In Peace, With Hope: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine (+ A Giveaway)June 22, 2015
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a free talk by poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. She came as part of New Haven's International Arts and Ideas Festival to discuss how "art teaches a poet to see." She read from her latest collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, and shared how she selected some of the art that goes along with the pieces, including Nick Cave's soundsuits and her struggle to obtain the rights to Public Lynching from the Hulton Archives.
Though slim in size, Citizen pulls together cultural and political commentary about being black in America and searingly personal moments of micro (and macro) aggression. "What happens when people get in the same space and are forced to negotiate?" Rankine wanted to know. She told us that she thinks of the book as a "community project," as she collected many of the stories in her poems from friends. She fleshed out one of her more disturbing pieces about a friend who made an appointment with a trauma counselor:
"At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It's as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that's right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry." - Citizen: An American Lyric, pg. 18
I've been struggling with how to write about Citizen since I read it a week ago. What I kept coming back to was that, as a young, privileged white woman, this isn't my story, and so who was I to comment on it? After seeing Rankine speak, I realized that, in a sense, it is my story. This is my story because I'm part of a society that allows people of color to be killed every single day. This is my story because I have what Rankine calls "the fluidity of white privilege," in that I'm able to feel terrible about atrocities like the Charleston massacre and wake up the next day and drink my coffee as though nothing happened. Andi made a fantastic point in her review about how Rankine's poems work "like a mirror," forcing you to grapple with not only the pain and anger of being erased, of being reviled, but also the act of negating another human being, whether out of hostility or simple thoughtlessness. Just because the story Citizen tells about me is infuriating and unflattering, I will not shrink away and say, "Not me!" because it's absolutely me. It's all of us. And the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can do something about it.
In the interest of getting Citizen into the hands of as many people as I can, I'm hosting a giveaway. I'm going to select one lucky reader from the comments below to win a paperback or Kindle copy of Citizen: An American Lyric. (If you want to comment but don't want to be entered in the giveaway, just say so!) Leave your comment by 6 PM EST on Friday, June 27, 2015 to be entered to win. If you don't have a Disqus account, be sure to leave me a way to contact you. Good luck!
EDIT TO GIVEAWAY TERMS: I realized that I can open this up to international readers by offering a Kindle copy or $15 Amazon giftcard instead of a paperback. U.S. residents will have their choice of paperback or Kindle.