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Langston Hughes’ 1938 poem “Let America Be America” reminded the world in recent years that to the African American soul, “America never was America to me.”
Now another lyric has been published.
“Citizen: An American Lyric,” by National Book Award winner Claudia Rankine, narrates accumulating racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in the media and in twenty-first-century daily life. Rankine came to Cal Poly Pomona on April 13 as part of the Department of English and Foreign Language’s Lingua Franca Speaker Series.
Rankine read poems from the book, explained its visual elements and took questions from the audience. In “Citizen,” Rankine shows how everyday acts of racism, or microaggressions, can accumulate inside the body.
“People like to say it’s a book about racism, but really it’s a book about intimacy,” said Rankine about “Citizen.”
“There is a medical phrase called John Henryism, which is about ways in which the black body has to hold all of this kind of constant assault inside a system that’s systemically racist…and that leads to things like high blood pressure, high stress, [and] all those things.
“When we think about race and racism we like to think of it in terms of scandal. You know, we like the videos of police shooting black men in the back six, seven, eight, nine times, like that’s the source of racism.”
Rankine did not want to focus on the scandal, but rather the instances that break one’s ability to continue the day.
To write “Citizen,” Rankine asked her friends about moments when they were doing something ordinary and were interrupted purely because of the color of their skin.
“I really think about [‘Citizen’] as a community document,” said Rankine.
Events recorded in “Citizen” stem from seemingly subtle slips of the tongue to intentional offenses at the supermarket, school, home, on the tennis court, or on the streets.
“There’s a piece in here which happened to me,” said Rankine. “I went with a friend to get something at the Whole Foods and the guy at the register said to me, ‘Oh you think your card will work?’ Like that.”
Rankine said that she writes in second person in a way to distance herself from the moments, but also to force the reader to be included.
Author Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” are subtly weaved throughout “Citizen,” reminiscent of the recurring, constant profiling that seems to have no end.
The accumulation of these microaggressions is also illustrated by eliminating titles in her poems, giving the work a continual feel.
“These are not discrete moments,” Rankine told the audience. “These are moments that blend into each other and add up in the body.”
One of the poems Rankine read to the audience at CPP was of an encounter with the police, which included the repetition of the line “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.”
Mecir Ureta, a third-year Spanish student, reacted to the poem with familiarity. Though he had experienced similar racism by the police, the words, “Wow, I didn’t know that was going on here,” escaped from his mouth.
“I got pulled over so many times, and cops thought that I didn’t have a license most of the time because I was Latino,” said Ureta.
This quarter, English Professor Aaron DeRosa is teaching Rankine’s “Citizen” for the first time in his Black Literature in the U.S. and 20th Century American Literature classes. DeRosa said “Citizen” is about openness and recognizing that some lives are viewed differently than other lives in the United States.
“We highlight those differences and in some way that’s positive, but sometimes [highlighting differences] shades away from that which unites us which is that we are all humans, we are all people and want to just be loved, be happy,” said DeRosa.
“I think that one thing that Dr. Rankine’s work allows us to do is to see people interacting with people and it brings it back to that level, the human, deeply felt emotional responses that get lost when we talk about statistics … I think this focuses us back on human lives as they encounter these moments.”
One of DeRosa’s students, Keyana Rhoden, a first-year English literature graduate student, had saved the event on her calendar since January.
“I was excited [to come to the event], because I believe that these types of discourses need to be told,” said Rhoden.
Rhoden said being at CPP made her realize there are aspects that demonstrate to her that “black lives do matter.”
The next Lingua Franca event will feature translator Sophie Hughes on May 4, followed by Mexican novelist Cristina Rivera Garza on May 13.