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Textual Fluidity, or Why We Need to Acknowledge Poetry Books in Multiple Versions

Violence and Memory in the Multiple Versions of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

John K. Young


Dans le recueil Citizen (2014) de Claudia Rankine, le blanc de la page imprimée est progressivement investi à mesure que les micro-agressions raciales cèdent la place aux violences, notamment policières, des Américains blancs à l’égard des Noirs. Sur la page de gauche, on trouve ces quelques mots, « November 23, 2012 / In memory of Jordan Russell Davis », tandis que sur la page de droite, tout en haut, apparaît une inscription laconique : « February 15, 2014 / The justice system ». (J. D. Davis était un adolescent noir ; il fut abattu dans une station-service de Jacksonville par un homme blanc qui obtint d’abord un non-lieu avant d’être finalement inculpé pour meurtre). Dans la seconde édition du recueil, le nom de Michael Brown fut ajouté au verso en hommage à un autre Américain noir, assassiné à Ferguson. Chacune des éditions qui se sont succédé depuis 2014 intègre le nom des nouvelles victimes de violences raciales : d’abord Eric Garner, puis John Crawford qui fut abattu dans un supermarché de l’Ohio par un policier alors qu’il portait un pistolet à plomb BB. Au fil du temps, seize nouveaux noms ont été ajoutés (parmi lesquels ceux de Tamir Rice et Freddie Gray) ainsi que les mots « In Memory », répétés sur une seule colonne emplissant le reste de la page, et dont les lettres grisées s’estompent progressivement. Au regard de cette liste, on lit sur l’autre page : « because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying ».

Cet article propose d’identifier les variantes de Citizen postérieures à la première édition comme le reflet d’une volonté de recomposer le recueil face à chaque nouvelle tragédie, visant à produire un portrait de la violence blanche qui dépasse très largement le seul cadre du « système judiciaire ». En s’appuyant sur la distinction proposée par Daniel Ferrer entre variantes et variations, on explorera ici le mode itératif chez Rankine pour montrer que dans Citizen « les enjeux de race ne sont pas une catégorie a priori qu’il s’agirait de plaquer sur la littérature, mais bien le résultat complexe de médiations sociales, culturelles et textuelles distinctes » (Kinohi Nishikawa).

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1In June 2020, amidst worldwide protests sparked by the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in the United States, the New York Times Book Review solicited an original contribution from poet Claudia Rankine. Entitled “Weather,” the poem appeared on the front page of the book review, reflecting on both the protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Whatever / contracts keep us social compel us now / to disorder the disorder,” Rankine writes (2020 1). Rankine’s poem is both deeply of the moment and also expressive of long-standing concerns in her work. Not surprisingly, many articles recommending anti-racist reading lists in those weeks included Rankine’s poetry, especially her 2014 collection, Citizen, which one scholar has recently described as a “knitting into visibility of the affective socialities that racialise certain bodies and not others” (Richardson 7) (see, e.g. Berry). Rankine’s latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, concludes the “trilogy” that began with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), carrying forward the earlier volumes’ mix of text and image while changing the subtitle to reflect a broader cultural interrogation of the Obama and Trump eras in American history. In addition to this new work, there have been multiple revised printings of Citizen since its initial publication, with key revisions to a two-page meditation on recent murders of Black people by white police officers and other white “citizens.” This article investigates that publishing history, in order to locate the fluid forms of Citizen in response to the problem of developing aesthetic modes of representation for racialized violence and memory.

  • 1 On Rankine’s use of Turner’s painting, see Adams 59-60.

2Much of Citizen’s powerful response to the lived experience of blackness in the U.S. derives from its play with repetition, with similarity and difference. This pattern develops in the book’s early evocations of racial microaggressions, in which the same fundamental misperception happens again and again, even as the details of each encounter change, all the way through to the book’s closing image, a reproduction of Joseph Turner’s abolitionist painting The Slave Ship (ca. 1840) and a detail of a chained leg in the water surrounding the ship’s wreckage on the facing page (Rankine, 2014 160-161), connecting twenty-first-century “society” to the unending legacy of slavery.1

  • 2 On the multimedia nature of Citizen, see also Farred 109.
  • 3 On the materiality of Black texts in the nineteenth century, see also Cohen and Stein; Gardner; Roy (...)

3Rankine’s book also resists any settled relationship between its content and its form, as Amy De’Ath and other scholars have noted. “Rankine’s work can be read as a refusal of now conventional (and often white and male) modes of linking politics and poetic form, given that these critical modes depend, at least initially, on a basic opposition of subject and object that Citizen challenges,” De’Ath observes (120). Part of that refusal derives from the book’s calling into question its form as a book, both in its frequent use of imported images set alongside Rankine’s text (the Turner reproduction is the last in a long series of such visual shifts), and in its existence outside the bounds of the physical book itself, as in the “Situation Videos” produced by Rankine and her partner, John Lucas, to accompany particular sections of the text.2 These videos do not always correspond directly to the text, even as they incorporate its linguistic content. The video for the poem “Stop and Frisk,” for example, circles around its Steinian refrain of racial profiling: “Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same” (Rankine, 2014 107). The video juxtaposes Rankine’s voiceover with a scene of young Black men, not being detained by police officers but casually visiting a clothing boutique, with the clear implication that their bodies will again be subject to police discipline once they leave the space of the store. Harkening back to the textual productions of the Black Arts Movement, Citizen recalls the tension Margo Natalie Crawford reads there through “the framing of the physical book itself in terms of what it contains and what it cannot contain” (2013 189). And the Black Arts works of the 1960s and 1970s are themselves part of a much longer history of Black texts exceeding and subverting the bounds of their physical expression; as Michaël Roy points out, “former slaves’ stories in the antebellum era often traveled outside the pages of bound books in forms that are less easily recoverable today” (2019 271).3

  • 4 On the challenges and possibilities of an editorial representation of the novel’s versions, see Mul (...)
  • 5 Richardson, for example, does not cite a particular edition of Citizen, but must be working with th (...)

