I’ve been thinking of this book ever since I heard Rankine speak at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference at the University of Dayton this fall. She spoke candidly and passionately to our primarily white audience and held me spellbound: her descriptions of her (many, constant) encounters with racism and sexism not only rang bare-bones-honest-true, but they also challenged me to examine once again my own participation in our racist society. As much as I have thought about and written about white women’s failure to recognize and resist such racism, as much as I have tried to examine and reexamine my own actions over my lifetime and to interrogate my positionality, I find I still have much more work to do. Much more.
I expect the same could be said for many other white teachers of writing, as well as of many of our students. Coming to terms with my own racist background is thus an ongoing process, and it’s not an easy or pretty one. So I am especially grateful to writers like Rankine, who are able to let me see the world through their eyes, at least to the extent that I am capable. Which brings me to Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The New York Times review of this volume, also published in 2014, begins like this:
In light of the national demonstrations over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it’s tempting to describe “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s latest volume of poetry, as “timely.” Even the cover image of a floating hoodie, its sleeves and torso cut away, seems timely. Any American viewing it would immediately recall a certain black teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. But this work, by the artist David Hammons, was created in 1993 — well before Trayvon Martin was even born.
And this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit: What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others.
Rankine’s book treats the murder of young black men in a series of vignettes—prose poems—that cascade across the pages of the book, their lives held momentarily in suspension. Other entries render personal experiences with the constant and debilitating pressures of racist acts and comments. A longer section on Serena Williams left me in tears of rage—but also of recognition. No wonder Rankine’s book received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.
But it’s hard to limit this text to the genre of poetry: it is poetry, and it isn’t. It’s a meditation; it’s part memoir; as the title proclaims, it is a lyric; it’s a series of narratives, of stories, of painful encounters. And it is experimental, deeply so. To take just one example, Rankine’s use of personal pronouns catches readers up, leaving us unable to make easy assumptions about who is speaking:
And still this life parts your lids, you see
you seeing your extending hand
as a falling wave—
I they he she we you turn
only to discover
to be alien to this place.
So who is the “you” Rankine refers to over and over in this book? That’s one of the questions I’d begin with in reading this text with students. When do they feel that they occupy that “you” space and when not? And why? In my very diverse classes, answers to these questions are sure to vary and to generate thoughtful reflections that can open up conversation about the current divisions among us. So, I think I’d put Rankine’s work near the beginning of a writing course, ready to take it one page, one meditation, one insight at a time.
In times like these, teachers of writing need Claudia Rankine. And so do our students.