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Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” Essay


Apart from high levels of tolerance, racism is under vehement discussion in the modern world. Many authors address this problem in their works, and Rankine and Whitehead are not exceptions. In her book, Citizen, Rankine presented a poetic story by using metaphors, examples of racism from her life, and narration in the second person to attract even more attention to racial segregation. Meanwhile, Whitehead told a story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, and their way to freedom through the Underground Railroad with the help of a traditional genre-based approach.

Both of them focused on similar problems but used entirely different methods to deliver their ideas while having clear benefits and disadvantages of their choices. *One the one hand, novels like Citizen help build an emotional bond with readers by making them experience the struggles of being black, but on the other side, a strong position of defendant and a distinction between “you” and “I” may create misunderstandings, and, as a consequence, despite the lack of persuasive tone, relying on traditional approach as in The Underground Railroad may deem as the most appropriate one to address the modern issues of racism.*

As it was mentioned previously, Rankine discovered racism from an entirely different perspective and attempted to connect poetics with the tragedy of the real world. She used pronoun “you” to make readers feel the problems of racism and discover them from the viewpoint of discriminated individuals. For example, “Do you feel hurt because it’s ‘all the black people look the same’ moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to other?” clearly demonstrated author’s intentions while drawing attention to reader’s emotions (Rankine 12).

At the same time, to find a link with poetics, she referred to describing trees, joy, and rain and blended it with the everyday cases of racism such as Hennessy’s suggestions of being a successful tennis player (“be ambiguous, be white”), cheating, rude conversation on the phone, and a disturbing situation with a police officer (Rankine 31).

A combination of these expressive tools complied with the author’s desire to bring the attention of the society to the problem of racism, as its main features were being transferred from the past. Using this lyric approach could be considered as beneficial since it showed the presence of racism in pop-culture (tennis) and attempted to change readers’ attitudes while being more tolerant to people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Apart from relying on a traditional genre, Whitehead was able to tell a story of Cora and her desire to escape and pursue her “dream of white sea” (Whitehead 21).

With the help of figurative language, the author described Cora’s life and challenges that she had to face when being a slave. For example, “soon after her long march to the plantation, the plot was a rumble of dirt and scrub behind her cabin, at the line of slave quarters” presented a profound and detailed image of the slavery of the past (Whitehead 21). At the same time, with the assistance of the examples of advertisements described in the book, it was possible to recreate attitudes towards slaves.

For instance, “30 Dollar Reward will be given to any person who will deliver me…a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age” showed that black people were mostly viewed as goods for sale rather than people with recognized freedoms, and their high monetary value was reflected by capitalization (Whitehead 105). In this case, the primary advantage of this narration style was the ability of the author to deliver the problems before the Civil War and write a story that would be interesting to read and follow.

Nonetheless, on the other side, Whitehead’s novel tended to be more historical while clearly lacking connection with reality and current problems. At the same time, its intentions to persuade readers were not as strong as in Citizen, and it explained its neutral tone and traditional genre.

In turn, Rankine’s book entirely filled these gaps by its emotionality and its emphasis on current problems. Nonetheless, apart from its positive intentions, the means of figurative language might be found controversial due to a well-defined distinction between races and people (black and white; You and I). It might seem that the author played the role of defendant by asking “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” (Rankine 14). The statements like these could be discovered as triggers of conflicts and create even more tensions in the society than before.

In the end, the selected novels addressed the issues of racism, but they used entirely different approaches to express their opinions. Nonetheless, apart from the similar goals, their choices deemed rational. Rankine in her book Citizen relied on poetics to have an emotional influence of readers and help them see a connection between the racial segregation of the past and acts of discrimination reflected in the modern society and pop-culture. Nonetheless, some people might find this tone more aggressive rather than convincing, as the author strongly defended her position by clearly claiming a difference between “you” and “I”.

This aspect might be considered as a trigger for misunderstandings. As for The Underground Railroad, the authors used a traditional approach since it helped him tell the story of the past and attract the attention of readers to the problem by having a clear historical reference. Apart from the lack of emotionality, using unbiased tone could be viewed as more appropriate in this case, as it could help avoid conflicts and clearly deliver the idea to the audience.

Works Cited

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.

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"Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”." IvyPanda, 18 Nov. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/racism-in-rankines-citizen-and-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/.

1. IvyPanda. "Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”." November 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/racism-in-rankines-citizen-and-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/.


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IvyPanda. "Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”." November 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/racism-in-rankines-citizen-and-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”." November 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/racism-in-rankines-citizen-and-whiteheads-the-underground-railroad/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Racism in Rankine’s “Citizen” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”'. 18 November.

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