According to author Claudia Rankine, the inception of her book-length poem, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” began with the question: “How did that happen?” Something of an investigation, the poem opens with secondhand prose poetry cataloguing the lived experience of racism among Rankine’s friends and colleagues.

“I just wanted to see if people were sensitive to the fact that every day in small ways, they were themselves engaged in actions that were annihilating other people’s human rights, their rights to be here as a citizen and as a person in the world,” Rankine said in a phone interview with the Michigan Daily.

As part of the Martin Luther King Day Symposium, Claudia Rankine, poet, professor and MacArthur fellow, will present on “Citizen” published in 2014. The event will take place in Rackham auditorium, hosted by the U-M Racism Lab. “Citizen” is the first and only book of poetry to ever be named on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list as well as the recipient of the NAACP award and PEN Open Book Award. The poem explores the brutal lived experience of structural racism against Black Americans.

“Reading on Martin Luther King Day is always for me, an honor, because it puts me conversation with one of America’s greatest leaders, and not only a great leader in terms of Civil Rights, but for me he is a great leader in terms of human rights. He’s an example to us all,” Rankine said.

It is more than fitting that Rankine read on MLK day, as her work deals with the profound urgency of the country’s increasing need for humanity and reversal of racist policy and practice. The way “Citizen” challenges poetic form is inseparable from the way it challenges the forms of oppressive sociopolitical structures in American society.

The form of the poem is deeply interdisciplinary and interweaves personal narrative, image and news-style evidence. One section lists names of black Americans whose lives were taken by police brutality, the words fading from the page as the poem progresses. The poem is haunting and direct, elucidating the ways in which the recipients of such constant and inhumane treatment wear the oppression on their bodies.

As a recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, Rankine will be broadening her commitment to interdisciplinary work in founding the “Racial Imaginary Institute” in New York, a gallery space to explore race.

“Our name ‘racial imaginaries’ is meant to capture the enduring truth of race that is an invented concept that operates with extraordinary force in our daily lives, limiting our movements and imaginations. We understand that perceptions, resources, rights and minds themselves flow along racial lines that confront some of us and give others unchecked power. These lines are drawn and maintained by white dominance,” Rankine, in describing the work of the Institute, said.

Although many read Rankine’s work as a call for social change, she explained that she does not think that the artist’s responsibility to elicit a certain reaction or response from an audience.

She put it simply: “I’m not into any prescriptive definition when it comes to being an artist.”

The book’s powerful statement on the experience of racism in America merges the personal and political in a way that has resonated with both timelessness and an eerie timeliness. The text places present-day micro-aggressions against black lives and beside text and images that allude to the era of Jim Crow laws, all culminating in poetry that unleashes something so personally and persistently felt.

Near the end of the poem Rankine writes, “That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping.” In this moment, the immensity of history and politics upholds a visceral pain that is at once personal and shared.

In this, the poet makes no real distinction between artistic intention that is or is not political.

“I think that politics are part of life so they are unavoidable, so we don’t need to go out of our way to avoid them or engage them,” Rankine said. “They’re part of our life, our history, our day to day living. They determine everything. I think writers and artists need to do what they do for themselves, to write from the place of most honesty, imaginative, possibility that they can envision themselves in, but they can’t avoid politics whether or not they think they’re doing it.” 

Rankine will be appearing both at Rackham Auditorium Monday evening and at the Institute for Social Research Tuesday morning where she will talk about her ongoing research on racism in America.

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