Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine, a poet and professor at Pomona College, was one of the speakers at Tuesday’s presentation

Whether it’s attending drunken FroSci lectures or showing up to Tunisian talks, Bwog loves to learn in the classroom and beyond. We sent Poetry Professional Briana Bursten to check out Justice Poetry: Readings and Discussion with Claudia Rankine, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Messiah. Read about her evening of learning and listening below!

A genuine feeling of reverence was evident as individuals from various ages and backgrounds crowded the Schapiro Center’s Davis Auditorium this past Tuesday for Justice Poetry: Readings and Discussion with Claudia Rankine, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Messiah. The evening of sharing and dialogue began with opening remarks from Barnard Associate English Professor Monica Miller. Miller explained that each poet would read pieces that thematically center on issues of justice, and that readings were encouraged to be broken up by anecdotes and explanations by the poets themselves.

The first poet was Claudia Rankine, a graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Columbia and a current English professor at Pomona College. Rankine is the author of multiple collections of poetry, and she spoke with sincerity as she read three pieces from her latest book, entitled Citizen. Rankine’s attention towards racial issues and current injustices was particularly evident through her anecdotes, which were inserted between her readings. One of my favorite stories that Rankine shared had to do with a discussion that she had with one of her friends during a walk through their California neighborhood. Rankine spoke of a time when she asked this friend when she has “felt the most white.” Her friend told her of experiences on the East Coast when taking public transportation and how every time she boarded a subway or a train, there would almost always be a black man with an empty seat next to him. Rankine explained that her friend would always “feel the most white” when she consciously made the choice to take this seat. This anecdote was followed by the Rankine’s final reading of the night— an incredibly powerful poem about the symbolism of this “empty seat.” Rankine remained seated on stage while the two other poets shared their work.

Poet, activist, and University of Pittsburgh Professor Dawn Lundy Martin followed Rankine. Martin read three longer selections that were divided into different thematic sections. While the pieces that Martin shared were somber, Martin addressed and engaged the audience in a light and hopeful manner. Her pieces relied heavily on anaphora, and I felt myself listening carefully to every word that she read.

The last poet was Messiah Ramkissoon, an incredibly accomplished hip-hop artist, activist, and emcee. After graduating from Howard University on a $25,000 scholarship awarded to him by Oprah Winfrey, Messiah returned to New York City to work with children and young adults. Messiah currently works on Rikers Island, where he encourages young inmates to express themselves creatively through music and spoken word. He hosts open mic nights at Rikers every month in order to give inmates a chance to share their work. Messiah’s delivery differed from Rankine and Martin. Rather than reading from a book, Messiah stood at the center of the stage and recited spoken word in a passionate presentation. His pieces were primarily about current injustices, specifically against black youth. His second poem, about the current injustices surrounding Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown, was outstanding in content and in delivery.

After Messiah’s presentation, Davis Auditorium became a space for questions and conversation. This latter part of the evening was moderated by Columbia School of the Arts professor and poet Timothy Donnelly. Audience members were also able to purchase the books and recordings of each poet in the lobby of Schapiro.

At the end of the night, the event felt like an important one— not just a celebration of talent, but an opportunity to recognize and contribute to positive change. While the topics presented in both the poetry and the discussion evoked feelings of sadness and even discomfort, the feeling of hope and the necessity for change was also evident. For an evening of learning and inspiration, I highly recommend attending an event like Justice Poetry in the future. You can visit the Arts Initiative website to learn more about just some of the upcoming lectures and events that are happening in our community.

Claudia Rankine via