Claudia Rankine on Race in America

Color Codes

A poet examines race in America.

By Dan Chiasson

The poet Claudia Rankine’s new volume, her fifth, is “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf), a book-length poem about race and the imagination. Rankine has called it an attempt to “pull the lyric back into its realities.” Those realities include the acts of everyday racism—remarks, glances, implied judgments—that flourish in an environment where more explicit acts of discrimination have been outlawed. “Citizen,” which has been short-listed for the National Book Award, suggests that a contemporary “American lyric” is a weave of artfully juxtaposed intensities, a quarrel within form about form. Like Rankine’s last book, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” (2004), which shares its subtitle, “Citizen” is part documentary, part lyric procedural, submitting to its painstaking frame-by-frame analysis everything from J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” to Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt during the 2006 World Cup final. The extensive list of works that Rankine has drawn on, ranging from James Baldwin to Homi Bhabha to Robert Lowell, makes “Citizen” (like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a clear antecedent) one of those American art works that equip us to do without it. It teaches us to “no longer take things at second and third hand,” as Whitman wrote, to “listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”

Rankine was born in Jamaica and grew up in Kingston and New York. She is fifty-one and teaches at Pomona College. From the start, her work has troubled the distinction between what, in “Citizen,” she calls the “self self” and the “historical self,” challenging our sense of the lyric’s natural territory as the exclusively personal, outside the scope of politics. “Citizen” begins by recounting, in the second person, a string of racist incidents experienced by Rankine and friends of hers, the kind of insidious did-that-really-just-happen affronts that startle in the moment and later expand, poisonously, in the mind. A friend jokingly calls you a “nappy-headed ho” when you show up late to a date; a stranger wonders why you care that “he has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers”; standing outside a conference room before a meeting, one of your colleagues tells another that “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” Such exempla end after the initial shock of confrontation, leaving it to the poet to channel the daunted response, the choked comeback. Read the full story at The New Yorker.

Not only is Claudia Rankine’s upcoming Just Us one of our most anticipated releases, but it also pairs well with Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which is one of our current book club picks. To read more about it and our other current favorites, visit our Books in the Bag page.

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