Claudia Rankine addresses race through poetry


Sometimes a whisper demands more attention than a scream. When writer Claudia Rankine read sections from her latest book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” at Occidental April 7, she spoke quietly yet commanded the room. Her work functions in a similar way; it alerts the reader to the racist acts and words perpetrated around them in a calm and insistent tone.

Rankine built on her previous book, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” to reveal the fissures dividing American society.

“She wanted to make sure we listened and she really wanted to get people to understand how deep racism is in our everyday lives,” Khaliyah Washington (senior) said.

“Citizen” is a shocking and eloquent account of the insidious micro and macro aggressions people of color face on a daily basis in America. The combination of poems and essays recounts the searing betrayal by white friends, neighbors, coworkers and therapists that Rankine and the people around her have experienced. Her pieces also comment on events that garnered national attention, such as the ongoing racism against tennis player Serena Williams and the deaths of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson.

“I like to think of [‘Citizen’] as a community document because the pieces came to me by asking questions,” Rankine said at the reading. “I called up friends and I asked them things like, ‘When do you know that you’re doing something because you’re white?’”

Rankine has received national acclaim for “Citizen,” which was published in 2014. Although her work is undoubtedly relevant to today’s discourse on race relations, Occidental’s Writer-in-Residence Danzy Senna—who opened the event by reading one of her short stories “There, There”—believes that Rankine’s command over the written word is what draws readers to her work.

“Citizen”’s unconventional structure is intriguing and innovative. Rankine combines genres in a lyrical way that Senna describes as a “meditation” on language, the body, race and the power of history. Her work is the only Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist to be nominated in both poetry and criticism categories—she won the poetry category—and the only poetry collection to appear on the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. The work refuses categorization and challenges traditional notions of what a published collection should look like.

The words are printed in a large, sans-serif typeface, and the pages include wide areas of blank space. She includes images throughout the book, from photographs of a lynching during the civil rights era to pictures of bizarre stuffed animals. Rankine explained that each of the images had to be documentary in some way, rather than simply artistic.

One of the most powerful aspects of “Citizen” is its uncanny ability to place the reader in the shoes of the character, no matter how far the reader’s reality is from the words on the page. Rankine in part achieves this closeness with her usage of the second person point of view. Through this technique, white Americans can attempt to understand the harassment and violence black Americans face. By enabling this understanding, “Citizen” anchors itself within a wider fight for social and racial justice.

“It was really cool to see activism in a way that wasn’t like hands in the air, or fists in the air, like yelling, like picketed signs, like boycotting and see this form of activism that was in the form of a whisper,” Shira Barlas (senior) said. “It was just so profound and so heavy.”

Senna writes about issues of race and hidden identities in her fiction as well. Creative writing is a useful medium for both Senna and Rankine because of its ability to unveil another perspective without forcing them to come to a conclusion about the issues they discuss.

“Creative writing is a way to talk about a subject that has no clean answer, and allow it to be messy, and to allow the experience to be there on the page without feeling that you need to solve it or close it or wrap it up and find this sort of one word solution to something,” Senna said. “It allows for the unanswerable and the murkiness of identity and the places that are gray.”

Through poetry, essay and fiction, complex and seemingly insurmountable issues become accessible to a wider audience. Newcomers receive an introduction, while those well-versed in America’s racial inequities can engage with the issue further.