4Indeed, the closest historical analogue to Rankine’s practice of using textual malleability to adapt to ongoing real-world circumstances might well be William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel, first published in 1853 in London, where Brown had taken up residence in order to avoid the perils of the Fugitive Slave Act. Three more distinct versions appeared in print during Brown’s lifetime: a serialized story, now called Miralda, published in sixteen installments in the Weekly Anglo African in New York from 1860-1; as Clotelle in 1864, in a special wartime edition produced by Boston publisher James Redpath for distribution to Union soldiers; and again under that title in 1867 by a different Boston publisher. While the changes to the Miralda version largely entail different names for key characters, Brown altered and extended the novel’s ending for the third and fourth editions. In the 1864 version, the title character reconciles with her estranged, white father in France, who declares his intention to return to the U.S. and free his slaves; in the 1867 version, Clotelle’s husband Jerome (George in the first version) dies a heroic death as a Union soldier, and Clotelle becomes a spy behind Confederate lines, before opening a postwar school for freed slaves on the site of the farm where she had lived as a slave. As Lara Langer Cohen notes, “Clotel is not really a book at all, but rather a series of books in which Brown would reinterpret his basic story over fourteen years” (749). Most scholarship on the novel, as Christopher Stampone points out, has focused primarily on the first edition, often exclusively so, ignoring the reality that “Brown’s later versions of the novel offer markedly different—and perhaps far more politically and thematically radical—visions of abolitionism and a nascent African American identity” (191-192).4 As I discuss below, Rankine and her publisher have taken pains to highlight readers’ awareness of Citizen’s multiple iterations, though of course scholarship on Rankine’s book(s) has not always acknowledged this reality either.5

  • 6 While the digital edition is up and running, none of the print volumes in the Oxford series have be (...)
  • 7 Similarly, Martin Paul Eve argues that “the construction of a chronology for revisions of a text al (...)

5Accordingly, I read Citizen at the intersection of book history, textual scholarship, and African Americanist studies, a field that has developed considerably over the past twenty years. In his 1997 essay “Editing ‘Minority’ Texts,” the esteemed scholar and editor William L. Andrews concluded, “The more one learns about African American literature the more one sees ample need for targeted textual editing—if not all-encompassing textual editions—of central texts and representative textual phenomena that can help us understand the origin, evolution, and fate of minority texts in a ‘majority’ literature” (51, emphasis in the original). Since Andrews’s call, a number of important new editions have been produced, such as Christopher Mulvey’s digital edition of Clotel (2006), Jacqueline Goldsby’s Norton critical edition of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (2015), or the ongoing print and digital Oxford edition of Charles Chesnutt’s works,6 led by Stephanie Browner and Kenneth Price, to name but a few. In addition to these editorial projects, several essay collections and monographs on textual scholarship and African American literature have appeared, including my Black Writers, White Publishers (2006), Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein’s Early African American Print Culture (2012), George Hutchinson and my Publishing Blackness (2013), Michaël Roy’s Textes Fugitifs (2017), Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne’s Against a Sharp White Background (2019), and Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s Shadow Archives (2019), in addition to a 2015 special issue of MELUS on “African American Print Cultures,” edited by Jocelyn Moody and Howard Rambsy II, and numerous other journal articles. As Moody and Rambsy maintain, this kind of scholarly focus on the “broad, diverse range of transactions and products concerning the contributions of black people across the range of proficiencies and expertise needed for the composition, illustration, publishing, printing, binding, typesetting, pricing, distribution, circulation, promotion, consumption, and reception of texts” has the potential to “vitally enrich all examinations of black literature and cultural history by illuminating their origins and contextualizing the involvement of black persons in book and print production” (2). My reading of Citizen proceeds in this spirit, while adapting these methods for a book whose history is still very much unfolding.7

6In his recent study of race and aesthetics, Black Is Beautiful, philosopher Paul C. Taylor analyzes the long-standing connections between Western visual culture and histories of racialized identity. As Taylor concludes,

visuality must be essentially racialized. Modern visual experience is constituted in part by the possibilities for seeing, and for not seeing, the members of the different races. Race-thinking is an integral part of modernity’s screen of signs, and discovering what this screen screens out is the key to understanding black invisibility (2016 48).

  • 8 Hurston’s essay originally appeared in the May 1928 issue of World Tomorrow, a Christian socialist (...)
  • 9 The term “micro-aggression” dates back to psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the early 1970s, as a w (...)
  • 10 On Rankine’s use of “you” in Citizen, see especially Burt, Chan, Finberg, Hinds, and Lerner.

