that she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae."
Citizen sees this splitting for what it is: an ongoing act of violence, one that is not mitigated by good intentions (intentions, Rankine suggests, may simply carry the purest form of aggression under the guise of attempted understanding). This definition leads Rankine to what may be one of Citizen's most disturbing revelations: that verbal micro-aggressions like those flung at Serena Williams are not about erasure, but about being seen, in the worst possible way—which is to be seen through crosshairs. "For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person," she writes. "You begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts... Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please."