During her two-day residency at Boston College, critically acclaimed author, Claudia Rankine, read selections from her newest book, Citizen: An American Lyric, and discussed her experiences with modern racism and its affects.
Rankine, a professor at NYU and accomplished writer, received myriad awards for Citizen, with many critics calling it the best book of 2020. Sometimes in lyrical prose, sometimes in traditional verse, and sometimes in art and photography, Citizen conveys a message through multiple mediums, breaking the boundaries of modern poetry. The readings from Rankine's work opened avenues for recognizing systemic racism and its profound effect, leading to demands for sweeping changes within both minds and institutions.
Before beginning her reading of the book, Rankine mentioned its origins, saying, “Citizen came out of a series of interviews done where I wanted to try and capture what it meant to experience racism.” It may be that many readers, especially white readers, had an idea of what racism was like but never had the opportunity to experience it firsthand. By using the power of true stories, Citizen conveys an unfiltered telling of the various moments in which marginalized people are repeatedly discriminated against.
The major focus of Citizen is the microaggression. A term coined within the past fifty years, microaggressions have become a prominent aspect of modern racism. These are everyday occurrences in which people of color are sneered at, disregarded, and blatantly hated. It has, unfortunately, become the norm.
In light of this, Rankine set out to describe the everyday experiences of friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. Most of these poems stem from interviews with people who have been impacted by microaggressions and systemic racism.
“In the writing, I tried to stay honest… I didn’t want to give them emotional baggage that I’m projecting on them,” Rankine said describing her depictions of these interviews. For Rankine, keeping true to these stories meant almost no outside intervention. Besides her literary style and crucial use of the second person, a choice that directly addresses the reader, Rankine left the rest bare. She told the stories how they were and that made them all the more effective.
Even though the majority of these poems come from interviews with these everyday people, Rankine's inclusion of stories about sports and culture further underscores her message.
“I wanted to use something everybody could look up,” Rankine stated, adding, “ I wanted them not to take my word for it, but to be able to go back to the event.” This sense of universality and common knowledge elevates Rankine’s poems to a higher level. These are no longer just stories that are far removed from popular culture; they are baffling events that take the world by storm, proving just how palpable racism is in our modern world.
The lyrical essay on Serena Williams especially highlights this disparity. In the world of tennis, Williams is placed in front of a “sharp white background” that only further illuminates her differences.
After reading part of the essay, Rankine illustrated Williams’ struggle, saying, “Serena’s battle with a commitment to white supremacy… was victorious… but one has to wonder about the cost of that.” Williams has become the winningest player in tennis history, clearly marking her dominance in the sport. This success, however, has come about through years of struggling against this traditionally white sport.
Rankine’s essay specifically highlights a US Open match during which many bad calls were made against Williams. Arguing the calls, as any proud tennis player would, the world watched and judged her as rash, loud, and obnoxious. This essay showcases how the reaction to Williams was much more rash than her own.
In addition to many great poems, Citizen features artwork scattered throughout the book. Collages, taxidermy, paintings, and more found themselves placed in the book to supplement Rankine’s verse. In selecting these, Rankine claimed, “the images often found the text.” Two seemingly eclectic works proved to work together to further Rankine’s pieces. Adding to the more complex interpretations and nuanced writing, these pieces of art are as crucial as the poems themselves.
Citizen is a book that everyone should read. Rankine’s depictions of systemic racism and microaggressions are all too pertinent in our modern world to be overlooked. Whether something as seemingly banal as a convenience store encounter or something as important as the World Cup Final, Rankine’s verse effectively guides the reader toward a better understanding of racism and its effects. Claudia Rankine and her newest book Citizen hopefully accomplish their goal of changing the course of continual oppression. It is now only up to the reader.