Claudia Rankine Provides Commentary On Citizen: An American Lyric’s Message

9.21.2017

By Elise Collene

Claudia Rankine Discusses Citizen

On Thursday, September 7, hundreds of KU students and staff bustled into the Lied Center, packing the auditorium and filling every seat. Attendees patiently waited for Claudia Rankine to discuss this year’s KU Common Book, her book “Citizen: An American Lyric.

Chancellor Douglas A. Girod began the ceremony by explaining the history of the Common Book program, which has been connecting students on campus since 2012. Girod discussed how past Common Books have often focused on difficult times and that Rankine’s work “Citizen” is no exception. Focusing on the question, “What does it mean to be a citizen?” “Citizen” dives into what racial aggression looks like in today’s society and what it feels like receive racial aggression. Girod explained that he believes this aggression is relevant in light of what is happening in society today and that it can have extreme effects on a person’s day-to-day life. Consequently, this year’s Common Book was chosen to allow KU students to face these challenges in a constructive manner and allow students who deal with these issues to bond.

I was unsure of what to expect reading “Citizen.” As I began reading, it was difficult to catch on to Rankine’s style of writing. However, once I was in sync with the lyrical flow of her writing, I was intrigued and shocked at some of the stories in the book. “Citizen” is filled with snippets of stories; some are told by family, friends and strangers while others are from news reports or Rankine’s own analysis of different events. Photos, sculptures and other forms of art also line the pages. Rankine brings these elements together to form a unique and powerful piece of poetry. The combination of personal stories and true, documented events allows Rankine to create this piece of literature that is simultaneously formal and intimate. Rankine said she created the book to be “able to be entered without being colored by specific events”. With all of the distinct pieces coming together, her ideas ring clear and readers are left with the stark realization that racism is alive today and manifests in many forms.

When Claudia Rankine finally appeared on the Lied Center’s stage, I was excited to hear what she wanted KU Students to extract from “Citizen”. Rankine discussed the book’s art and how it played a role in the meaning of the book. She discussed in further detail how the art was hand-picked and intentionally placed to uniquely connect with sections of the text. It was interesting to hear directly from the author and compare her intentions to my own thoughts and opinions while reading the book. The art, for me, was the most difficult part of book to interpret, but after her speech, I was left with a better understanding of the novel and how she was able to pull from many different sources, finally merging these contrasting excerpts together to create a beautiful and influential piece of literature.

Before Rankine left the stage, she left the audience with a piece of advice.

“There are all kinds of people and they will help you if you let them,” she said.

Rankine explained that we are unable to carry all of our mistakes in ourselves, so we must find people to help us unpack them. Rankine offers an important message for people of all races, ages, and genders: we are all people and we can help each other if we try.

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