7The trope of black invisibility traces its origins back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, Frantz Fanon’s phenomenological emphasis on the “white masks” coming between black skin and the white world, Zora Neale Hurston’s sense of feeling “most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (828), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, among many other sources.8 Citizen is the most influential contemporary inheritor of this line, with a genre mixing that led to Rankine winning the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry while also being a finalist for the same prize in criticism. Rankine’s cumulative portrait of micro-aggressions, which takes up most of the book’s opening section, often centers on moments of racialized hyper-visibility or invisibility: from a daughter who tells her mother “this is not what I expected” when a black passenger arrives at their airplane row (Rankine, 2014 12), to a drugstore customer who walks in front of another person in line and exclaims, “I really didn’t see you” (2014 77).9 Such moments operate alongside several others in which African American subjects are perceived only in strictly racialized terms, from the neighbor who assumes a babysitter is a criminal trespasser (2014 15), to the therapist who responds to a new client’s arrival by yelling, “What are you doing in my yard?” (2014 18), to a co-worker who can’t tell her two African American colleagues apart (2014 43), among others.10 Produced in an era of ostensible “post-blackness” and against the backdrop of the Trayvon Martin shooting and many other such incidents, Citizen both invokes the long tragic history of slavery’s aftermath—the closing image of Turner’s The Slave Ship, for instance, is referenced many pages earlier in a section on the tennis star Serena Williams (2014 26)—while also locating itself very much in the contemporary world of academia and relative social privilege. As Crawford concludes, Rankine

struggles to capture the dissonance of feeling like a black subject who has a right to seize her freedom by recognizing that white supremacy has lost some of its life-shaping force and also feeling like a black subject who cannot pretend that the structure that killed Trayvon Martin is not also imprisoning her. (Crawford, 2017 37)

  • 11 Michael Leong cites a statement from Graywolf’s associate publisher, Katie Dublinski: “From our poi (...)
  • 12 The jury found Dunn guilty on three charges of attempted murder for firing into the car at Davis’s (...)

8This essay examines that textual and experiential dissonance through a close focus on two facing pages, which highlight the ways in which white Americans have viewed African Americans through imagined racialized lenses, often with murderous consequences. In most printings of Citizen, these pages compel Rankine’s readers to bear witness to, on the left-hand page, both a list of individual victims of racialized violence and the much longer history of such violence of which they are the latest incarnations, while then encountering, on the right-hand page, a short poem surrounded by white space, which reframes the white gaze through the dynamics of the text’s own seeing. This page, with three short lines arrayed against an expanse of white space, articulates, both textually and visually, the ways in which the (literally) fantastic modes of perceiving race make blackness hyper-visible and allegedly justify police and other shootings: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying” (2014 135; see fig. 1). That achingly poetic expression of racialized tragedy did not appear in Citizen’s first edition,11 however, where the page displays an equal play with white space but contains only a single line: “February 15, 2014 / The Justice System” (see fig. 2). This is a reference to a mistrial in the case of Michael Dunn, charged with first-degree murder for shooting high-school student Jordan R. Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida (the left-hand page in this edition acknowledges that death, reading simply, “November 23, 2012 / In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis”).12

Fig. 1. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 135.

Fig. 2. First printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 135.

9In fact, there have been multiple revisions to these pages in Citizen’s many reprintings, as the text has responded to a potentially endless series of such shootings, with linguistic and visual changes to account for the latest such incident. This effect of (relative) immediacy is already present in the first edition, which appeared on 7 October 2014, eight months after Davis’s death, and has continued through the twenty-sixth printing, which now ends with Rashard Brooks, killed by Atlanta police officers in June 2020. That version extends the “In Memory of” list to the right-hand page, which now begins with the 2020 killings of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd. Indeed, the line “black people are dying” (see fig. 1) is itself a revision of “black men are dying,” which had appeared in most editions of Citizen; presumably, this change recognizes several women included in the verso list of victims, from Sandra Bland to members of the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, who were attacked by Dylann Roof on 17 June 2015. The fixity of “white men” in both versions re-emphasizes the particular role of white masculinity in the racial imaginary and the violence ensuing from it. In their introduction to a collection entitled The Racial Imaginary, Rankine and Beth Loffreda describe that term and its effects: “One way to know you’re in the presence of—in possession of, possessed by—a racial imaginary is to see if the boundaries of one’s imaginative sympathy line up, again and again, with the lines drawn by power” (17). As Rankine’s brief poem suggests, for white men in particular, their imaginations remain “possessed” by an unpoliced narrative defining “black people” as inherently subject to violence and death.

  • 13 For thoughtful considerations of these issues, see Taylor 2014 and the essays collected in Baker an (...)

10Citizen arrived at a moment when announcements of a “post-racial” era in American history, usually presaged by Barack Obama’s 2008 election, were circulating widely. In fact, multiple visions of a post-racial or “post-black” society surrounded the book’s production, from willfully naïve and triumphalist accounts—what Taylor elsewhere dubs “idiot postracialism” (2014 10-11)—to more nuanced and self-conscious musings about the extent to which American culture and society have moved beyond the structural norms of the Jim Crow era, as for instance envisioned by Thelma Golden’s 2001 art exhibit entitled “Freestyle,” or as famously and controversially proposed by Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2012).13 As Robert Gooding-Williams and Charles W. Mills conclude of this period in their introduction to a 2014 special issue of the Du Bois Review, “In sum, race was widely denied—while race was everywhere present” (1). Taken as a whole, Citizen exposes the obvious myths and misapprehensions of “idiot” post-racialism, as Rankine’s collection of micro-aggressions in the book’s opening sections gradually builds toward the kinds of violence implicitly licensed by such misperceptions.

11Rankine makes this connection explicitly in her 2014 interview with Lauren Berlant in BOMB magazine:

It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane. (Berlant n. p.)

12Similarly, Heather Love maintains that Citizen demonstrates the particular ways in which “violence both permeates the social order and is visible frame by frame, second by second” (441). As Rankine’s work implies, the connections between micro- and macroaggressions flow both ways; while violence may seem to build up from the local level of the individual social encounter, based on the narrative logic of Citizen’s progression, both kinds of event are rooted in the same “lack of recognition of the black body,” and so are equally present as “symptoms of unrepaired justice,” as the philosophers Cameron Evans and Ron Mallon conclude (76).

