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  • Discussion of "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine & "Brown Girl Dreaming" by...
Discussion of "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine & "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jaqueline Woodson
Written by
Julie Henderson
December 2017
Written by
Julie Henderson
December 2017



Analysis of Citizen and Brown Girl Dreaming


Julianne Henderson

University of San Francisco

Seminar: Further Forms

Professor Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

December 10, 2017



            As a queer, Mexican-Italian, feminist and woman writer, the texts that I was most drawn to in this course deal with identity construction, institutionalized race and gender inequality, and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. Claudia Rankine’s lyrical piece, Citizen, and Jaqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, both satisfied my desire to engage with writers who fearlessly challenge and disrupt social conventions and prescriptions of normative behavior. These texts not only expose the flawed social mechanisms that seek to undermine every individual’s sense of self and identity, but they also reveal the most powerful weapon each of us has in our defense: our language. Following a critical analysis of three elements of craft that I felt Rankine and Woodson both masterfully executed in their texts, I discuss each author’s treatment of the themes of identity and language reclamation that deeply resonated with me as a reader.



            One can easily distinguish between Rankine’s and Woodson’s narrative styles by studying the distinct points of view they employ in their texts. Citizen relies heavily upon the second person “you” to describe past, present, and anticipated future incidents of racism and cultural insensitivity with which nearly every reader can identify. At the onset of this text, Rankine explains, “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows” (Rankine, 5). By addressing the second person “you,” Rankine targets and implicates the reader in the act of processing the ancient stored pain that is lodged in humanity’s collective consciousness—the pain that we must all work to resolve if we are to be free. She employs this tactic again when she asserts that, “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (63). Again, through the second person point of view, Rankine intimately involves her readers in the journey and progression of the text and asks that they take a position or, at the very least, embody the outrage that each racist microagression she describes produces in her readers’ minds. At times, Rankine also employs the implicit “I” when posing rhetorical questions such as, “Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?” (63). This oscillation between points of view creates a kind of living dialogue between Rankine and the reader, or the reader and his or her higher self.

            In contrast, in Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, she utilizes the first-person, limited omniscient point of view and narrates the story primarily in the present tense. This narrative perspective makes sense given that Woodson is narrating stories from her own childhood and offering the reader a glimpse into the feelings and emotions she experienced in the face of racism, discrimination, domestic disturbances, and her ongoing quest to discover her authentic voice and identity. In the poem, “february 12, 1963,” Woodson explains, “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital/Columbus, Ohio/ USA—/ a country caught/ between Black and White” (Woodson, 1). The limited-omniscient aspect of Woodson’s first person narration is displayed here, in that she can only speak to her basic understanding of the social and cultural circumstances that characterized the environment into which she was born. Woodson also speaks for a collective “we” in the poem, “how to listen #2,” when she says, “In the stores downtown/ we’re always followed around/ just because we’re brown” (82). This collective narrative perspective is something Woodson often employs when addressing the life she and her siblings led in Greenville and New York City, or as devout Jehovah’s Witnesses.



            Rankine and Woodson establish distinct tonal qualities in their writing by establishing their narrator(s)’ respective attitudes towards the subject matter they address. For example, Rankine’s choice of diction and syntax create a complex tone that is accusatory, outraged, despondent, and resigned all at once. She describes one particularly heated incident saying, “Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy. What do you mean? Exactly what do you mean?” (Rankine, 47). Here, the enraged and accusatory tone of Rankine’s piece comes to the fore as her narrator questions whether her coworker is suggesting that she—or perhaps all Black people—do not work as hard as everyone else. Citizen’s despondent and disheartened tones also appear in the lines, “To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that… truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about” ((59). These lines, in particular, point to much more than what the reader immediately deduces from the text. They speak to the feelings of hopeless and helplessness to dismantle and eradicate the prevalence of racism and social injustice that minority communities everywhere face on a daily basis.

            In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson’s earnest, childlike innocence creates a more lighthearted, optimistic, and hopeful tone. Her treatment of different themes from racial injustice and domestic conflict to spiritual philosophy and faith practice tends to be less critical or caustic and more contemplative, accepting, and understanding of the circumstances that each character in the text confronts. In the poem, “six minutes,” she says, “So I started again. Rewriting:/… Did you know that God’s word is absolute?/ … promising myself there’ll come a time/ when I can use the rest of my story/ and stand when I tell it” (Woodson, 251). Here, Woodson’s tone is filled with determination, resolve, and spirited ambition. In the piece, “sometimes no words are needed,” Woodson’s tone becomes contemplative and peaceful. She explains, “You don’t need words/ on a night like this. Just the warmth/ of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise/ that the world as we know it/ will always be here” (131). As Woodson advances through her childhood journey towards a condition of self-confidence and internal serenity, her tone remains consistently faithful and expectant.



