“The Beautiful Game” in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

By Donna Maria Alexander

Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric chronicles racial micro-aggressions, demonstrating the depth at which racism is ingrained in day-to-day life. In many ways Citizen defies definition as either a poem or an essay, oscillating between long paragraph verse and parataxis, between collages of image and text and blank pages, between quotations from scholars and artists to the poet’s own narrative, between historical fact and intellectual speculation.  The racist micro-aggressions which the poem depicts range from everyday stories which Rankine gathered from friends, colleagues and acquaintances, to more well-known and widely reported ones. For example, in the first section of Citizen Rankine tells of “a close friend / who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call / you by the name of her black housekeeper” (7). The more well-known examples of racism appear in section two of the collection which relates the incident when the white Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked black tennis star, Serena William’s body by stuffing the backside of her skirt with clothing during a match in 2012.

The focus of this article is the section titled ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup: Script for Situation Video Created in Collaboration with John Lucas’. Here Rankine explores French footballer Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian player, Marco Materazzi in response to racist slurs during the 2006 Football World Cup Final. Zidane was consequently sent off in the last few minutes of the final game of his career. The title of this section of Citizen signals to the reader that the poem is also a script for a short film in which Rankine’s voiceover delivery of the poem is paired with slow motion footage of the encounter between Zidane and Materazzi. In my analysis, I will examine both the print version of the poem, and the short film. [1] In ‘October 10, 2006’, Rankine shifts from the almost entirely U.S.-centric exploration of blackness, racism and citizenship to discuss the moment during the 2006 World Cup final which took place in Germany. The racial slurs directed at Zidane (whose parents emigrated from Algeria to Paris before his birth) represent a homogenisation of race and ethnicity, indicating the tendency towards the ‘browning’ of terrorism and the ‘whitewashing’ of European colonial histories.

Image by nefasth used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The poem’s title is not a statement of belonging, but an interrogation. Rankine states in an interview with Kate Kellaway that she called it Citizen because she “wanted to ask: who gets to hold that status—despite everyone technically having it? How is it embodied and honoured? The title contains a question” (n.p.). To answer this question, Citizen crosses textual, stylistic, poetic, and geographical borders. In Citizen, Rankine collates a variety of sources, including news reports, television footage of international sporting events, CCTV footage, social media live streams, YouTube videos, art, fiction, poetry and academic texts. Her matrix of source texts connects national and transnational examples of racism ranging from everyday micro-aggressions to police brutality. The tone shifts constantly from numbing descriptions to lyrical emotive poetry, from simplified lists to complex rhetorical stanzas. For example, section “IV” of Citizen contains a series of rhetorical paragraph verses that focus on the psychological toll of racial micro-aggressions, each spread one at a time across several pages. Elsewhere, Rankine lists the names of black people murdered in the U.S: “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis / In memory of Eric Garner” (134). The catalogue verse continues down the page with the black ink gradually fading through grey in the blank white paper, aesthetically rendering the destruction of black people by white people.

If Citizen is to be read as an “American Lyric” as the subtitle states, then it is a wholly new kind of lyric. One may immediately seek to situate Citizen in the canon of long American epics and lyrics such as Joel Barlow’s The Columbiad (1807), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855), andWilliam Carlos William’s Paterson (1946). However, Rankine’s “American Lyric” circumvents the wholesome patriotism of these white-male lyrical visions of America by situating black citizenship at the centre of the poem to criticise white supremacism both within the U.S. and indeed in Europe, as is exemplified by the section about Zidane’s headbutt during the 2006 World Cup Final. Indeed, the opening lines of Citizen stand in stark contrast to the emancipatory opening lines of Song of Myself, in which Whitman declares “I celebrate myself” (7). In opposition to Whitman, Rankine opens Citizen with the melancholy statement: “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” (5). Rather than presenting a Whitmanesque celebration, Rankine highlights the psychological drain of trying to navigate being black in North America and in a world where we are constantly connected via digital technology. According to Joanna Penn Cooper, Rankine resists lyrical gestures toward ‘wholeness’ and ‘unity’ that erase real trauma. Claiming neither the easy affirmations of some lyric poetry nor the subversive mask of much twentieth- and twenty-first century ethnic American literature, Rankine instead offers fragmentary counter-gestures that resist closure, suggesting the power of genre experimentation to challenge received knowledge. (50)

