Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ Sparks Conversation on Racial Injustice

The Boston College Office of the Provost kicked off the spring semester’s Courageous Conversations series in collaboration with BC’s Forum on Racial Justice on Feb. 17 with a discussion on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Courageous Conversations is about something even more fundamental, and that’s to provide a space where we can openly and authentically talk about our racial experiences, our racial blindspots, our privileges, and the deep hurt and injuries that people have experienced,” Tara Pisani Gareau, director of the environmental studies program, said.

The virtual event began with remarks from BC faculty, staff, and students about Rankine’s book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry in 2014.

Gareau shared one of the key lessons she learned from Rankine’s book.

“One of my takeaways from this book is that all of these microaggressions accumulate, and they get absorbed in the body and the mind, and they build and build until chronic headaches emerge,” Gareau said. “And sometimes, as we all know about pressure, that pressure builds up to a point where it has to be released.”

Akua Sarr, the vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, presented a slideshow of images and texts, which she called artifacts, most of which are included in Rankine’s book.

Sarr showed a PBS NewsHour clip titled “Using poetry to uncover the moments that lead to racism,” where Rankine discussed her book. In the video, Rankine said people reflect their lives through the stories they tell.

“I see myself as a citizen, walking around collecting stories and using those stories to reflect our lives through poetry, through essays, creating these hybrid texts and plays that reflect back to us who we are,” Rankine said in the video. “In my most recent book, Citizen, I wanted to track the moments that disrupt interactions especially between people of different races.”

The event transitioned into breakout sessions where participants were encouraged to engage in honest conversations guided by Rankine’s words from the PBS video and her poetry. 

The participants later regrouped in the main session to reflect on their discussions as a whole, and many discussed racial issues at BC.

Kudzai Kapurura, a residential assistant and MCAS ’23, spoke on the recent vandalism that took place on the Multicultural Learning Experience (MLE) floor of Xavier Hall.

“It is extremely necessary for us to all consider, reflect, and analyze the hate crime that did take place on the MLE floor and how that is impacting our students,” Kapurura said.

Vincent Rougeau, dean of the BC Law School, concluded the discussion with a message of hope.

“This is a seed, right, that we have planted on this campus that I hope we can grow into more conversations and we can keep trying and keep building on this work because it’s just work that we have to do,” Rougeau said.

Featured Image by Nicole Vagra / For the Heights

March 13, 2021