13Part of the work of Rankine’s revised pages, then, derives from Citizen’s sense of the text itself and of race in America as both invariably fixed and inevitably in process. Each new version of these pages adds new details to the same underlying story. But by insistently acknowledging and memorializing each new tragedy, the revised verso page also compels its own careful rereading, asking Rankine’s audience to recognize the unchanging social structure enabling this series of deaths, as exemplified by the (mostly) unrevised recto page in dialogue with the new line(s) on the page before. Rankine’s text seems to arrest itself, to gesture toward the incommensurability of the (re)printed book’s efforts to represent the history outside its pages while simultaneously adopting the space of the page itself to signal its place in time. It leaves room for new names to be memorialized while bleeding the black type onto the whiteness of the background, in a haunting reference to the Hurston quote that Rankine deploys elsewhere, via an image of a Glenn Ligon painting: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (Rankine, 2014 52-53).

Citizen’s Textual History

  • 14 As I explain in further detail below, I am employing here the distinction between “work” and “text” (...)
  • 15 See also Margo Natalie Crawford’s discussion of Citizen’s “empty, shiny white pages” (2017 40) and (...)

14“How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” Rankine asks in a 2016 Paris Review interview (Ulin 140). One answer, I will suggest, is to adapt the work—or rather, the text14—to its history, to use the malleability of the printed text, both in its temporary stability and in its ongoing fluidity, as a vehicle through which history can resonate. The careful placement of text along the top of the two pages in question, with an unsettling expanse of empty space below, evokes what Lauren Berlant describes as the “shocking whiteness” of Citizen’s pages and, indeed, the Graywolf Press printing heightens this effect by using heavier, “stark white paper” (NEA Literature Staff and Schotts n. p.).15

15The physical solidity of the page here is also in dialogue with the book’s anxious temporality, as the first edition of Citizen was already out of date, not only in relation to Dunn’s first trial but also to the ongoing history of racial violence in the U.S. The book’s second printing, which an article in Slate dates as going to press on 24 September 2014 (Waldman n. p.)—that is, in advance of the first edition’s pre-printing—adds a second line to the verso page, in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August of that year. The third printing, from 20 November 2014, adds two more names to the verso page: Eric Garner (choked to death by police officers in New York City) and John Crawford (killed by a white police officer at a Walmart near Dayton, Ohio, while holding a BB gun), in between Davis and Brown, and introduces the fading series of “In Memory” down the remainder of the page (see fig. 3). At this point, the recto page also changes to the brief poem quoted above (with its original closing line “black men are dying”) (see fig. 3). The third printing carefully locates the four deaths it memorializes in chronological order, even without the precise dates deployed in the first printing: Garner was fatally choked on 17 July 2014, and Crawford was shot on 5 August of that year, four days before Brown’s death. In its third printing, Rankine’s text no longer signals the immediacy of a particular date, as in the interplay between the moments of Davis’s death and Dunn’s mistrial in the first printing, but the retroactive displacement of Michael Brown’s name in the third printing more subtly gestures toward the book’s attempts to “hold the resonance of its history” (Ulin 140) by organizing its new contents through a chronological linearity, even as the text simultaneously shifts toward a more timeless sense of memory and loss, what Robert LeMahieu terms the “unanticipated elegies” (116) streaming down the verso page.

Fig. 3. Fifth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 134-135.

16I have not yet been able to track down every printing of Citizen, but the two pages remain in this incarnation at least through the fifth printing. Then the list expands again by the eighth printing, which adds four more names below Brown’s: Akai Gurley, who was shot in Brooklyn by a Chinese American police officer, Peter Liang, on 20 November 2014; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed by Cleveland police officers on 22 November of that year; Walter Scott, shot by a South Carolina police officer after being stopped for a non-working brake light on 4 April 2015; and Freddie Gray, arrested in Baltimore on 12 April and dead a week later after being given a so-called “rough ride” in the police van (see, e.g., Nir; Flynn; Hitt ; Graham 2015b).

17The tenth printing adds ten more names after Gray’s: beginning with the nine victims of the mass shooting on 17 June 2015 at an Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina—Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson—and ending with Sandra Bland, found dead in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on 13 July, three days after her arrest during a traffic stop (see Ghansah; Nathan). Then, the twelfth printing makes two more changes to the verso list, adding Jamar Clark at the end, and inserting Laquan McDonald between Michael Brown and Akai Gurley. Clark died after being shot by Minneapolis police in November 2015, while McDonald, a Chicago teenager, was killed in a police shooting while walking away from the officers in October 2014 (see Graham 2015a; Friedersdorf). McDonald’s death became a national story in November 2015, when video footage of the shooting became public after a prolonged delay, and a Chicago police officer was charged with first-degree murder. The eighteenth printing adds three names below Bland: Alton Sterling, killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July 2016, an incident that sparked several days of protests in the area; Philando Castile, shot in his car by a Minnesota police officer in July 2016 in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter; and Jordan Edwards, a teenager killed by a Texas police officer in April 2017 (Wright; Graham 2017; see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 134.

18Subsequent printings have added three more names below Edwards: Stephon Clark, killed by Sacramento police in 2018; Botham Jean, shot in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty officer in 2018; and Michael Dean, shot during a traffic stop in Texas in 2019 (see Cobb; Erickson; Coen). As noted above, the most recent printing lists Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and Brooks above a fading stream of “In Memory.” This is the latest iteration of these pages, but there is no reason to think, either editorially or socially, that the list on the verso page will not continue to change, especially in a Trumpian world that openly encourages racialized violence. Indeed, the Graywolf Press website page titled “Citizen in the Classroom” includes among its FAQ “Why are there textual differences between different copies of Citizen?” along with a PDF encapsulating the first, second, third, eighth, and tenth printings, and an explanation of how to identify a particular copy’s place in the book’s printing history. As the website explains:

  • 16 Other revisions include the correction of factual errors—for instance, changing a reference to Sere (...)

