Last Thursday night, as part of its ongoing Publication Studio exhibit, Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) hosted a reading by poet Claudia Rankine ’86. During a typically outstanding WCMA reception involving an assortment of cheese, fruit and beverages, attendants picked up one of seventy broadsides printed for the event, from the Platform for Poets series. Each broadside, a message or announcement appearing on one side of a single piece of paper, excerpted a passage from Rankine’s latest book: Citizen: An American Lyric. At 7 p.m., Rankine read from this latest work to a packed room of students, faculty and the College community.
In anticipation of Rankine’s arrival, WCMA displayed artworks selected by Rankine in the newly installed Reading Room. There, guests were asked to contemplate the works and record their responses to the prompt “How do you see race?” in books provided. Responses recorded in the days before Rankine’s reading were collected and projected onto a scroll on the wall next to Rankine’s podium before and during the reading. Most responses were anonymous, although those with signatures were displayed with names intact. One audience member openly claimed her writing during questions after Rankine’s reading, bravely acknowledging that “it took a lot of courage to begin to speak this publicly.”
Rankine read several passages from the documentary poetry of Citizen. Moments of intense racial suffering were heightened by Rankine’s dispassionate voice, which suggested these occurrences are frequent and exhausting. Even the poet’s pauses as she turned pages felt loaded with import and the ubiquity of the experiences described. Rankine occasionally gave some backstory information for the passages based on her personal, everyday experiences at Starbucks and on American Airlines jets. Rankine explained the process of collection for the moments illustrated in Citizen, she simply solicited her friends for stories of particularly impactful and egregious racial experiences, not those of such common requests to touch one’s hair or confusion of name with another person of the same race, but those “that still managed to shock.” The poet never wrote the stories down, “because [she] was interested in the ones that [she] remembered.” She explained her use of second-person in the book as “sort of a joke” to enact an “othering of the other,” so that the reader must orient themselves and think “I don’t think that’s me I would never do that.” Ultimately, Rankine hopes that “the moments … [will] accumulate in the body so that it … replicate[s] the experience of the black or brown body moving through time.”
Rankine is clearly concerned with the present moment. Citizen references events and deaths from the 21st century, largely of the last four years, and Rankine said, “much of this book is really Rodney King to now.” Perhaps the most impactful passage was Rankine’s Stop-and-Frisk anecdote, where she repeatedly stated in a monotone, “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” She views the work as an effort to “turn surveillance back on those watching us.” At the reading, the poet mentioned the continual unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and observed a “waiting” experienced by “black and brown bodies” for a resolution or corrective that she does not expect to materialize. Rankine also discussed the recording of a policeman’s interaction with a black man. She believes the policeman to be “driven by something other than reality,” and asserts, “you know he doesn’t sound like a bad guy.” Rankine believes “his imagination is controlling his behavior beyond the reality of the moment” when the policeman tells his victim to get his license and proceeds to shoot him as he reaches inside his car in compliance.
Rankine also conducted workshops with collaborator Beth Loffreda at WCMA on Thursday and Friday afternoons. At these events, students discussed race with Rankine and one another. Rankine and Loffreda curated these events to spark national conversations about “the racial imaginary,” roughly explained as the individual’s imagination as affected by race and the ways race is created and experienced. To explain further, the pair wrote in their essay Introduction to the Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, “for that unknowable portion of the human mind is also a domain of culture, a place crossed up by culture and history, where the conditions into which we were born have had their effect.” Rankine and Loffreda will draw from these conversations, as well as the contributions from the Reading Room, to produce an edited multi-authored documentary publication that traces racial imaginary in contemporary thought. Claudia Rankine earned a B.A. in English from Williams in 1986 and an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She has since published five books of poetry, including 2004’s acclaimed Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and this year’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Citizen has been nominated for the National Book Award.