Color in America: Rankine’s Citizen

“Citizen” is an interesting collection of writing. The works, which vary in length, mainly tackle to the problem of segregation and the race struggle in America. Whether just free writing, or describing the events of Hurricane Katrina and the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Rankine is able to successfully make the reader feel the oppression that existed and be able to understand what happened regardless of their personal life story.

One moment in “Citizen” that intrigues me is the 2 page spread at the beginning of the book that has the lines “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED…” and “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” These two lines would be powerful if they were written out in a regular font on the page as black text on a white page. Yet Rankine decides not to follow the “norm” for writing and insteads gets very creative in her writing out of these lines. The writing resembles that of a student in middle school who has done something wrong and is now copying their sin down on the chalkboard over and over. The first page which contains the line “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED” is interesting without the addition of the second page. The lines are slowly blurred as the reader moves down the page and the ink appears to smudge more and more eventually making it very difficult for the reader to differentiate between the text and the smudged ink. In the first few lines it is apparent that the stark contrast between the dark and the light make the writer feel colored. They literally stand out against the rest of of the page. However, as the page gets darker they start to feel more comfortable as they are surrounded by the darkness. This could be more a comment on the comfort that blacks felt within their own communities contrasted with the negativity they felt directed at them by the whites.

Additionally, the second page only reinforces the first page. The line stresses what we already know, which is that the whiteness made Rankine feel different, and clearly not in a good way if it has to be mentioned, whereas among people similar to her she felt comfortable and not like an outcast. Similarly the use of the word “Thrown” in these lines indicates that she is being forced onto this white background and if it were up to her she would not be forced onto the “SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” What interests me most about this is that the rest of the book is then written in black text on a white page. This would normally not carry any significant value as printing white text on a black page for example would just be very cost inefficient. It is interesting that she makes such a distinction at the beginning of the book and then proceeds to write about the struggles of black people in the face of white oppression in the back text on white page.

I see a connection between Rankine and Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America.” Both Hughes and Rankine describe their struggle as blacks living in America and the harsh segregation they experience in their lives. Both Rankine and Hughes are proud of their ancestry and yet it seems that while Hughes embraces his Rankine has more difficulty with hers. On those same pages I discuss above the smudging of the ink could be a sign that Rankine is losing her own identity and is fitting the non A-Type personality that the whites would have wanted the blacks to have. In contrast, Hughes embraces his ancestry and skin color and shows a more proactive approach in his seeking equality, “When company comes./Nobody’ll dare/Say to me.”Eat in the kitchen,”/Then.” (10-15). Hughes has embraced his ancestry and is ready to move past what the white people tell him who he should be.


Questions for the class:

  1. Do you see the smudging of ink at the bottom of the page as a sign of lost identity or as something different?
  2. Do you think that Hughes and Rankine share a connection or is Rankine more closely connected to another poet?
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12 Responses to Color in America: Rankine’s Citizen

  1. I think you can definitely see some similarity between Rankine and Ginsberg. Both were writing for very different reasons, but both were protesting. the dedication here is to Trayvon Martin, while Ginsberg dedicated his to Carl Solomon. Both poets feel that the person they are dedicating to have been the victim of society. They are both angry in some way.

  2. Mika Katz says:

    I think it was really important to note the words in bold print. In my personal interpretation of the ink, I saw the ink in the beginning as something sure, concrete, even a sure identity. But in the way that it’s written and printed, it almost forces the reader to believe what’s written as facts. As the words descend on the page and blur out, there’s an ambiguity not only in the meaning of ambiguity but in it’s perception. The perception changes and it becomes more vague. I think it was a great way to pair something very deep in meaning with visually large spaces of black smudged ink. Just visually, the two pages create immense depth and I think that was definitely intentional.

  3. Interesting question about the smudges. I do not see them as a loss of identity, but an inability to truly pinpoint the American identity. I think it is more of an inability to express the new American identity then it is a loss of one. It is the mark when words fail.

  4. Max Richter says:

    Jeremy’s interpretation of the page that contains words written consecutively after each other was very interesting and a cool perspective on why the lines were blurred the lower it got. To me though, the font of the text and the boldness reminded me of a man writing in a prison and the bottom of the page could be smudged due to tears that occurred while writing. A connection could be made to a lot of the unfair arrests that apparently occur against African Americans. The style of the poem reminds me of Cha’s excerpt because of the idea of being thrown in a certain situation. The beginning throws the reader to a black child in school who struggles with being different. This reminds me of Cha’s mother being different and as Jeremy points out, thrown, into another dominating country.

  5. Rani says:

    Interestingly enough, when I read that uniquely inked page, I did not even notice the word “ALWAYS” until the third or fourth sentence down. I disagree that the smudged ink represents a lost identity. I think it reminds her of an identity she reluctantly carries during this period in history. She forgets her color, unless placed in an exclusively white background. She supports this theory in one of the first anecdotes in which a white girl informs the speaker that she has the features of a white person. She is indirectly insulting her black heritage because she believes that being black is negative. I didn’t even know that the speaker was black until that comment because the speaker does not mention it; thus leading me to believe that the speaker does not really believe color to be of great importance and does not associate it with her identity. Due to this lack of regard towards color and its impact on identity, I do agree that Hughes is a poet closely related to Rankine. Both poets present a hope for future equality and the gap between races.

