Opening up Hard Conversations:
Award-Winning Poet comes to Clemson to Discuss Police Brutality and Anti-Black Racism through the Common Read
How do you end a novel when the actions you are writing about are still happening? That is the question Claudia Rankine, Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and recipient of Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry and the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize, was faced with when writing Citizen: An American Lyric.
Her answer? You can’t. While trying to figure out how to conclude Citizen, Rankine had an experience that showed just how hard it was to conquer the subject of race relations. After taking a hike, Rankine dropped her dog off at home and headed to the club for a tennis appointment. She pulled into a parking spot and began eating a banana since she was a little bit early. It was then that a white woman pulled into the parking spot facing Rankine and turned off her car. The woman looked up at Rankine, restarted her car, pulled out of the parking spot and drove to park across the parking lot just to avoid coming in contact with Rankine.
This account was one of the many insightful stories Rankine shared in a webinar to Clemson Students and Staff members on Friday, Nov. 13, in an event titled, “A Summer of Black Uprisings: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine.” The event brought over 1,000 students of different majors into the conversation about anti-Black racism and police brutality through poetry, art and life. This webinar was the second in a series of events connected to the Common Read, an initiative created by Dr. Maya Hislop, where 2000-level English Students read the same book, written by a Black author, that acknowledges race and racism.
During the webinar, Rankine recited poetry from Citizen: An American Lyric, explaining the inspiration and background of each piece. Then, she participated in a discussion where she answered panelist and audience questions. Discussion ranged from the continuity of over-policing to challenges of race representation in the United States.
An incredibly moving narrative she reflected on in the discussion was one from her childhood. She was at school when another little girl assaulted her for her skin color. The young girl told her she was pretty because she had features that looked like a white person. Rankine remembers thinking, “Would I not be pretty if I did not look white?”
It was moments in her life like these that Rankine called upon when writing Citizen: An American Lyric to show how unjust race relations are in the United States and shine a light on being Black in America.
Closing out the webinar, Rankine encouraged the audience to not only read and learn about anti-Black racism and police brutality, but to understand and act against them as well. Her final reading was a call-to-action for her audience from Citizen: An American Lyric, “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”
Written By: Elizabeth O’Donnell