The Jamaican writer’s latest collection tackles race. She explains how she’s using poetry to make sense of one of the most fraught times in recent US history, Smitha Khorana writes in this article for London’s Guardian.
In August Claudia Rankine, the lyric poet and playwright, visited Ferguson, Missouri, only weeks after Michael Brown’s death.
She had been invited to visit St Louis months before Michael Brown was killed to deliver a reading while she was finishing up her latest work, Citizen: An American Lyric, a book-length poem and her fifth collection. She spoke to people who lived in Brown’s neighborhood, just as she had with her black male friends whom she interviewed and asked about their experiences of racism in America for the collection.
Now her work, which had started as a re-telling of personal experiences of racism, as well as a general view of the country and race, had inadvertently become a companion to one of the most volatile moments in recent US history.
“There’s something very moving about having so many people step into a subject that I have been consumed with for so long, and suddenly understand the urgency that I have been feeling for 20 years,” she said.
Rankine is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and professor of English at Pomona College and that two-decade long feeling of urgency she mentioned has seen her produce poetry that’s been short-listed for the National Book Award, and taken in subjects as unlikely as Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final and the portrayal of Serena Williams by the mainstream media.
She is well-known for her use of experimental form and her stark, direct voice. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, an earlier work that bears the same subtitle as Citizen, speaks of the individual bombarded by images from a disenchanting media. Citizen begins with personal experiences of encounters where Rankine felt invisible or was hypervisible and moves into passages in memoriam of black men who have been killed. It also includes scripts of multimedia video’s created in collaboration with Rankine’s partner, photographer John Lucas. Rankine is able to embed the profound in the routine, to untangle everyday experiences and speak to larger truths. Her ability to connect the institutional to the individual experience, to zoom in and out between the macro and micro is her calling card.
“She makes a meaning collage unlike anybody else,” says Melanie Joseph, artistic producer of the Foundry Theatre in New York and collaborator with Rankine.
Citizen feels more raw than Don’t Me Be Lonely. There is a severity to the situations she describes, an intensity to the pain that surfaces in the text.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she moved to the US at the age of seven, and grew up in the north Bronx. She attended Williams College, then Columbia University, and she’s taught at Barnard, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of Houston and the University of Georgia. Long-known in literary circles, Citizen, which sees her cite both critical theory and personal stories to create a documentary-style look at America, has catapulted Rankine into the spotlight. She has a quiet, elegant demeanor that belies the potency that’s attached to almost everything she says:
“Because racism works purely on perception – often times people don’t even know the other person – the book had to have a component that involved the visual. Looking and seeing and perceiving is also what I’m asking whiteness to do. To see what’s in front of them rather than what they think they’re seeing,” she says before referring to recent police shootings.
“They are clearly not seeing. Darren Wilson is seeing Hulk Hogan and a demon. He’s not seeing Michael Brown. The officer who shot Tamir Rice saw a 20-year-old black man and not a twelve-year old, and then it’s still problematic, because if he sees a 20-year-old black man he thinks that’s something to shoot.”
While many earlier works about the experience of race in America deal with the internal experience of those who are afflicted by racism, Rankine pays equal attention to the uncontrolled imaginings of the white mind.
To include this visual component of race, and of perception, Citizen includes original art: paintings, photographs and conceptual art interspersed with the text.
A photograph early in the work shows a street sign in a typical suburban neighborhood bearing the name Jim Crow Road. A painting of a black face with yellow, green, and blue hues is more conceptual in nature.
“The art teaches you to abstract out into a more open space. They offer a possibility in terms of imagination. We’re not talking about a narrative per se, we’re talking about perception, and the ways the imagination can open up and change perception.”
Rankine describes her world as one of middle-class professionals and at times she critiques the liberal safe-havens she inhabits.
“I was interested in a liberal subjectivity,” she says. “I wanted this to be the world of art galleries and tennis courts and ivory tower schools and so using the kinds of images that were used and having them reproduced beautifully was to speak to the world where this racism was coming from. I wanted places that claim neutrality and reciprocity and recognition and yet, still were functioning within this program of racism.”
She writes of this world – her world, not as an outsider, but as someone who suffers the misperceptions and subtle transgressions of colleagues and friends. These moments are often referred to as “micro aggressions”.
One such encounter involves being chased out of the yard of a white therapist who expected someone who looked other than Rankine. Another encounter involves having a neighbor call the police because a black male friend of Rankine’s is babysitting her child, and he assumes this individual could be dangerous. She sees a clear connection between these micro aggressions, or encounters, as Rankine prefers to call them, and macro aggression that result in the deaths of black men.
“The macro aggressions are actually being committed by these very people. These are citizens on juries, these are lawyers, these are prosecutors, well-educated prosecutors,” she says.
“I’m speaking to the ways in which we are implicated in the architecture and the structure of our own democracy that allow these aggressions to happen.”
What is striking about Citizen is that it seems to encompass a cohesive theory about race. For Rankine, the injustice of courts and the failure to indict are connected to the man in the grocery store who tells her “I just didn’t see you.” She connects the institutional to the individual experience, and in doing so, also speaks to the vastly different ways racism and injustice are perpetuated across class lines in America today.
Like Langston Hughes who described a particular sort of prejudice in Harlem in 1920s or Ralph Ellison who wrote of the invisibility of being a black man in New York in the 1930s, Citizen is a reflection of the times we live in today. Rankine’s work is stunning in it’s ability to take it all in. She speaks to the historical legacy of racism, and as well as of a contemporary state.
She says, “We will always fail each other in one way or another, but this particular way of failing is ancient.” Rankine does not identify herself as an activist, and yet when asked why she writes, she references James Baldwin, who famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I think we just have to face it. We have to start looking. The desire to look away is disastrous ultimately,” she says. “I think we need to look at it.”
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/27/claudia-rankine-poetry-racism-america-perception