The majority of a book’s content does not change from printing to printing, but sometimes authors feel that changes are necessary in order to respond to current events or to further refine or clarify their texts. In Citizen, this can be seen in Rankine’s changes to several pages in the book, but especially her changes to page 134. By including the names of additional African Americans who have been killed since each previous printing, Rankine is further underscoring the devastating urgency of Citizen’s message. (“Citizen in the Classroom”)16

19Rankine’s association with Graywolf, a small non-profit press based in St. Paul, Minnesota, positions her work with one of the most significant independent American publishers. Founded in 1974 in a small town in Washington, Graywolf relocated to Minnesota and became a nationally and internationally known press around the turn of the millennium, when the company also reached a distribution arrangement with the much larger Farrar, Straus, Giroux (see Kachka). Since then, Graywolf has published multiple award-winning titles, becoming known as a “house with a surfeit of distinctive voices” (Kachka n. p.). Rankine began publishing with Graywolf in 2004, with her poetry collection Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, and has issued three more books with the press since, including Citizen, a 2019 play, The White Card, and Just Us, in addition to maintaining an affiliation with another prestigious small firm, Grove/Atlantic. While Citizen became a best-seller by the standards of American poetry, its publication by Graywolf also enabled the book to contain many of the unusual features that might have been discouraged at a more corporate firm.

  • 17 Elisabeth A. Frost also notes changes in the book’s early printings, through the addition of Eric G (...)

20This textual history leads me to some of the broader editorial implications of this publishing practice and the scholarly editions that will eventually represent Citizen’s history of production and reproduction. First, in contrast to the usual editorial experience of working with revised versions, the record of textual change here is much less hidden, not so much what the Melville editor and editorial theorist John Bryant calls an “invisible text of revision” (Bryant 146) as something that has been a readily available element of the paratextual record. In addition to the Graywolf Press site, a January 2015 post from Katy Waldman on Slate documents the changes in the first three printings (and the Graywolf site also contains links to Waldman’s article). Waldman includes a screen grab of a tweet from bookseller Kenny Coble in response to the third printing, in which he writes, “I am crushed by the changes made in every new printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen” (Waldman n. p.).17 I see this self-conscious staging of post-publication variability as entirely deliberate, an extension of Rankine’s efforts for Citizen to “hold the resonance of its history” (Ulin 140) through a variety of paratextual platforms. Even if new printings do not overtly announce their changes from earlier versions, the evidence is never too far away.

Citizen’s Eventual Editions

21This deliberate highlighting calls attention to a specific record of textual change, while others remain less visible for now, awaiting an eventual Rankine archive and scholarly edition(s) of her works. From Rankine’s interviews, we can glean that manuscript versions of Citizen once included slashes at the bottom of each page, which signaled the text’s status as poetry, in dialogic tension with both the typographic formatting as prose and the expanse of white space filling most pages. These virgules also appeared in some magazine excerpts; Ben Lerner reads their elision as indicating a “shift from the more virtual space of the excerpt or galley to the more ‘final’ form of the book” (72). As Berlant explains, this device would have

designated the previous writing as a line of poetry embedded in a history captured through citation. These slashes were deleted at the end of the process, but do not forget to read for the breathless cut and join of enjambment, as it figures the core intimate fact of relation in Rankine’s Citizen. (n. p.)

22For a material text that often self-consciously highlights separation between its elements—for instance, a blank verso page follows my primary example here, putting additional distance between the closing lines of section VI and the beginning of section VII (see fig. 5), which then opens with another blank verso page, while the closing textual installment is itself separated from the surrounding text by a blank verso and recto page—this use of slashes would have made Citizen’s audience even more aware of the materiality of the reading experience, with loosely Brechtian connections to the world “outside” the text highlighted all the more.

Fig. 5. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 136-137.

  • 18 Charles Legere similarly understands Rankine’s “you” as a “kind of aggregate contemporary subject” (...)

23Similarly, Rankine notes in her 2016 Paris Review interview that her early drafts were composed in first person rather than second, a change she eventually made because this use of “I” did not seem “structurally honest, because many of the accounts were not actually my experiences” (Ulin 146). The use of second person, in contrast, enabled the text, for Rankine, to “become a field activated by the reader, whoever that reader is. That’s what you want—for the text to be as alive and mutable as possible” (Ulin 146). Interestingly, the book ends in first person, with the speaker’s description of an encounter at a tennis court, when another player deliberately parks on the other side of the lot. The closing line, “It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson” (Rankine, 2014 159), acquires multiple resonances throughout the text as a whole. That ripple of thematic connections would be redirected, though, if the “I” here were the same persona readers had encountered throughout; with Rankine’s pre-publication revision to a collective second person, what Heather Love considers the “seeing eye of the book” (439), the closing “I” is framed in at least partial contrast to the more collective pronoun that has largely defined the text’s perspective.18 On the one hand, we might read the pronominal shift here as an indication that the book has closed with a more individual perspective, in contrast to the more sweeping antecedents implied by a “you” that exceeds the bounds of any single experience. On the other hand, the ways in which Citizen has reframed a seemingly singular reference in its earlier sections, in combination with the more expansive sense of the book as an “American lyric,” suggest the potential for a different sense of individuality in the closing “I,” which might gesture toward a broad sense of a “lesson” to be learned from the history of race in the U.S., especially when juxtaposed with the Turner painting that reframes the book within that much larger historical scope.

  • 19 Similarly, in her account of what she terms “textual Darwinism,” Robin G. Schulze views revision as (...)

