On May 15, acclaimed poet Claudia Rankine brought to life the experience of Citizen: An American Lyric, an award-winning, genre-defying book of reflection, art, and cultural criticism, and a required text in Concord Academy’s sophomore English curriculum. Through essay, image, and poetry, Rankine strives in Citizen to reveal and make palpable implicit bias and the mechanisms of everyday racism.
In her presentation during the school day, she illuminated some of the book’s most memorable passages and artworks for CA students. Rankine graciously signed books afterward for a long line of students and faculty, as she did again later that evening for a sizable audience of CA parents, alumnae/i, and friends. With parents, Rankine read from her upcoming book, Just Us: An American Conversation, an exploration of whiteness in American culture, and spoke about the creative actions of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII), a collective of writers and artists that she co-founded to capture, as the group says, “the enduring truth of race: it is an invented concept that nevertheless operates with extraordinary force in our daily lives, limiting our movements and imaginations.”
Speaking with students, Rankine contextualized her writing of Citizen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when so many people from marginalized communities, many of them African American, were abandoned. Responding to the others’ surprise and dismay, Rankine recalled thinking, “You wouldn’t say to me, ‘How did this happen?’ if you understood how anti-black racism works in this culture.” She became determined to break down the ways in which people are in collusion with racism in their day-to-day lives.
Left: Claudia Rankine speaking at CA about the origins of the artist Nick Cave’s series of Soundsuits. Right: Rankine speaking with a CA student while signing copies of her book Citizen: An American Lyric.
Rankine read several excerpts from Citizen, including one recollection of the first moment someone said something that both praised and devalued her based on the color of her skin. She also considered many of the images used in the book, from artists such as Kate Clark, whose fusions of human and animal forms ask viewers to examine our humanity, and Nick Cave, whose surrealistic, body-ensconcing Soundsuits evolved from a black man’s need for a suit of armor, a second skin, to a photograph by Michael David Murphy of a neighborhood street sign reading “Jim Crow Rd” — just one of many streets actually so named across the South and Midwest that endure as monuments to segregation.
“How do you understand white privilege if you don’t understand that you’re white, if you don’t understand that racism is actually about how whiteness functions inside the culture?”Rankine also spoke about the artist David Hammons’ piece “In the Hood,” which appears on the cover of Citizen. When the book was released in 2014, people assumed the empty sweatshirt hood, which looks mounted much as a deer’s head might be against a white background, was created in response to the tragic 2012 fatal shooting in Florida of the African American high school student Trayvon Martin. “It’s one of those moments when history was, is, will be,” Rankine said at CA, revealing that the image was actually created in 1993 in response to the beating of Rodney King, which spurred the riots in LA. “We know that the hoodie on the body of a white person remains a hoodie; on the body of a black person, it criminalizes them beyond the color of their skin,” Rankine said. “They’re already criminalized because they have black skin, but put on the hoodie and you have cemented that metaphor in the white imagination.”
– Claudia Rankine
Rankine’s candid and insightful responses to student questions touched on literary and critical voices including Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and Teju Cole, as well as her lived experience as a black woman married to a white husband.
One student asked if she had white audiences in mind when writing Citizen. “No racism happens without white people in the room,” Rankine responded. “The thing that white people do, that we should agree collectively today to stop doing, is not understanding that whiteness is a race. You’re white. That is part of racism. So, therefore, you’re in the room.”
It’s the reason, she said, that she organized Citizen around the pronoun “you” so that the reader has to “step inside the room” of that “you.” When people say they don’t see color, Rankine asks what that means. “How do you understand white privilege if you don’t understand that you’re white,” she asked, “if you don’t understand that racism is actually about how whiteness functions inside the culture?”
Asked for practical tips for responding constructively to microaggressions or comments that are sexist, racist, or homophobic, Rankine gave some hard-edged advice. Instead of holding the burden oneself — agonizing for hours or days or weeks over what to say in response — Rankine advised simply naming those comments for what they are. “It’s amazing how much more time you have in your life, in your mental capacity, when you’re able to do that,” she said. She was not advocating for arguing but rather for letting the other person assume responsibility for a response, whether they own the initial statement or move away from it. Either way, “there’s no reason for you to carry it,” she said. “Just let’s be clear that’s what it is, and move on.”
Richard Colton, co-director of Concord Academy’s dance program, and Community and Equity student co-heads Adrian Balvuena ’19 and Andreas Byamana ’19 gave introductory remarks and introduced speaker Claudia Rankine.
About Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; two plays including The White Card, which premiered in February 2018 (ArtsEmerson/American Repertory Theater) and will be published with Graywolf Press in 2019, and Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue; as well as numerous video collaborations. She is also the editor of several anthologies including The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. In 2016, she co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). Among her numerous awards and honors, Rankine is the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, United States Artists, and the National Endowment of the Arts. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches at Yale University as the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry.