Claudia Rankine discusses American racism through her poetry

Poet and MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine talks about racism and her poem, Citizen, at Rackham Auditorium on Monday.

Poet and MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine talks about racism and her poem, Citizen, at Rackham Auditorium on Monday.
Amelia Cacchione/Daily
Monday, January 16, 2017 - 6:38pm

Over 1,000 people gathered inside Rackham Auditorium Monday afternoon to listen as author Claudia Rankine read excerpts from her book-length poem, "Citizen: An American Lyric," and discussed her personal experiences with racism in America.

"Citizen: An American Lyric” — the only book of poetry to be named on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list — explores the structural racism and microaggressions that plague Black Americans throughout their everyday lives. Amanda Alexander, assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, both introduced Rankine and commented on the extent of these microaggressions.

“The book is told through a series of what are often called ‘microaggressions,’ ” Alexander said. “These are the small, but large, acts that accumulate throughout the day and leave the receiver feeling exhausted, undermined and overwhelmed. The phrase ‘microaggressions’ has always struck me as odd — isn’t it just racism? Isn’t that still the word? The way that racism structures our world, there’s nothing micro about it.”

Rankine structured the majority of her talk around reading excerpts from "Citizen,” and then provided background on how experiences from her own life inspired her poetry. She recounted a story when her daughter wasn’t invited to a birthday party because of the color of her skin, and questioned the lengths to which the offending mother went to disguise her racism.

“That is how far people will go to maintain the lines that they have,” Rankine said. “You find that people have never had a person not of their own race at their own dinner table. It’s a real thing, not just systemically. It’s a real thing in our homes, in our language, in our friendships and in our hearts. It’s a real thing.”

However, despite the brutal racism that Rankine described occurring in the everyday lives of Black Americans, she said she still has hope for the future.

“Hope is part of being human,” she said. “If we’re willing to breathe, we’re willing to hope. We’ve never seen mobilization like we’ve seen in the past few months, and I find that hopeful.”

Rankine showed a short film depicting numerous instances of Black Americans against police brutality across the country — overlaid with the audio of her poem, “Stop and Frisk.” Rankine alluded to the issue of police brutality throughout her talk, when she said Black men are dying at the hands of white men.

“Because white men cannot police their imagination, Black men are dying,” Rankine said.

LSA junior Grecia Quiroga said she attended the event to support her friend, as well as to have a dialogue about social justice at the conclusion of the talk.

“One of our friends works in the RacismLab and he’s part of our Alternative Spring Break trip heading over to St. Louis, Missouri, so he invited us to come today as a way to experience something that has to do with social justice, and then reflect on it afterwards,” Quiroga said. “It is a way for us to hear someone else’s perspective and be able to have a dialogue about it afterwards.”

Rackham student Allura Casanova explained the difficulty in the transition from New York City to attending a school in the predominantly white Midwest. However, the sheer number and passion of the people who attended the event surprised her.

“It was to really bring my friend support, and to just kind of ease the uneasiness that I’ve been feeling as a woman of color being here,” she said. “It was really weird because somebody asked me this morning, literally this morning, ‘is that your real hair?’ I’ve never been asked that question before because it’s just kind of a thing you know that Hispanic women have curly hair. But, it was really good to see so many strong and passionate people and people really do care and it does give me hope.”

As a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium, Rankine will also appear Tuesday morning at the Institute for Social Research to discuss her extensive research on racism and race relations in America.