Rankine herself has confirmed that closure is far from her aim when experimenting with the lyric form. In an interview with Claire Schwartz in TriQuarterly, Rankine states that “the lyric is a place where feeling gets examined. It’s traditionally grounded in the apprehensions and emotions of a subject. By coupling lyric with American, one takes the gesture into the public realm” (n.p.). This makes the second-person approach all the more interesting. In what Jonathan Culler refers to as the “triangulated address” (186) system of lyric poetry in which address to the reader is carried out via address to something, or someone, else. By addressing the black subjects of racial micro-aggression directly, Rankine not only places black citizens at the centre of the poem, privileging their position in the tradition of American lyric poetry in a way that it has not yet been, and situates white readers on the outside of the poem’s narrative. Thus, the second-person narrative is an invitation to Black America to occupy the lyric subjectivity of the poem and explore the emotional historical extent of their experience. In Whitman’s “Song of Myself” he becomes the American everyman occupying voices stating that he “contain[s] multitudes” (131). Rankine refuses to take vocal ownership of the black subjects of the poem, as well as to create distance via the use of a third-person narrative perspective. Instead, her second-person lyric opens a dialogue between poet and reader, and indeed between subjects within the poem.

Nowhere in the poem is this more evident than when she situates Zidane’s personal reflections about his headbutt among quotations from works by Black thinkers and writers. In ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup’ Rankine adapts a much-reported, tabloid sensation into a short poem that pairs new dialogue with Zidane’s actions, rewriting the script to insert Zidane as a creative agent into a historic, transnational continuum of men who write about race and racism. Rankine constructs dialogue using Zidane’s testimony, reports from lip readers who interpreted Materazzi’s words, and quotations from well-known male writers and scholars of colour. In Citizen, stills of the scene appear chronologically throughout the pages of the script poem. These images are deliberately placed in tandem with the stanzas before and after them in order to recontextualise the meaning of Zidane’s actions from a violent knee-jerk reaction into what Rankine redefines, using James Baldwin’s words as “something very beautiful” (cited in Rankine, 128). Rankine states that she created the “Situations” short films “because the use of video manipulation by John Lucas allowed me to slow down and enter the event, in moments, as if I were there in real time rather than as a spectator considering it in retrospect” (Berlant n.p.). Her insertion of stills in the print version attempts to replicate this slow reading for those who experience the poem in print rather than film. As your eye moves across and down the pages you are drawn to a pause as you view each still image of the headbutt.

Image by Roel Wijnants “Coup de têtê” used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The short film version slows down the footage of the 2006 World Cup final, stretching a moment in time across several minutes while the poet recites the script poem in a monotone delivery that does not distract the viewer from the decelerated moment playing before them. The deliberate engagement with, and remediation of, television sources in this poem is also an invitation to the readers to come to their own imaginative understandings of what the poetry portrays. Thomas Leitch argues that “movies depend on prescribed, unalterable visual and verbal performances in a way literary texts don’t” (154). Blending film and poetry allows Rankine to play with the interpretative elasticity of poetry and the audio-visual possibilities of cinematography. While lyric poetry traditionally explores the emotional subjectivity of the poet, Rankine, as noted earlier, lends the subjective position to other voices in Citizen. In ‘October 10 / 2006’ the male voices include Zidane and the lip readers who interpreted Materazzi’s words, but also writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, novelist Ralph Ellison, psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, novelist and social critic James Baldwin, playwright and poet William Shakespeare, scholar and critical theorist Homi Bhabha, and abolitionist, writer and orator Frederick Douglass. This transnational and transtemporal continuum of male writers and scholars is used by Rankine to emphasise the complex history behind contemporary issues of race and racism. Each page in this section bears the watermark “Black — Blanc — Beur”, Beur being a colloquial term for European-born people whose parents or grandparents are immigrants from North Africa, a constant reminder that the poet is making a transnational connection in this section of Citizen.

