Claudia Rankine Reads from Citizen at American University

I was extremely fortunate to be in the audience at Claudia Rankine’s reading this past Thursday. The crowd overflowed the auditorium—the organizers had to add extra seating on the stage—demonstrating how hungry people are for what this book has to tell us. As others have noted more eloquently than I, Rankine reaches the heart of our nation and captures the struggles of our moment in time and the feelings we are grappling with but lack the words for. Citizen names our weaknesses, holds us accountable, but also shows us how to move forward. During the reading various images from the book were projected upon a large screen behind her, reminding us of the act of viewing that is a constant fact of our lives, as well as the artistic act of the text itself in shaping the complexity of our sociopolitical landscape into a language that speaks truth.
One of the most powerful moments for me involved the lynching photo (it also appears in the book) with the hanged bodies photoshopped out. What you notice in the absence of the horror are the white faces gathered among the trees, smiling for the camera. Rankine commented how she wanted us to see the white bodies as complicit in the spectacle; we are often distracted by the publicity surrounding moments of horror, but in this moment of erasure I found myself (as a white person) forced to see the spectators and not the spectacle. As Rankine suggests, such a view makes us aware of the moments we let continue and calls us to acknowledge “what we allow to float in the air.”

In the Q&A that followed, she spoke of the annihilation of the self that racism inflicts upon people of color and of the weariness that comes from confronting it again and again. She also spoke of the craft of putting the collection together: how she wanted to voice others’ stories in as transparent a way as possible without coopting them as her own; how she chose the prose poem as the form that could build story while still employing all the tools of poetry; how she struggled to end the book when the subject itself is unending.

It was an evening that provoked and inspired and made me reconsider what I thought I knew. It reminded me of how powerful poetry can be—and how brilliant.