24These revisions, and doubtless others that will one day become apparent from the archival record, yield a window into Citizen’s genetic development, enabling readers (and, eventually, editors) to consider these earlier versions as part of a larger textual flow, what Louis Hay outlines as a “necessary possibility, as one manifestation of a process which is always virtually present in the background, a kind of third dimension of the written work” (75, emphasis added). From the perspective of critique génétique, the deleted slashes and revised “I”s retain a kind of spectral presence in the published text, or, rather, reframe the published text as one alternative within a larger field of possibility, rather than as the only or “final” iteration. In that regard, Citizen would be little different from almost all published works. While post-publication revision is far more common than most readers suspect—enough for the geneticist Almuth Grésillon to posit the first edition itself as an “avant-texte” for subsequent editions (10)—, Citizen is striking in its insistence on an awareness of its pattern of revision as a key feature of the reading experience. In that respect, the pace of revision here matches, or at least tries to match, the pace of real-world events. Citizen is certainly not the first book to go through eighteen printings in the first four years of its published existence (though it might well be the first book of poetry to do so in quite some time, at least in the U.S.), but it is one of a very few to have changed so quickly over the course of its early print runs. Thus, if we were to perform what Paul Eggert thinks of as a “biography of the book” on Citizen, we would highlight its urgent engagement with its readers and a social-political context that is both always changing and yet fundamentally repeating itself (Eggert, 2013). As Eggert contends, “The capacity of a work to index cultural change over time is a dimension of its existence that can in principle be read off the production features and inferred from the reception that each new edition receives,” so that “[e]ach presentation [of a text] keys us into the history of its own moment of production” (2013 10).19

25The various printings of Citizen, thus, effectively create a kind of proxy for the full-scale scholarly editions the future will likely hold, in ways that reflect editorial theorists’ contemporary understandings of the work (as distinct from, yet dependent upon the text). As noted briefly above, over the last few decades editorial theorists have defined “text” as pertaining to a particular documentary instantiation, and “work” as referring to an immaterial, collective sense of texts, both published and otherwise. As the renowned modernist editor Hans Walter Gabler explains, “‘text’ is always grounded in the materiality of transmissions, while ‘work’ is conceptually always immaterial” (7), so that, what a given text “does is to represent the work in one manifestation from a series of material instantiations that is, in principle, endless” (113). Similarly, Eggert thinks of the work as a kind of Kantian regulative ideal arising from a “continuing dialectic” in the circulation of multiple texts, so that the work is “in a process of continuous unfolding” (Eggert, 2010 195, 196). In this context, each new printing of Citizen would constitute another material text, contributing to and redirecting the larger sense of Citizen as a work. Whereas the perspectival shift from text to work ordinarily occurs outside the provenance of any particular document, in the case of Citizen individual texts—even those that do not introduce a new revision, but always possess the potential to display such change—compel Rankine’s readers to already be working within a dialectical mode in Eggert’s sense, to recognize that the particular copy they are encountering is necessarily one in a “series of material instantiations that is, in principle, endless.”

Citizen’s Social History and Textual Future

26While each printed iteration of Citizen puts itself in a new phase of an ongoing dialogue about the white imagination of blackness and the violence resulting from it, if we envision an eventual scholarly edition, presumably digital, we might resituate these textual issues within a different temporal frame. While some of the victims Rankine lists are well-known to her contemporary readers, others are less so, as the text implicitly asks its audience to make connections among Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, on the one hand, and Jordan Russell Davis and Akai Gurley on the other. All of these names, and many more, merit the same degree of memory and memorialization, Rankine’s list implies. If the Google searches of today are the annotations of tomorrow, a future edition of Citizen will also have to encompass not only its history of textual change (including, by then, pre-publication revisions as well, presumably), but also the full record of its paratextual presence on social media, the many historical circumstances Rankine references, or even the famous video of an audience member pointedly reading Citizen, despite being asked not to do so, during a Trump campaign rally in 2016 (see Willoughby; Hinds). As Kenneth M. Price observes, “The possibility of including so much and so many kinds of material makes the question of where and what is the text for an electronic edition every bit as vexed (if not more so) than it has been for print scholarship” (436).

  • 20 According to the “Mapping Police Violence” database, Black victims represented 27% of U.S. police s (...)
  • 21 For other work on this topic, see Early and Gailey; Brooks, Cali and Rambsy; Gailey 2011a and 2011b (...)

27While this is broadly the case for electronic editions, the “question of where and what is the text” will be of particular moment for a case like Citizen, I would argue, because of the hauntedness of black lives and black texts and their readers. It might well seem, to Rankine’s contemporary readers, that these pages in Citizen can never quite be current enough, can never quite catch up to the latest tragic incident of racialized violence, an incommensurability the text itself acknowledges with its fading stream of “In Memory.” Indeed, readers encountering or reencountering the book with an awareness of its textual history might well wonder when a new edition, incorporating the deaths of as yet unknown victims of police violence, might appear.20 If we apply Jerome McGann’s well-known formulation that “when a book is produced it literally closes its covers on itself” while a digital archive is inherently “open to alterations of its content” (McGann 69, 71) to an electronic edition of Citizen, we might envision an editorial system that somehow embodies the printed text’s doubled valence of past and present, for the other side of the descending stream of “In Memory” is the urge to concretize the experience of loss, to memorialize the victims of racialized violence before they are forgotten in the rapidly increasing speed of the present. On the one hand, a future scholarly edition will necessarily be removed from the present historical moment, but it will also have to think through the absence of experiential immediacy this entails, and so will have to determine editorial methods and strategies for its own incommensurability, its own means of acknowledging an urgent past while never being able to reproduce it fully. And, while Rankine’s current critical and commercial success might make an eventual scholarly edition of her works seem inevitable, the recent history of editorial and digital work on socially marginalized authors offers both a cautionary tale and reason for optimism about broader digital access to culturally marginalized works, as Stephanie P. Browner and others have pointed out.21

  • 22 On Rankine’s blurring of genres and its implications for conceptualizing race, see Epstein 176 and (...)

