By Meaghan Menzel
Claudia Rankine returned to Washington College Sept. 9 in Decker Theatre to read from her book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which was assigned as the 2015 first year reading.
According to Associate Professor of English Dr. James Hall, Rankine “first visited the campus, reading her fourth book… ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric.’”
Rankine’s “Citizen” won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and, according to the WC website, “holds the distinction of being the only poetry book ever listed as a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.” She is the co-editor for the anthologies, “The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind” and “American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language,” and she has been published in anthologies including “Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present” and “Giant Step: African American Writing at the Crossroads of the Century.”
According to Dr. Hall, “Citizen” “freezes moments of racism in order to turn them back and toward the heat of analysis… The reader is positioned in many of these pieces as the body upon which harm is done in micro and macro aggressions.”
The spark for the whole book, according to Rankine, was after Hurricane Katrina. “I realized that’s when it started… That was the moment when you thought, ‘oh my God. They’re going to let all those black people die. They don’t really care… I’d say that that was the first piece, the first visual moment I had of the warehousing of black bodies.”
Rankine said that the way her first section of “Citizen” began was “I called up my friends… and I said to them, ‘tell me a moment where you were doing something very ordinary… and suddenly somebody said or did something and made you understand that you have been reduced to the color of your skin… so these moments were collected and written down. Some of them came from people answering that question. Some of them came from my own life.”
One story she included was when one of her friends was almost arrested for standing outside of her house. A neighbor thought he was stalking the house and called the police. After the police left, Rankine told him that if he wanted to call her to just go into the backyard. According to ‘Citizen,’ he said that “he can speak on the phone wherever he wants.” Rankine said, even if she only meant to protect her friend, “it’s that moment when you realize that you cannot as a black person restructure your life because of white racism… it’s a denial of your own humanity.”
Another story she heard was when one of her friends almost got turned away after meeting her therapist face-to-face for the first time just because she had dark skin. Rankine found out her friend still attended the appointment. She said, “I [probably] would’ve done the same thing because you’re in the moment, and you do the next thing. Whatever is the next thing, you do the next thing, even when you feel incredibly injured… I think this is how these aggressions work. You get caught in the moment. Nobody wants to make anybody else uncomfortable. Nobody wants to step out… and say, ‘what you have done is unacceptable.’”
“Citizen” includes several images Rankine picked out. One of them is a piece by the taxidermist Kate Clark. “She buys hide and casts faces and… makes these sculptures,” Rankine said. She had found one of Clark’s pieces that she liked. “One of the things that I often think about is the way that black people are called ‘animals’ …and I thought, ‘alright, I’m not going to run from this idea that I’m an animal, but I’m going to choose the animal that I am… I’m going to choose one that gets hunted.’”
Another image included a piece by Nick Cave who creates “Soundsuits,” full body suits that cover the head and face of the wearer. They resemble living pieces of art. When Rankine first saw his soundsuits, she wanted to know how he came up with them. After doing some research, Rankine said, “it turned out the reason that he started making the soundsuits was… because of Rodney King. After the beating of Rodney King… [Cave] thought that he needed to create something that would cover over the black body so that people would deal with black people as something else and that rage and dismissal and desire to kill black people would be displaced by a moment of surreal-ness.”
Rankine said that she probably would not have written this book if President Barack Obama hadn’t been elected. She said, “People say, ‘if black men only dressed better they wouldn’t be treated this way. If they only were more educated, they wouldn’t be treated this way.’ …Then suddenly we have a president who is a black man, and he’s treated that way… so many realize… it only has to do with the color of your skin.”
Rankine herself has experienced racial prejudice. She said that her husband is white. “My husband’s been pulled over because I was in the car. The police man said to him, ‘How do you know her?’ How do you know your wife… Has that ever happened to you?”
Dr. Hall said, “We can read great works of literature like ‘Citizen’ and learn how to do the work of empathy which for me is the work of being a good citizen.”
“We don’t want to have to engage, but it’s really time I think we begin to think about our own comfort, I mean as women, as people of color, as queer people. We cannot let the dominant culture curtail our humanity and then call that level of aggression and violence normal,” said Rankine.
More about Rankine and her work can be found at her website, claudiarankine.com