Thursday morning, Poet Claudia Rankine discussed her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, in the context of 2021.

On January 6th, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Two weeks after the failed insurrection saw the inauguration of President Biden. Just eight days after the inauguration, poet Claudia Rankine came to speak at Barnard about her book of poetry Citizen: An American Lyric and its connections to the events brought by 2021 so far. Her book focuses on the daily microaggressions Black people endure and also touches on themes of racism in sports and racially motivated police brutality. The discussion, moderated by Professor Monica Miller (Dean of Faculty Diversity and Development at Barnard), marked the end of the Addressing Racism book club series for faculty at Barnard, Columbia University, and the Teachers College. 

But before speaking on these recent and significant incidents, Professor Rankine began by reading the first piece in her book in order to ground us in her work. Employing the second-person perspective, the piece describes a classroom setting scene in which a white girl wishes to cheat off “you” then later compliments “your” features akin to that of a white person. Professor Rankine read aloud, “You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.” An image, taken by Michael David Murphy, of Jim Crow Road in Flowery Branch, Georgia follows the poem. Professor Rankine wanted to begin Citizen with this piece and this image in conjunction to emphasize how segregation is a central component of white supremacy. Her decision also revolved around this idea that we should enter the book thinking about gated communities, voting rights, redlining, and structural racism from a visual point of view. Continuing with this visual component present in racism, Professor Rankine showed various images of segregation, the KKK marching on Washington, and a clip of Nazi sympathizers in Charlottesville, Virginia. Normally, when we think of people marching on Washington, we think of more progressive movements, not white supremacy.  She showed us these photos to underscore the point that we must erase the phrase “I didn’t expect January 6th to happen” because in all the ways white supremacy could have prepared us for an attempted coup, they did. 

This idea of remembering and forgetting becomes a central part of one of Professor Rankine’s poems which discusses “your full force of American positioning.” Professor Miller posed a question regarding what we as a nation can afford to let go of and what we must address and never forget. In her response, Professor Rankine, with regard to January 6th, acknowledged that if we, as a country, take a position of moving on and letting go, effectively permitting rioters’ actions, the country will experience a slow death. There exists a visible double standard when it comes to forgetting and moving on also present in calls to unity. Professor Rankine noted that when political officials call for “unity,” it begs the question “is unity aligned with white supremacy?” The word “unity” becomes convoluted as it could implicitly suggest appeasement to white supremacists. On a more uplifting note, however, Professor Rankine viewed President Biden’s inaugural address as a sign of hope. She stated that hearing the phrases “white supremacy” and “racial injustice” signaled the belief that our nation has someone in power who could admit a level playing field does not exist, nor does this concept of “one” as there is not a single American public where everyone has been treated equally. What does it mean when someone says “us” or “we” in reference to American citizens? How broad is this “we”? Pronoun usage is also prevalent in Citizen as the entire book is written from the second-person perspective. Unlike “us” or “we”, the word “you” has such flexibility and dynamism. The point of the “you” in the book, as Professor Rankine explained, is to allow readers to climb into the space of the “you” and wonder, “Which side of the ‘you’ am I on?” In other words, “am I committed to antiracism or not?” 

Professor Rankine also spoke to the notion that the use of “you” allows any sort of reader to relate to the book. She told us how people of other races, particularly those of Asian descent, felt like Citizen was their book and experienced similar treatment discussed in the poems. I too, as a person of color, felt very seen in her poetry. In one poem specifically, she describes how racist language is not meant to make you invisible but rather render you “hypervisible”. Her distinction made during the event between “us” and “we” and “you” resonated fully with my experiences. I also appreciated how Professor Rankine interwove ideas from her book with recent happenings in the United States as it made for a fresh discussion and certainly solidified the relevancy of her poems. 

But Professor Rankine wanted to be clear on one point. People like to say American racism its own thing, but that’s not necessarily true. Such a statement somehow separates American racism from a whole history of colonialism and global racism. Therefore, to highlight the falsehood and problematic nature of such a belief, Professor Rankine broadened the text of Citizen and made videos as a reflection of its roots. The videos center around national or global events or even natural disasters. The purpose of the videos is to demonstrate the political and cultural impact these incidents can have on individual lives. In creating this art form, the words don’t just stay on the page just like racism doesn’t just exist in America, but rather extends across mediums and across continents. This act of multi-media effectively opens the reader up to various lines of inquiry and equips readers with more knowledge of racial issues in America and the world.

Claudia Rankine!!! via Wikimedia Commons