In Peace, With Hope: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine (+ A Giveaway)

June 22, 2015

"This is a communal story. This is the story of black bodies across this country. This is not just my story." - Claudia Rankine, June 20, 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   
Rankine told us that this friend kept that appointment (as she said, she'd "already gone all that way") and even made another, though she later ended up canceling it.

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.

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  1. This sounds like such an amazing experience, and I'm so glad you were able to see her. Like you, reading this book made me realize so many different things and it's one I hope to keep coming back to - I think it has so much that it can continue to teach me.

  2. I'm so glad you were able to hear her speak. It had to be amazing and I'm a little bit jealous! I loved Citizen and think that it should be required reading for the whole country.

  3. Thank you for this post. Very well written and thoughtful, and I couldn't agree more. Glad you were able to see her speak! (I read the book and own it so please don't enter me in the giveaway.)

  4. So glad you were able to go and to share a bit of that experience with us. Love this post.

  5. oh, I know I would have wanted to attend this reading. I really should go look and see if she might be in my area any time soon. I want to attend more book events. Great post. Thank you.

  6. JoAnn @ Lakeside MusingJune 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    Great post... and what an amazing experience! Didn't realize you were in New Haven. I used to work there when we lived in CT.

  7. Amazing post. I've already got the book, so don't enter me in the giveaway; just letting you know that this post has it inching even further to the top of the stack.

  8. Really interested in reading it. Thanks for the post. - CoreyB

  9. This is an awesome post Shaina, and thanks for hosting this giveaway! I put a reserve on Citizen at the library after reading Andi's review, but I'm not going to be able to pick it up this week since I'm traveling! Also this seems like a book I should own, so I will definitely enter the giveaway! :)

  10. No need to enter me in the giveaway -- I've already read it, earlier this year, and I want it to have as wide an audience as possible -- but just wanted to say that the story you included here about the trauma counselor is the one in the book that upset me maybe the most. Ugh. People suck.

  11. Great post, Shaina! This really stood out for me, as I am aware that I do this:

    "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."

    It's not that I don't care, and I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses (which I am aware is how this will seem), but I often feel helpless and wonder what I, as an individual, am meant to do when things like the Charleston shooting happen. And then as I'm on the other side of the world, I think, "well there's nothing I can do anyway from all the way over here". I don't know how long the media coverage lasts for you guys, but here it might be a top news story for a few days and then it gets relegated to a small update here and there, before eventually becoming another event that was a top news story two weeks ago - how is change supposed to be effected if it's not constantly in our faces and keeping it at the forefront of our minds?

    Since I can't enter your giveaway I'll have to get this book via other means. I feel like I'll get angry while reading it, which is probably a good thing I guess.

  12. I love this post so much. This is such an important book; thanks for putting a copy into the hands of a new reader! I already have a copy, so don't enter me in the giveaway :)

  13. Sometimes the books that have the biggest impact in your thinking are the hardest ones to write about - especially when you want everyone else to feel your love and appreciation. Citizen has been getting so much love that I know I'll have to read it (sooner rather than later). Thank you for sharing this and for hosting the giveaway!

  14. Really really really great post. It's so great you were able to hear her speak. I have thought a lot about Citizen since reading it over a month ago, and would love to revisit again and again. I think I will get more and more out of it each time. Thanks for the chance to win!