Claudia Rankine Reads Poetry, Discusses Racism at Garrison

On Apr. 21, poet Claudia Rankine read from her most recent work, a book-long poem entitled Citizen: An American Lyric, at Scripps College's Garrison Theater. Rankine joined Pomona College English faculty in 2006 but left in 2015 to become the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, where she is currently teaching. After her introduction, she joked that she was excited to be in Claremont because she “didn't have to get on a plane to come.”

Rankine's work has received overwhelming praise from critics, with Citizen winning the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and becoming the only book of poetry to be a nonfiction New York Times bestseller. Her poetry explores the casual racism that pervades elements of day-to-day life, from seemingly benign comments to outright profiling, in order to define what it means to be an American citizen.

“Rankine's story in Citizen is such a powerful representation of racial experience in America, specifically on the small, everyday level,” Rebecca Harvey PO '19 wrote in an email to TSL. “The way she writes is so simple and stark, which gives it its power.”

Rankine commented during her reading that her work is intended to reveal how racism affects daily interactions. 

“I am a little bit tired of the narrative of wanting black people to take [racism] with forgiveness and pride,” she said. “It perpetuates the system as it stands.”

Chaelee Dalton PO '19, member of 5C Slam, the spoken word student organization of the Claremont Consortium, wrote in an email to TSL: “I particularly admire the way that she uses her art as a tool for social change. I think in many cases politicized writing can lose its beauty in the search for its purpose, but Rankine masterfully combines this purity of expression and emotion with a cry for change.”

Rankine prefaced each of the works she read with the symbolic value of the photographs paired with her poems in the book. 

“The event itself helped give some more context for her book; it gave me an understanding of the images used, the historical context, and the historical prevalence of race,” Harvey wrote. “It gave me a sense of how big the issue was beyond her own experiences and her own writing.”

Dalton wrote she thought Rankine was an atypical speaker for the Claremont Colleges.

“I do think the Claremont Colleges try to address issues of racism and feminism, and to a lesser extent, intersectionality, but the efforts could be more conscious and pointed,” she wrote. 

Students were very impressed with the reading.

“The event was emotional, revealing, and felt very personal,” Harvey wrote. “I feel incredibly grateful to have experienced it.” 

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