Claudia Rankine, award-winning poet and essayist, read from her nationally acclaimed book, Citizen: An American Lyric, in the Chapel on Feb. 8. This work is a collection of stories conveyed mainly as prose poems and mixed media images. In reflecting on the origin of Citizen, Rankine explained that she had asked her friends to tell her a story about a time “where you were doing something ordinary […] and suddenly somebody said something that reduced you to your race” in order to explore the “white supremacist foundations inside this culture.” She then proceeded to read from and discuss several of the stories.
She began with a comment on the cover of the book, which features an image of a hood from a black sweatshirt. She explained that the image, taken in 1993, fit the book’s theme in a number of ways. First, while the photo was taken over 20 years ago, “hoodies” have become symbolic of oppression against black people and police brutality, thus it draws on contemporary symbols of systemic racism. She also admired the picture because the hood is reminiscent of both an executioner’s and a Ku Klux Klan hood. Despite the reluctance of some to embrace these parts of American history, Rankine argues that these uncomfortable aspects of history are “all the things that make us American,” thus fitting into her broader idea of discussing citizenship and what it means to be an American.
She further explained that our traditionally safe or ignorant habits must change in order to make social progress. Currently, she argues, we don’t think about the “way[s] in which our lives are underlied by segregation.” Instead of “call[ing] it out,” she continued, we fall back on our “habit[s] of doing the next thing,” even if that means “walking into harm.” Because racism, segregation and prejudice are all deeply rooted in our habits, Rankine noted that we must make ourselves uncomfortable before we have a hope of progress. Yet the problem, she says, is that “we are so unwilling to make our spaces uncomfortable that we will take the harm and then take it again and take it again.”
Rankine expressed her hope that Citizen will help alleviate that hesitancy, and to instead inspire motivation and passion for change. She discussed how she hoped to address those who deny that racial inequalities and prejudices still exist and have consequences. Further, Rankine discussed how, in writing in the second person point of view, she hoped to make these stories seem applicable and relatable to all audience members, not just people of color. In other words, part of the mission of the book was to cultivate genuine empathy, which in turn ought to mobilize more people to take action and change their own behavior.
She concluded her talk with insight for the audience, “people like to think that racism is about black people. And that race is about black people and people of color, when there is no whiteness. Whiteness is a construction. Blackness is a construction. There is no normality.” Her book Citizen draws on that insight. Rankine noted how the works are structured and written in order to “keep everyone in the room”— in other words, to transform the idea of racism so that it becomes a genuine concern for all of society, not just for people of color.
The lecture was sponsored by the Literature and Creative Writing Department with additional funding from the Levitt Center and Days-Massolo Center.