By Kate Brown
The day she was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, poet Claudia Rankine visited the Purchase College campus for her first event, An Evening with Claudia Rankine: A Reading and Conversation, the first of many talks she will give throughout 2016-17 academic year. Her newest book, Citizen, explores the systemic racism (casual and historical) faced by black Americans on a daily basis. In both her talk and in her book, Claudia Rankine explores not only the all-too-frequent racism faced by so many black Americans (i.e. the brilliant analysis of the 2004 US Open wherein Serena Williams endured the bad calls of a racist referee), but she also examines the historical lynchings of black Americans. The collection of poems is an uncensored one. The poems expose the reader to what the characters experience; they expose acts of racism and oppression that have been wrongfully swept under the rug. Rankine writes in a way that makes the reader feel as if they endure every remark as they read it on the page.
Probably not by coincidence, Rankine came to a school not unfamiliar with protests and being vocal about causes that affect those with less privilege. Just one year ago outside the same building where Rankine spoke, the students of the college held a Black Lives Matter rally, showing their support for the cause.
Rankine gave a talk on the first part of her collection, and because of both the socially conscientious nature of our campus, and the recent acts of racism all over the country making people even more aware that there is still racial injustice, the room was packed. The theater in the Humanities building was filled with students and professors and people spilled over into the aisles. Everyone listened to Claudia Rankine with rapt attention.
She talked about how the instances of racism in the book are ones that either she—or people she has known—has faced. By discussing the personas in her book, she gave the audience a context, helping them see how black people are actively affected by the systemic racism in our country. The instances of racism in her book are enigmatic of a larger American problem, the scale of which became clear to this writer after hearing Rankine speak.
Rankine also discussed the artwork that appears in Citizen, focusing not only on the cover art of the book, which is a black hood ripped off of a sweatshirt with wire holding up the hood as if a face was there, but also other pieces (both commissioned and found) included within the text. But the choice of cover art was most telling as it alludes to the death of Trayvon Martin. The cover art of the book refers to a picture of him that was spread by the media when he, a young teenager, was shot and killed by a white adult just for being black.
Claudia Rankine will be giving more talks on campus this academic year and students should be on the lookout for these events because they truly are moving and eye opening.