Arts, On Campus

Author Claudia Rankine Communicates the Experience of Racism Through Poetry

When poet Claudia Rankine writes the final lyrical lines of a book, she knows exactly who her intended audience is. 

“The person who wants to read it,” Rankine said. “I always feel like when I finish the book, the book finds its readers.”

In a virtual lecture on Wednesday, almost 300 people logged on to hear Rankine read sections of her acclaimed collection of poetry titled Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine’s book communicates what it’s like to experience racism in America. 

Following lectures from theologian Kelly Brown Douglas and journalist Eli Saslow, Rankine’s lecture marked the Lowell Humanities Series’ third event of the season. 

Allison Adair, associate professor of the practice in the English department, introduced Rankine’s career and her work. Rankine’s interest in theatre brought her to New York City, where she now teaches at New York University, she said. 

Adair highlighted Citizen’s subtle yet powerful linguistic shifts and their effect on Rankine’s discussion of policing, sports, government, and one-on-one interactions. Adair also said that there is an experimental quality in Rankine’s lyric poetry. Rankine questions in her work whether Black poets can claim lyric poetry’s intrinsic expressiveness as their own while living in a nation that continues to uphold systemic racism, according to Adair.

After she thanked Adair for her introduction, Rankine said Citizen is an attempt to encapsulate what it’s like to experience racism. To accomplish this goal, she said that she based her poems off of a series of interviews combined with her own personal experiences. 

Rankine said she wanted to highlight the significance of microaggressions through her poems. She alternated readings from Citizen with comments expanding upon the book’s content.

“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs,” Rankine read. “Like thunder they drown you in sound. No, like lightning they strike you across the larynx.”

The poet provided layers of enriching insight into her book’s illuminating display of encounters with racism in America. In one segment of the lecture, she described an incident involving a white woman who offhandedly blamed the rejection of her son from a university on affirmative action. Rankine said that the hypocrisy of the situation was clear to her, as white women were the biggest proponents of affirmative action, she said. 

Rankine also discussed a section of her book about Serena Williams and another that was inspired by Trayvon Martin. 

She then discussed her struggle to determine how she should finish the book when racism is an ongoing, pervasive problem in the U.S. and the world. Eventually, inspired by an interaction in a parking lot, Rankine settled on a choice. She read parts of the last page aloud.

“I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending,” she read. “It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.”

A question-and-answer session followed the talk. Prasannan Parthasarathi, professor and chairperson in the history department, and Lacee Satcher, associate professor of sociology, raised both their own questions and those of the audience. In her responses, Rankine maintained her mastery of language and a sense of lyric voice.

The openness of Rankine’s interview subjects humanized the book and created a sense of community, she said. Rankine added that she had breast cancer while writing Citizen, which she said motivated her to make the book the best it could be.

“I really wanted it to be a good goodbye if that’s what it was,” she said. “If, in fact, it was the last thing I was gonna do, I wanted it to be a thing that said what I meant, if that makes sense. That was wholly what I meant.”

Featured Image by Holly Branco / Heights Staff

March 4, 2022