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  • From Performativity to Performance:Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Autotheory
  • Kyle C. Frisina (bio)


Depicting violent, exhausting, and iterative experiences of African American racial interpellation through the striking use of second-person address, Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric has been praised by readers as "brilliant, disabusing" (Chiasson); "a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of black life in America" (Lindgren); and "necessary in every sense of the word" (Gay). Citizen insists that anti-blackness persists everywhere, every day in America, making the devastating case that there was nothing unusual about the number of unarmed African Americans killed by police in the months surrounding its release in fall 2014. However, the book's message was amplified by the #BlackLivesMatter movement following the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, among others, and captured readers' attention in a moment when grief and outrage over racism's deadly toll sought collective outlet in cultural forms. An instant omnipresence on bestseller charts, award shortlists, college syllabi, and bookstore tables, Citizen has since been considered by scholarly and popular critics as lyric poetry, as black experimental poetry, as documentary, and as image-text. In addition—vis-à-vis its selection for citywide reading programs and school curricula across the country—the book has been widely engaged as an instructive, empathy-generating vehicle that ostensibly explains, per its New York Times review headline, "How It Feels to Be Black in America" (Bass).

Yet Citizen poses certain interpretive challenges that these angles do not fully address. This essay considers what attending to the theoretical concept of "performativity" alongside a notion of performance more aligned with the theatrical reveals about Citizen's commentary on [End Page 141] anti-blackness vis-à-vis its status as a work of autotheory. It also offers a new perspective on the ethical potential of autotheoretical form, which Lauren Fournier defines as the use of "embodied experiences as a primary text or raw material through which to theorize, process, and reiterate theory" (Fournier 646). As poet and scholar Evie Shockley notes, most reviews that classify Citizen as something more or other than poetry do so in order to move away from a discussion of form "into a consideration of the book's 'content.'" Affiliation with autotheory, however, may have the opposite effect of linking the book's relational ethics more directly to its form. This is especially true when viewing autotheory from the angle of performance.

While autotheory remains a genre in search of consensus, Citizen would seem to share the project of other literary works whose depictions of embodied experience are entangled with critical theory. Rankine invokes critical race theory and affect theory, in particular, to reflect on the public and private performances of blackness and anti-blackness in twenty-first-century America, citing Frantz Fanon and Patricia Williams, for example, in the book's appendix, and observing in interviews that she drew inspiration from Lauren Berlant's notion of "cruel optimism" ("Blackness as the Second Person"). Citizen contributes, in turn, to critical discourse in myriad fields, including black performance theory, which D. Soyini Madison describes in Black Performance Theory as work that "transforms black ontologies and imperatives into the lived realms of time, space, and action" (vii). If—as that anthology's editors Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez argue—recent decades have seen "new literary formats confirm playful, and serious, modes of engagement with [black performance] theory" (5), then the hybrid Citizen could be read as one such format. In Citizen, the unremitting nature of daily acts of anti-blackness does not dull their impact but deepens it. Distinctions between micro and macro aggressions collapse when racist responses to mundane acts—taking one's seat, ringing a doorbell, ordering lunch—lodge themselves permanently in the body: "the past is buried in you," Rankine writes, "it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard" (Citizen 63).1 And while Citizen is not a dramatic text per se, reading its vignettes as scripts for everyday performances underscores the simultaneous ordinariness and instability of the moments they describe,2 as when a new acquaintance complains that her son did not get into the school that "she, her father, her...