Rankine frames Zidane’s own response to the racial slurs directed at him by Materazzi between quotations and adaptations of quotations by the aforementioned men. For example, she rewrites a quotation by Franz Fanon that originally states: “It is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude” (47). Rankine translates this to “It is the White Man who creates the Black man. But it is the / Black man who creates” (128). Even though the word “negritude” is removed by Rankine, the choice of quotation is significant because the concept of Négritude emerged as the expression of a revolt against the historical situation of French colonialism and racism around the 1930s. Rankine’s version signals a shift in time and place, but it retains the shared ideal that while white male aggression threatens Black masculinity, it cannot take full ownership of Black male selfhood. By ending her interpretation on the word “creates”, Rankine inserts a sense of artistic possibility into Zidane’s reaction to Materazzi’s racism. Zidane’s action constitutes a kind of embodied and empowered release. Ending his career on a red card is no longer a disappointing anti-climax, but a sophisticated, creative political act against the racism that stagnates the sporting world. Sports commentators have also noted the mysterious elegance of the moment. Joel Golby wrote recently that “in many ways, headbutting Marco Materazzi was one of the most graceful and athletic movements Zinedine Zidane ever performed on a football pitch, and as one of the greatest and most elegant players ever to take the field, that really is saying something” (n.p.). Rankine quotes James Baldwin to state that that “[t]he rebuttal assumes an original form”, suggesting that Zidane’s reaction is an authentic, creative response to racism (128). The word “rebuttal” is a play on “headbutt”, and recasts the original violent physical reaction as a meaningful and legitimate act of refuting the verbal abuse directed at him.

In the print version, strips of stills illustrate the text, deliberately connecting with each statement. For example, at the point when the stills show Zidane turning and beginning to step towards Materazzi, his own words blend with those of Fanon (the bold being Zidane’s and the following line, Fanon’s):

Do you think two minutes from the end of a World Cup final, two

Minutes from the end of my career, I wanted to do that?

Each decision gave rise to the same hesitations, produced the same despair. (124)

Pairing these words signalling hesitation and a turning point at the very moment that Zidane chooses to carry out the headbutt introduces a new dialogue and meaning to the scene voiced by both the footballer himself in retrospect and Fanon’s theoretical work on race, masculinity and postcolonialism.

Rankine ends the poem with another quotation from Baldwin: “This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a / human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful” (cited in Rankine 128). According to Whitney Devos:

Rankine uses Baldwin to frame Zidane’s infamous rebuttal at the 2006 World Cup as ‘something very beautiful’; his action ‘assumes an original form,’ not as an object—in video form the incident can never be static—but as a civil gesture, a visceral response both personal and embedded in and indexing wider, global frameworks of colonialism and racism. (385)

By slowing down the footage in the short film, Rankine and Lucas allow their viewers to reflect on this moment of “beauty” while listening to the poet’s intertextual script poem in the voiceover. The script poem itself also introduces new pacing to the scene. The cacophony of voices collected in it encourage the reader to slow down and consider the moment at a deeper level. The structure of the pages also decelerates the reading process with the script poem on the left-hand page and the corresponding names of the people quoted on the right-hand side. This forces the reader’s eye to shift back and forth from one page to the other. This unusual, non-linear form of reading suggests that our reading of Black history is non-linear, and that, in order to understand racism, we need to alter our interpretive approaches. Indeed, Rankine’s Citizen as a whole is emblematic of this shift in interpretation at work in American poetry inasmuch as it is at once a poetry adaptation, a series of script poems, an archive of mixed-media poetics, and a scholarly work. In many ways, therefore, it defies concrete definition as a poem. Its poetic and dialogic borders are porous, leaking out and soaking in transnational and intertextual exchanges that reflect Rankine’s challenge to US-centric dominant narratives about racism.