            Both Rankine and Woodson employ irony as a means of creating tension between what is hoped for/expected and what actually takes place in their experiences. In Citizen, Rankine repeatedly sets the stage for events in which the narrator or parties in question are shockingly let down, abused, violated, or threatened. She describes one encounter on a United Airlines flight in which a female passenger turns to her mother and says, “this is not what I expected,” upon noticing that she was assigned a seat next to a woman of color. Rankine explains, “The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle” (Rankine, 12). The irony is that the woman of color had earned her right to sit in that spot—not only because she is a frequent traveler, but also by virtue of the fact that she is a human being with rights and liberties that no one can challenge or take from her. Another instance of irony occurs when she approaches a white woman’s door and the woman “yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?,” to which she responds that she has “an appointment.” The woman then sheepishly replies, “You have an appointment?… Oh, she says, followed by, oh yes, that’s right. I am sorry” (18). This brief vignette encapsulates the irony that people of color routinely confront in their day-to-day interactions with white people whose unfounded and demeaning assumptions about people of other races are often proven to be absurd and untrue.

            In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses irony to describe the strange paradoxes of her childhood and upbringing. For example, in the piece, “because we’re witnesses,” Woodson explains how she and her siblings were not allowed to participate in commercial holidays or birthday parties because their religion did not permit them to join group celebrations. Neither were they allowed to engage in conflict or battle. The irony here is that Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate, or at least honor God’s word, divine will, and intent for their lives. One would assume that their belief in God as being a component of all beings and things would grant them the right to celebrate God in His/Her/Its many forms and experiences. That said, it is ironic that Woodson explains, “We will never taste the sweetness of a classroom/ birthday cupcake/ We will never taste the bitterness of a battle” (Woodson, 164). Jehovah’s Witnesses are simultaneously committed to fulfilling God’s will and celebrating God’s word and unable to act on or share that the joy and cause for their celebration with others. Another irony surfaces in Woodson’s mother’s behavior. In “another kingdom hall,” Woodson notes that, “My mother drops us off at the Kingdom hall door/… Then our mother is gone, back home/ or to a park bench/ where shell sit and read until the meting is over./ She has a full-time job now. Sunday, she says,/ is her day of rest” (161). It is ironic that Woodson’s mother would require her children to profess or practice their faith and yet not submit or subscribe to those religious practices herself. Another form of recurring irony that manifests in Woodson’s texts concerns the fact that she is repeatedly given the opportunity to invent and share stories, however, it is not until she matures that she is finally able to seize those opportunities and share her truth.



            Citizen and Brown Girl Dreaming are both texts that reveal how the process of identity formation, especially for people of color, is heavily influenced by social and cultural constructs, assumptions, and stereotypes that an individual must consciously escape or otherwise disregard they are to arrive at a solid sense of self. In Rankine’s text, she describes a moment in which, “A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’” (Rankine14). By establishing two habitable and evolving dimensions of a human being’s identity, Rankine complicates the self and its parameters. Suddenly, we are each endowed with multiple sites of identity construction—one that responds to our inherited historical narratives, and the other that we derive from our own innate preferences and persuasions. Through the “self self,” Rankine argues that we “mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personality; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the flu force of your American positioning” (14). Here, Rankine argues that one’s identity can never be completely divorced from either past or present renderings of social forces like white hegemony and superiority, institutional racism and inequality, and so on, which continue to influence and inform one’s sense of self and coordinates in society as well as one’s interactions with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

            In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson addresses the uncertainty and ambiguity of Black identity. In one poem, she recalls visiting a library where she picked up a children’s picture book that featured Black characters. She explains, “I’d never believed/ that someone who looked like me/ could be in the pages of the book/ that someone who looked like me/ had a story” (Woodson, 228). Here, Woodson speaks to the fact that for centuries, society has actively rendered black bodies and identities as invisible. It has sought to diminish the intrinsic value and power of the rich stories and histories belonging to people of color. As a child, Woodson learned to defy the social forces that had convinced her she had no story to tell and that her identity did not matter. In this moment, Woodson must sift through the overwhelming uncertainty and fear that naturally surface when the world presents her with an opportunity to explore and discover more about who she is. In the poem, “faith,” Woodson addresses how her grandmother would always say, “Let the Bible,/… become your sword and your shield,” to which she responds, “But we do not know yet/ who we are fighting/ and what we are fighting for” (112-113). Within this passage, Woodson speaks to the vague ambiguities that make her spiritual identity so problematic and difficult to embody. Not only are she and her siblings unaware of their worth and what they have an obligation to fight for, but they do not know who they are fighting. Woodson illustrates how, having no solid point of reference to distinguish herself from adverse forces or antagonistic groups diminishes the power of the authentic identity she might otherwise have been able to establish for herself.



