Claudia Rankine is one of the most sought-after writers writing today thanks to the critical acclaim surrounding her book of poetry, prose, and visual images, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014). A National Book Award finalist, Citizen made history as the first book ever to earn National Book Critics Circle Award nominations in two categories: Poetry, for which it won, as well as Criticism.
Rankine herself, who was born in Jamaica and raised in both Kingston and New York, has earned countless awards including, in just the last few weeks, the PEN Center USA Poetry Award and a Forward Prize—one of the UK’s highest poetry prizes. Her articles are popping up everywhere from her piece on Serena Williams on the cover of The New York Times Magazine to a feature on Margo Jefferson in this month’s Elle magazine.
She has speaking engagements lined up all across the country from the Academy of American Poets Chancellor’s Forum to Vassar, Seattle Arts & Lectures, and the colossal AWP conference where Rankine will give the Keynote Address. But first, Rankine is coming to Western New York this Friday, October 23 to kick off the new season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s BABEL series.
Rankine’s appearance at BABEL is sure to be one of the most powerful for a myriad of reasons not the least of which is the timeliness of Citizen. Its themes are ripped straight from the headlines. Amidst debates about gun control and mass incarceration, Rankine’s meditation on the violence against black bodies speaks directly to the current moment.
Over the last few weeks, Just Buffalo has hosted a number of discussions around Citizen in anticipation of Rankine’s visit to BABEL. Last Monday, the BABEL at Betty’s book discussion was facilitated by Alexis De Veaux who returned to Buffalo for the sole purpose of talking about Rankine’s book—a text she finds particularly important for pushing “a conversation on ‘whiteness’ rather than simply one on ‘race’.” De Veaux opened the dialogue by asking participants to reflect on the first moment when they were aware of their own racial identity.
Numerous people recounted their own experiences of alienation—growing up Italian in an Irish neighborhood; feeling isolated as a Jew in the face of a Christian prayer at an otherwise secular event; moving to the South and confronting radically different ideologies. Of course, Rankine’s book is not merely about ethnic discrimination but rather the specific events around Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown and the ever-growing list of names that receive dwindling media attention:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying (135)
Or, as Rankine writes in her recent New York Times Magazine article: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.”
At the same time, Rankine’s focus moves beyond incidents of outright violence to the more subtle moments of racial tension that arise in otherwise mundane daily experiences: in line at Starbucks, on a college campus, in conversation with a colleague, a therapist, a neighbor. The scenarios depict predominately middle class portraits of America which is precisely the point: however much one might like to imagine that racism receded into the past with Jim Crow or that racist tendencies only lurk in urban spaces among the underprivileged and uneducated, Rankine’s book reveals the all-too-pervasive face of educated, suburban racism.
Last Tuesday, De Veaux engaged a group of high school students who have been reading Citizen under the direction of Just Buffalo Writing Center Coordinator, Robin Jordan. Whereas the predominately 40+ crowd at Betty’s kept circling back to the notion of “colorblindness,” this younger group were much more focused on notions of citizenhood, exploring the idea of a communal responsibility to ensure that everyone is free and equal. Still, the conversation became notably uncomfortable when trying to grasp the slippage between “colored” versus “person of color.”
This past Saturday, Ujima Company and Torn Space Theater came together for a staged reading of excerpts from Citizen before opening up the conversation with the directors, Lorna Hill and Melissa Meola, the actors, and audience. Once again, the reactions were quite dramatic. “I don’t need to read it,” one actor commented, “I live it.”
The response was divided among those who felt that this was a powerfully provocative book and those who thought it hadn’t gone far enough. The discussion circled back repeatedly to the question of audience—for whom was this book written? And to what end? One answer might be that the readership for Citizen is anyone and everyone who considers themselves citizens of this 21st century American moment. But I, for one, will be waiting to hear Claudia Rankine’s answer to that question on the BABEL stage Friday night.
For more information or to purchase BABEL tickets, please visit: justbuffalo.org.
Barbara Cole is Artistic Director for Just Buffalo Literary Center.