Image by Imagens Portal SESCSP used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Moreover, Rankine’s adaptation of the scene situates Zidane as a creative agent who channels Frederick Douglass’s words, “But at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t / know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the / resolution” (cited in Rankine 128). In this section of Citizen, Zidane is located among a continuum of Black men who have also had to engage in “rebuttals” whether on the page or on the playing field. Again, Rankine reminds us that her lyrical project is not one of poetic closure because her subject matter, black citizens, have yet to receive closure in the real world. Instead, the poem generates an ongoing conversation highlighting the connections that art and lived experience create among us. In this case, Rankine demonstrates that the lived experiences and writings of African-American, gay writer James Baldwin and Martinican psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon can be placed in meaningful dialogue with the lived experiences of Zinedine Zidane and creative and socio-political obstacles he faces in what is often referred to as the “beautiful game”.


[1] I also conduct a comparative analysis of this poem in a chapter titled “Adapting History in the Docupoetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Script Poems of Danez Smith and Claudia Rankine” in the forthcoming collection Process and Practice: Adaptation Considered as a Collaborative Art (Palgrave, forthcoming, Fall 2019) edited by Bernadette Cronin, Rachel MagShamhráin and Nikolai Preuschoff.


Donna Maria Alexander, “‘The Beautiful Game’ In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American LyricAlluvium, 7.2 (2019): n. pag. Web. 30 April 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.2.04

About the Author:

Donna Maria Alexander is currently a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork. Her research interests include contemporary poetry, adaptation studies, postcolonialism, electronic literature and digital pedagogy. Her forthcoming monograph, Weeder of Wreckage: Documentary and Death in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes (Peter Lang) was the recipient of the runner-up prize in the Peter Lang Young Scholar’s Competition in Women’s Studies, 2015. Donna was awarded a UCC President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018 after being nominated by students.

She tweets @americasstudies and blogs at http://donnaalexander.org.

Works Cited:

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Laurel-Dell, 1962.

Barlow, Joel. The Columbiad, a Poem. 1809. Project Gutenberg, 16 March 2014,  www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8683.

Berlant, Lauren. “Claudia Rankine.” BOMB Magazine, 1 October 2014, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/claudia-rankine/. Accessed 1 April 2019.

Cooper, Joanna Penn. “Refusal of the Mask in Claudia Rankine’s Post-9/11 Poetics.” A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, edited by Laura McCullough, University of Georgia Press, 2015, 50–56.

Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Devos, Whitney. “Beauty.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, 2016, pp. 385–386.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. Penguin, 1986.

Fanon, Franz. A Dying Colonialism. Grove, 1965

Golby, Joel. “Zinedine Zidane and the Most Important Headbutt in the World.” Vice, 26 June 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/7xmj4y/zinedine-zidane-and-the-most-important-headbutt-in-the-world. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Hass, Robert, ed. Song of Myself & Other Poems By Walt Whitman. Counterpoint, 2010.

Kellaway, Kate. “Claudia Rankine: ‘Blackness in the White Imagination Has Nothing to Do with Black People.’” The Guardian, 27 Dec 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/27/claudia-rankine-poet-citizen-american-lyric-feature. Accessed 23 March 2019.

Leitch, Thomas. “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory.” Criticism, vol. 45, no. 2, 2003, pp. 149–171.

McCullough, Laura, ed. A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin, 2014.

Rankine, Claudia and John Lucas. “Situation 1.” Vimeo, 27 May 2015, https://vimeo.com/129006280. Accessed 23 March 2019.

Schwartz, Claire. “An Interview with Claudia Rankine.” TriQuarterly, vol. 150, 2016,  n.p.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself: 1855.” Song of Myself & Other Poems by Walt Whitman, edited by Robert Hass. Counterpoint, 2010, 7–70.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. 1946. New Directions, 1995.

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