28Turning back from this imagined future to the actual present, it is important to re-emphasize the material experience of reading Citizen as a printed book, especially for readers aware of the contingency of a particular copy. In this mix of genres that rarely “looks like” poetry, readers are frequently revising their understanding of racial identity in the U.S., just as the material text itself is teaching us how to see and interpret it.22 As Gabler notes of texts generally, they “harbour a double energy: they strive towards closure, but simultaneously retain an open potential for change” (113). This double energy is especially and self-consciously apparent in a case like Citizen, where the particular volatility of the facing pages under discussion here is always in dialogue with the relative stability of the rest of the book. On the one hand, the list of names on the left-hand page will necessarily and tragically grow, though there will be a material limit to the scale of that change: in the current printing, there are twenty lines without names attached, gradually fading into the bottom of the surrounding white space. Will this list have to arrest itself arbitrarily, then, in order to maintain the visual and textual effects that derive in part from the closing lines situating the list above within an unknown, but essentially unchanging, future? While the book’s early printings expressed an anxious temporality by signaling their inability to keep up with the pace of real-world events, the latest versions evince a temporal anxiety from the opposite direction: now, it is no longer the demands of the publishing process that threaten to render the text out of date, but the design of the page itself that eventually forced the verso page to stop changing, and that will one day run up against the limit of the recto page’s space, even while the racialized violence producing that list will surely not cease. At that as yet unknown future point, Rankine could conceivably replace some earlier names in order to include more recent victims, but this kind of choice would clearly create its own dialectic with the book’s production history, as the material form of the book would compel Rankine to effectively erase some of the history contained in earlier printings. Alternatively, Rankine might at some point determine not to revise these pages any further; they have remained textually stable over the last few printings. This “visually innovative elegy” (Leong 119) would still alienate readers from the “usual” aesthetic experience of memorialization, at least for those aware of its general textual history. As Sarah Nance observes:

Each previous edition captures a halted temporality, one that momentarily stops the reoccurrence of violence. Through her project of subsequent editions, however, Rankine makes clear that dwelling in the slightly less violent past means refusing witness to the increased violence of the present moment. Instead, each updated edition draws additional attention to the shrinking white space at the bottom of the page. (37-38)

Reading Citizen now, however, is an experience hinged on a known production history and an unknowable textual future.

29Similarly, while the recto page had been textually stable since its initial revision, the recent shift from “black men” to “black people” enacts the potential that had always been there for additional rewritings, which will obviously extend into the book’s future as well. The now unheard echo between “white men” and “black men” retroactively points to the gendered dimensions of racialized violence, to encompass both the unspecified white women who have often served as the ostensible cause for such killings, from the history of lynchings to the present, while also acknowledging the broader scope that white men’s violence has produced in the present. More broadly, an awareness of the current printing’s text as a revision of its past, and thus in dialogue with earlier material texts and their readers, also suggests the means by which white men could, perhaps, some day learn to “police their imaginations.” As Linda Martín Alcoff concludes in The Future of Whiteness, received and contemporary notions of whiteness derive from an array of social practices, but “the very fact that whiteness depends on practices reveals its vulnerability” (147). As Alcoff contends, the possibility for whiteness to “revise itself […] requires not merely learning new things, but a fundamental unlearning that will change all it believes about itself” (165, emphasis in the original). This kind of revision to social structures and identities, in the case of whiteness a move to “understand whiteness as a mere particular among other particulars, rather than the universal that stands as the exemplar of civilization” (Alcoff 187) would rely, for Alcoff, first on revisions to material cultural practices. As she explains, “Changing the meanings and significance of social identities will require changing the material conditions of our society” (161). Citizen: An American Lyric—the play between title and subtitle is very much in evidence here—offers itself as a textual model for this kind of change, as its changing material conditions work in dialogue with its larger portraits of social identity and the misprisions on which it is too often based. To learn how to read and reread Citizen, then, would mean, in part, working through its history of revision and its revised status as a material text, in order to then revise our understandings of how racialized identities are both dependent upon and vulnerable to such material changes.

30At this point in the book’s production history, we can only imagine an archive that does not yet exist for a work that is already actively archiving itself. One way for future editions of Citizen to accomplish these dual aims might well entail what Kinohi Nishikawa presents as reading (and, implicitly, editing) “without guarantees” (author’s emphasis), an orientation that takes race not as “an a priori category to be read into literature, but a complex effect of distinct social, cultural, and textual mediations” (Nishikawa). By recovering those “distinct mediations,” including the distinctiveness of particular pages in particular printings, Rankine’s eventual editors will be better prepared to work through the immediate and specific ways in which “race” functioned as an all too real fiction in the last few years of what once seemed like the Obama era.

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YEH, James. “Percival Everett Has a Book or Three Coming Out.” The New York Times. 3 May 2020:,Percival%20Everett%20Has%20a%20Book%20or%20Three%20Coming%20Out,from%20a%20rule%2Dbreaking%20writer. Accessed 31 March 2024.

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YOUNG, John K. “The Renaissance Happened in (Some of) the Magazines.” Editing the Harlem Renaissance. Eds. Joshua M. Murray and Ross K. Tangedal. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021, p. 15-44.

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1 On Rankine’s use of Turner’s painting, see Adams 59-60.