  6. Rahul Roy says:

    Jeremy’s pointing out of the smudged ink is a nice eye-opener for one who does not assume that visual representations are always relevant (me 🙁 ). Aside from the irrelevant I see the smudging of the ink the same way Jeremy does. Smudging spreads the ink across, almost expanded as it loses its prominent shade and becomes a closer shade to its surroundings. In the same way “as the page gets darker they start to feel more comfortable as they are surrounded by the darkness” (Jeremy). This is a pretty interesting technique that even I could see myself doing. Rankine’s using of the visual is her taking advantage of this extremely lengthy poem. Additionally, the similarities of Rankine and Hughes can be seen in the motivations. The feelings of neglect and solitude are prominent in itself. However, in terms of sheer poetry their styles do have their differences.

  7. Jeremy points out that the blending of the text“I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED…” at the bottom of the page “could be more a comment on the comfort that blacks felt within their own communities contrasted with the negativity they felt directed at them by the whites.” I think that this is a very interesting observation. Towards the end of the double spread the text becomes more difficult to see. Besides symbolizing a loss of identity, it could symbolize a confusion of identity or even merging identities. Perhaps the identities the author feels as an American and as an African American. It’s interesting to note, the opposite page which contains the text “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND” is not a “sharp white.” Over the two page spread there very first line is the cleanest and ink splatter appears on the second line and downward. Rankine’s conflicting feelings towards America and identity remind me most of Claude McKay’s America.

  8. Jeremy says that the smudged ink represents black people’s comfort level amongst whites and amongst other blacks. I like this idea, but I had a different thought. Notice that the text is a very deep black color, while the smudges are a slightly lighter shade of black. It looks to me as if the smudges were added after the text was already written, as if to try to blot them out. I can only speculate as to what this could represent, but it seems to me that Rankine wrote both pages of text, and afterwards had some kind of change of heart. Maybe she regretted her harsh words, or maybe she was trying to convince herself of something that didn’t exist, trying to erase what she wrote in an attempt to hide how she really felt?

  9. Debra Zarny says:

    The second page of Rankine’s Citizen looks like graffiti spread along the page. However, it looks like the writer placed her arm on the bottom of the page, smudging the words and making them difficult to read. It’s interesting how both pages have this style and I think the words written are physically displayed the same way as what they intend to mean, meaning that she is visually showing the reader how she feels. Rankine repeats “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” The top of the page is the easiest to read because the letters stand out against the bright background. As the reader continues down the page, he/she has to fill in the gaps for the missing words that can’t be read. The converse would be that Rankine feels least colored when she is against a darker background because she becomes less noticed. This can be what she depicts as one reads farther down the page.

  10. I really like that Rankine and Hughes are put into conversation in this post, and I agree that they share a connection. However, another poet that came to mind as I was reading this excerpt is Stein. Two instances where this came across is when Rankine writes, “You are you even before you/grow into understanding you/are not anyone, worthless,/ not worth you.” and when it says, “When you lay your body in the body/entered as if skin and bone were public places,/when you lay your body in the body/ entered as if you’re the ground you walk on.” And in these two lines in particular I really love how Rankine adds depth or meaning to the first line of each stanza, by repeating the words in the other lines of that stanza. In the first stanza quoted above, I think Rankine starts out saying the subject contains his/her essence even if he/she doesn’t know it and then Rankine says the subject is not worthless, rather OTHERS may not be worthy of the subject. In the second stanza I quoted above, Rankine starts off the 2nd and 4th line the same way and in doing so, a parallel is created between how the subject’s skin and bone is treated to how the ground one walks on is treated- in this case, Rankine is showing that they are treated the same way (which is wrong). I think the repetition here (as with Stein) makes you take a closer look at the meaning in the lines.

  11. “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED…” and “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND.” In these lines, she does not only tell but shows us what she is saying. She becomes very creative with the lines on these pages and writes over sized and bolded so the black/ white contrast is even more obvious. This seems to show how she felt very different when in predominantly white settings. But, over time the words blend together possibly showing the blending and joining of society. In a way thereis a sense of loss, it is the loss of the culture. From trying so hard to the same as everyone they may be losing what makes them different.

  12. Bella Rubin says:

    I think that Hughes and Rankine share a connection. Like Jeremy writes “Both Hughes and Rankine describe their struggle as blacks living in America and the harsh segregation they experience in their lives.” The speaker in Hughes “I too” says “I, too am America.”(18) He feels that he is like a “brother” to white men, making them equal and he feels that he has to prove his American identity as equal. We see inside his thoughts about what he plans to do tomorrow when company comes. In Rankine’s Citizen we also have insight into the girls thoughts about her American identity. She is aware that the white girl is trying to make herself feel better by cheating from a black girl -with white features. We read what she thinks yet she doesn’t stand up for herself and just lets the girl cheat off of her. While in “I too” the speaker stands up for himself letting us know how tomorrow he will stand up for himself. These poems both show different reactions blacks had towards racism.

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