Required Reading: Claudia Rankine
May 11, 2016
As part of our Required Reading series, we share a list of three essential works for each of SAL’s featured writers. Up this time: groundbreaking poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)
In 1970, Harvard professor Chester Pierce came up the term “micro-aggression” to describe the unconscious dismissals and insults non-black Americans inflict on black people. In Citizen, possibly the most defining poetic text of our time, Rankine arranges a narrative of these microaggressions, memories collected by herself and those she knows. These everyday encounters with racism are voiced in the second person, which NPR observes, “Forc[es] the reader—regardless of identity—to engage a narrative haunted by the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride.” Her poetic accounts open up space for robust debate: what does it mean to be living in a “post-racial” society? Who is a citizen in America?
Citizen is candid, hauntingly lyrical, and easy to devour. But most impressively, it constantly circumvents our expectations. In its form, it zigzags between prose-poem, essay, cultural criticism, and visual images. The effect is contemporary art: a curation of the messy American subconscious. In its language, Citizen blurs the second person: sometimes, the “you” is black and the “he” or “she” is white, but frequently, these personas become less obvious and readers are disarmed, seeing themselves as complicit in racist thinking. For this reason, Citizen creatively addresses one issue faced by many writers on racism—how do you make people who don’t normally experience the brunt of racism recognize it as an constant and quotidian issue?
Citizen has amassed many of poetry’s most important accolades: it was the winner of the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the NAACP Image Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the LA Times Book Award for poetry. It was also nominated for the Hurston/Wright 2015 Legacy Award and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004)
In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine worries that “the attack on the World Trade Center stole from us […] our willingness to be complex” or, perhaps, that it “revealed to us […] that we were never complex.”
As with Citizen, this earlier work demonstrates the same conceptual blending of lyric, visual, and essayistic modes. More widely this time, however, Rankine turns her fierce eye to fragmented selfhood in American culture, one driven by media, medication, and the other remedies used to ease the distress of twenty-first century living. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely confronts a landscape inundated with terrorism, race riots, depression, and belligerent TVs, and with imagination and intelligence, suggests that only complex thinking can help create changes within our art, our government, and ourselves.
“In probing the anxiety and empathy she finds in the experience of being a ‘dead’ spectator to her times, Rankine refuses to act as a spectator to her own poetry, and doesn’t allow her readers this comfort, either,” The Brooklyn Rail writes. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely articulates the unsettling possibility of moving from spectatorship to solidarity, with all the urgency that this task demands. This is vital poetry.”
There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where’s the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn’t seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I’d never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2015)
In 2011, Rankine initiated The Open Letter Project, an online platform for writers of all races, genders, and classes to tackle questions about art’s failure to fully address race in the 21st century. The frank letters from this web-project were assembled into The Racial Imaginary, an anthology co-edited by Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap.
Rather than reconcile these materials into a harmonious, sweeping argument, Rankine and her fellow editors used a light touch in compiling The Racial Imaginary, aiming for “a collective transcript of people who were, in this time in this place, moved to respond to a question […] however imperfectly or incompletely.” The result is a mishmash of various themes, voices, testimonies, and formats, sometimes dissenting, sometimes overlapping—an approach which hints at the multiplex of race in America and refutes easy solutions.
Writer Maggie Nelson praises: “Their graceful, trenchant introduction should become required reading across the land; that it is followed by dozens of acts of genuine reckoning from all quarters makes the collection momentous. That these acts are often as aggravating and turbulent as they are edifying and inspiring should come as no surprise.”
This excerpt from Rankine’s forward to The Racial Imaginary can be found on LitHub:
What we mean by a racial imaginary is something we all recognize quite easily: the way our culture has imagined over and over again the narrative opportunities, the kinds of feelings and attributes and situations and subjects and plots and forms “available” both to characters of different races and their authors. The racial imaginary changes over time, in part because artists get into tension with it, challenge it, alter its availabilities. Sometimes it changes very rapidly, as in our own lifetimes. But it has yet to disappear. We cannot imagine it out of existence. Instead our imaginings might test their inheritances, to make way for a time when such inheritances no longer ensnare us. But we are creatures of this moment, not that one.
Bonus: Rankine’s poetic travelogue, The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue (2009), was performed on a bus touring the South Bronx. Although the text is not in print, you may see a clip from Rankine’s play here.
During this New York performance, the audience would board a bus in East Harlem, put on headphones, and for a 90 minute ride would listen to Rankine’s script point out and reflect on the landmarks that might otherwise go unnoticed: an old factory remodeled into a townhouse, a theatre-turned-Pentecostal-church where Cuban singer La Lupe used to perform. “These are complicated places that ask what creates a neighborhood in a city, in a country, in the world.” The Foundry Theatre describes, “Provenance is a theatrical experience that both responds to and redoubles the landscape, mapping out a poetic cartography of a neighborhood—of any neighborhood—in an eternal state of evolution.”
Gentrification is good; gentrification is bad. Gentrifiers bring resources to neglected communities; gentrifiers displace longtime residents. A gentrified neighborhood is better / worse off than it was before.
As part of SAL’s Poetry Series, Claudia Rankine will be presenting a lecture at McCaw Hall on Friday, May 13. Although the event is sold out, we will be selling standby tickets at the door!
(The featured image for this Required Reading was taken by Elizabeth Weinberg for the New York Times.)