            Rankine and Woodson both present language as a powerful instrument, or a kind of weapon, by which human beings can initiate both subtle and radical transformations in their own lives and in the world at large. For Rankine, language is a tool that people of color must reclaim in order to secure their visibility. She notes, “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person” (Rankine, 49). In reality, racist discourse has often been a source of disempowerment and disenfranchisement for Blacks and other people of color. However, Rankine argues that the opposite tends to be the case—she identifies racist language and conjectures as being a force that renders people of color as “hypervisible.” she explains, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back” (49). In other words, racist language cannot exist independently of the aspects of Black identity or other racial and ethnic identities that it comments on and criticizes. Rankine argues that such language actually reinforces the existence and visibility of Black people and people of color by emphasizing the traits and qualities of their identities. She suggests that people of color have an opportunity to seize the power of this language and use it to their own ends rather than allow it to compromise the beauty and integrity of who they are.

            Woodson presents language as a means of manifesting one’s imagined realities and bringing into existence the whimsical and uplifting fantasies that offer her encouragement in moments of hardship. When Woodson was a child, butterflies were a recurring image or creation in her imagination that brought her comfort and strength. The power to reify, or make her imagined realities more tangible and concrete, could be found within her ability to use language to not only describe but also immortalize her dreams. In the piece, “the butterfly poems,” Woodson notes, “no one believes a whole book could ever come/ from something as simple as/ butterflies that don’t even, my brother says,I live that long./ But on paper, things can live forever./ On paper, a butterfly/ never dies” (Woodson, 249). For Woodson, language is the means by which she breathes life into her dreams and infuses the world in which she lives with a unique set of beliefs that ultimately enhance its evolution. Language is also the tool that she uses to create her identity and communicate her ideas to the world in an effort to establish her visibility and power as a storyteller.



            Citizen and Brown Girl Dreaming are examples of literary works that defy traditional parameters of genre as well as larger social and cultural constructs that seek to undermine the power of conscious and informed individuals. Each author’s attention to detail and masterful execution of elements of craft that include narration and point of view, tone, and irony, prove their merit and authority as writers who are not merely women of color, but who are also women of insight, ingenuity, and remarkable influence. Both Rankine and Woodson complicate the multiple dimensions that comprise selfhood and identity, and they shed light on the immeasurable power that individuals can wield when they reclaim and employ language as a weapon to bring about social change.

            I can appreciate these texts from the different dimensions of my own identity—namely my gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation. First, as a woman writer, I marvel at the quality of craftsmanship and level of innovation that Rankine and Woodson exhibit in their work. As society and its creative institutions have historically excluded women from the greater canon of revered works of music, art, and literature, it is beyond refreshing and encouraging to engage with the work of two women writers who appear to have shattered the glass ceiling in their chosen field. In so doing, they have made it possible for emerging women’s voices—particularly those belong to women of marginalized minority groups—to receive the critical consideration that they deserve. Second, as a Mexican-Italian writer, I am grateful to Rankine and Woodson for validating the experiences of women of color, whose intersectional experiences of oppression, racism, sexism, and sexual violence are not discussed often enough. Rankine and Woodson incite crucial dialogue with their work that I feel will one day yield crucial legislative change as well as an important shift in humanity’s collective consciousness towards greater acceptance of and respect for people of color’s bodies and identities. Finally, as a queer writer, Rankine and Woodson’s treatment of identity and language reclamation deeply resonated with me on account of the fact that my identity and my creative self-expression are often the only currency I have in a world that tends to privilege everything that I am not. Moving forward, I intend to defy divisive and limiting social constructs with the same measure of fearlessness and courage that Rankine and Woodson display in Citizen and Brown Girl Dreaming. Their work reminds me that no force of social control and no form of social injustice can match the transformative power of my identity or my reclamation and strategic use of language.






Rankine, C. (2014). Citizen. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press.

Woodson, J. (2017). Brown Girl Dreaming. Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press, a part of Gale, a Cengage Company.


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