2 On the multimedia nature of Citizen, see also Farred 109.

3 On the materiality of Black texts in the nineteenth century, see also Cohen and Stein; Gardner; Roy 2017.

4 On the challenges and possibilities of an editorial representation of the novel’s versions, see Mulvey 2002.

5 Richardson, for example, does not cite a particular edition of Citizen, but must be working with the tenth printing, based on the last name in the list of murdered Black citizens he mentions (9).

6 While the digital edition is up and running, none of the print volumes in the Oxford series have been published yet.

7 Similarly, Martin Paul Eve argues that “the construction of a chronology for revisions of a text allows different editions of contemporary novels to function as an archival backstop against their own later or parallel versions” (2020 26), though Eve focuses on editions produced in different geographical locations. For other book historical readings of twenty-first century literature, see Eve 2019; Galey; Hering; Kirschenbaum 2016 and 2021; Noorda and Marsden. The contemporary American novelist Percival Everett has also recently published a novel, Telephone, in three simultaneous versions (see Yeh).

8 Hurston’s essay originally appeared in the May 1928 issue of World Tomorrow, a Christian socialist journal in the United States. For discussion of this publishing context, see Young 2021.

9 The term “micro-aggression” dates back to psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the early 1970s, as a way to account for social harm inflicted on African Americans. Since then its usage has expanded to cover a wider range of socially marginalized populations. For an overview, see Sue.

10 On Rankine’s use of “you” in Citizen, see especially Burt, Chan, Finberg, Hinds, and Lerner.

11 Michael Leong cites a statement from Graywolf’s associate publisher, Katie Dublinski: “From our point of view, these changes are ‘corrections’ or updates to a single page, and not full-blown new editions” (Leong 121). Despite this claim, I see these changes as much more than “corrections,” and so will generally refer to different instantiations of the work as “editions.”

12 The jury found Dunn guilty on three charges of attempted murder for firing into the car at Davis’s companions, but could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge, leading to the mistrial. A second trial found Dunn guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to a prison term of life without parole. For more on this case, see Coates; Momodu.

13 For thoughtful considerations of these issues, see Taylor 2014 and the essays collected in Baker and Simmons. On Warren’s arguments, see Warren and Gates; Edwards and Michaels.

14 As I explain in further detail below, I am employing here the distinction between “work” and “text” in most contemporary editorial theory, in which “text” refers to a particular material document, whether published or private, and “work” refers to an immaterial sense grounded in a collective understanding of texts, both published and unpublished.

15 See also Margo Natalie Crawford’s discussion of Citizen’s “empty, shiny white pages” (2017 40) and Angela Hume’s reading of the “silence of the white page” (107). Richardson similarly finds a “startling” juxtaposition between the “blank white pages and the fragility of the list” (9), while Adams contends that the “whiteness of every unfinished line on an unfinished page suggests a continuing need for remembrance, without reprieve” (68).

16 Other revisions include the correction of factual errors—for instance, changing a reference to Serena Williams playing in the 2009 “US Open final” to that tournament’s semifinal (Rankine, 2014 25) or noting that Williams’s two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics represented “two of the three gold medals the Americans would win in tennis” rather than “the only two gold medals the Americans would win in tennis” (Rankine, 2014 33)—and the updating of historical events, such as the deletion of the line “(see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001)” once both Serena and Venus Williams had ended those boycotts by 2016 (Rankine, 2014 26, 35), as well as revisions to Rankine’s brief biography at the end of the book, which tracks her employment from Pomona College to an endowed chair at the University of Southern California (twelfth printing) to her current position at Yale University, along with her 2016 MacArthur Fellowship.

17 Elisabeth A. Frost also notes changes in the book’s early printings, through the addition of Eric Garner to the verso list (Frost 191-192, n. 14). And Nick Laird’s review in the 23 April 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books, to cite one more example, notes that Laird had been sent the second “edition,” as he calls it, to review, and then acknowledges the additions of Eric Garner and John Crawford to the “third edition,” though Laird omits the rewritten recto page from his footnoted account.

18 Charles Legere similarly understands Rankine’s “you” as a “kind of aggregate contemporary subject” (109). On Rankine’s “lyric ‘I,’” see also Gilmore (168); on her use of “you” in relation to lyric, see Alvergue.

19 Similarly, in her account of what she terms “textual Darwinism,” Robin G. Schulze views revision as in dialogue with the historical contexts of textual production, even though she focuses more on choices made between draft and first published versions. As Schulze puts it, “Every instance of authorial selection yields a version adapted to the unique pressures of the author’s present and particular historical circumstances” (300). While Rankine’s case departs from Schulze’s focus on Marianne Moore in the greater immediacy and fluidity of “the author’s present,” the resulting record of variation speaks just as expressively to the ongoing set of “particular historical circumstances.”

20 According to the “Mapping Police Violence” database, Black victims represented 27% of U.S. police shootings in 2023, meaning those deaths occurred at roughly twice the rate of the Black U.S. population overall. Keegan Cook Finberg incorporates this textual anxiety in an account of his own scholarly practice, noting the deaths of Arbery, Clark, and Taylor, which had not yet been memorialized in Citizen but occurred during the writing, revising, and publication of his essay (336).

21 For other work on this topic, see Early and Gailey; Brooks, Cali and Rambsy; Gailey 2011a and 2011b; Mulvey 2002; and Rambsy.

22 On Rankine’s blurring of genres and its implications for conceptualizing race, see Epstein 176 and Voris 73.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 135.
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Légende Fig. 2. First printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 135.
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Légende Fig. 3. Fifth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 134-135.
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Légende Fig. 4. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 134.
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Légende Fig. 5. Eighteenth printing of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 136-137.
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John K. Young, « Violence and Memory in the Multiple Versions of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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John K. Young

Marshall University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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