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In Celebration of Conversation: Poet Claudia Rankine Captivates BC Students in Undergraduate Meet-and-Greet

This past week, author and poet Claudia Rankine graced the Heights with her wisdom and wit in a two-day residency made possible by the Lowell Humanities Series, a program within Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. Since its founding in 1957, the series has brought a host of distinguished writers, artists, performers, and scholars to campus (including Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, and Susan Sontag, to name a few) in the spirit of promoting educational engagement outside the classroom—and, I can only suppose, as a direct outlet for bookish Liberal-Arts-lovers like myself to meet their idols in person. 

The nature of Ms. Rankine’s visit bifurcated into two categories, each varying in terms of intimacy and interaction: not only would the decorated poet engage with and address audiences in either a round table or Q&A format on both days of her residency (Wednesday's event being on Zoom, and Thursday’s in a Devlin lecture hall), but she would also meet with small groups of undergraduate and graduate students in BC’s Center for Centers on Stone Ave to discuss her wide-ranging works (many of which center issues of race, gender, and class inequality), answer student questions, and share lunch. 

Having devoured Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric in one sitting, I jumped at the opportunity to interact face-to-face with the mind behind this brilliant work. Not one but three of my professors spread the word about this event in my classes, each encouraging their students to map the overlap between Citizen and their respective course content. Professor Angela Ards, director of Boston College’s Journalism program and instructor of Faulkner to Beyoncé: New South Aesthetics (a “home-run” kind of English course here, though all English courses are home-runs to me) noted that even the cover of Citizen—a black hood suspended in white, expansive space—was evocative of a line from our class reading, Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” Hurston writes (and Rankine later directly references in her book), “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

A book-length prose poem that Rankine has called “an attempt to pull the lyric back into its realities,” Citizen explores various acts of everyday racism, or the endless list of “Did that really just happen?” affronts experienced by both Rankine herself and the various African American subjects of her interviews and research. Such incidents expand later in Black individuals’ memory until they ferment and overflow, becoming a poisonously pervasive racial melancholia with a high emotional cost. “Come on. Let it go. Move on,” Rankine writes. “This is how you are a citizen.” The book equally stuns for its highly nuanced poetic technique and stings for its recounting of quotidian injustices driven by racial difference. It is a fantastic, moving, and memorable read. 

When I met Ms. Rankine, I was immediately struck by her calm, inviting aura that seemed to envelop the small wooden room that accommodated twenty-four BC students. Sitting beside wide-eyed college kids from all grades and backgrounds, it would quickly become evident to me that Claudia Rankine is the kind of intellect whose presence remains in rooms long after she has left them. Clinging to our gift bags (each containing a copy of Citizen, notebooks, and other goodies designed by the African and African Diaspora Studies program), we hung onto every word. Our icebreaker prompt was to say our name and something people wouldn't know by just looking at us. After sharing that I am a cilantro convert (despised it, now love it), Ms. Rankine laughed. I now felt entirely ready to ask her my two prewritten questions.

Having recently read a portion of Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen that employs the example of a miner’s canary to argue that African American women are a sort of democratic litmus test for the nation—that they are the canaries sent into the mines of America's democracy to find the toxic gasses wrought by oppressive structures—I asked Ms. Rankine whether she feels, in a similar way, that the experiences of African American women like herself and those that populate Citizen foreshadow underlying problems likely to poison the US system. She initially affirmed this point, but eventually she argued that Black women have actually saved democracy, citing the so-called “Stacey Abrams effect” and several other examples of Black feminine resilience and power. 

In response to my second question, which dealt with authorship and the emotional toll of writing a book like Citizen, Ms. Rankine shared that writing—specifically the process of writing—always finds ways to be both tragic and funny. She described “the waiting” that writing a book of any kind requires, dove into her interview process (and why she chose to include what she included in the book), and acknowledged various times at which any author feels like they cannot quite get there (“If I'm exhausted, I'm exhausted by my own limits,” she shared). Additionally, Ms. Rankine stressed the beauty of a Liberal Arts education, having herself attended Williams. Repeatedly, she reaches back into her educational memory bank for contemporary inspiration: “It's like you have a hallway inside your head of everything you've ever read… when you need something, it pushes forward.”

Perhaps Ms. Rankine’s comment on the “hallway” of memory renders the promise and tragedy of Citizen all the more powerful, as what “pushes forward” in our minds at any given moment fails to consistently be what we need or even remotely desire. Nonetheless, she writes of the “historical self” holding the hand of the “self-self,” guiding and informing its existence by anchoring our present in its past. 

If our group discussion was indicative of any greater truth about a present moment anchored in a past, it may point to conversation as being the root of education. There are few energies as palpable as the ones created in a room filled with open minds meeting, and attentive ears listening, all compelled to comb through the weeds of what they can't entirely understand. My experience attending my first event within the Lowell Humanities Series is proof of this, and I could not be more grateful to have had Claudia Rankine—a titan of intellect and grace—as the featured scholar of my introduction.