Pomona College Henry G. Lee Professor of English Claudia Rankine read
excerpts from her 2015 National Book Critics Circle award-winning poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric April 20 in Pomona’s Bridges Hall of Music. Rankine read her poems in a level voice, linking her individual works on contemporary racism with accounts of conversations and experiences.
Citizen paints an image of what racism looks like in
the 21st century. Rankine’s work communicates a situation of normalcy and hidden reality, combined with a strange
tolerance and turning of the cheek. The audience chuckled at the audacity
ofd some of the scenarios, but many students in attendance said that not enough attention is paid to the issues explored in the book.
“I thought it was really thought-provoking in the sense that these hegemonic modes of thought are not static,” Forrest Fulgenzi PZ ’17 said. “Through day-to-day experiences, these notions of black and white dichotomies still dominate our actions today. And that’s terrifying.”
Citizen has been acclaimed in numerous ways, including its NBCC award for poetry. It was
the first work ever to be nominated in two categories: poetry and criticism.
Additionally, Citizen has made the short list for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book
Prize for poetry.
Pomona College President David W. Oxtoby gave opening remarks at Monday’s reading.
“Poetry is a thread that can tie
together our experiences over a lifetime,” Oxtoby said. “In Citizen, the threads are the experiences of Black
Americans that brilliantly and fearlessly weave for us, meditations that help
us better understand the racism and trauma that this country perpetuates
obviously and insidiously on an everyday basis.”
“These both disturb and draw
us in,” added Oxtoby. “For me, personally, what Claudia has accomplished is nothing short of
revelatory, giving me a glimpse into experiences and realities that are very
different from my own and so important for me to see and grapple with.”
The stories and perspectives are gathered from both accounts from Rankine’s friends and infamous incidents of racism in recent years. The narratives take place in neighborhoods, side streets and a Starbucks. These are everyday situations with a unifying theme: racism’s presence in daily life.
Rankine read an excerpt from a poem in which one of her personal friends, who had been walking in and out of her home, was accused of being a
criminal. Rankine’s next
door neighbor called the police as her friend was talking on the phone, pacing
in her front yard. When Rankine suggested that her friend simply talk on the phone in
the backyard, he replied that he could talk wherever he wanted.
“What’s ironic about this piece is that
I saw it coming,” Rankine said. “I thought that my neighbor will think that this black man
coming in and out of our home is a criminal. So I’m going to invite
him over for dinner to introduce them. And it still happened.”
Through this anecdote, Rankine noted the point, and the problem, with the story.
“I was more
worried about the police and what could happen in that interaction in terms of
his body in that space than I was about his freedom overall, and that was the
problem,” she said. “You can’t protect against something if it is
really going to curtail your own freedom. It was a good lesson for me.”