Claudia Rankine’s Yale Visit

Claudia Rankine did not win the National Book Award. She told us so at her talk on Wednesday, March 4th, when someone asked her if she thought black artists were sufficiently recognized by elite literary circles. She laughed and raised her eyebrows, and mentioned that she had, however, won something at the NAACP Recognition Awards: “If they won’t reward us, we’ll give ourselves our own awards.”

She wasn’t the only one in the room who thought she deserved to have won the National Book Award. LC 201 was full, and I know that by the end of her reading I was entirely convinced of Citizen’s merit, relevance, and beauty. Rankine is a poet who doesn’t think of herself as a prophet, rather, a storyteller.

Rankine described Citizen as a “community book.” It presents anecdotes from her friends—people of color and otherwise—about race. In some cases she seeks to answer specific questions: “What was a situation in which you knew you were acting as a white body?” leading to a gorgeous lyric about the New York subway system. Other times, Rankine simply asked friends for stories about race, which produced equally powerful verse.

Throughout the reading, Rankine’s tone was humble. Her narratives were simple and her delivery even simpler. She spoke of things that were tragic not because they were dramatic but because they were ordinary: the cashier who asked if she thought her credit card would work, the man who cut her friend in line, the therapist who chased a black patient off her lawn. Rankine makes lyrical what is commonplace, and elevates to tragedy the apparently small cruelties committed towards non-white citizen. And in doing so, she creates her own dramatic tradition.

The novelty of Rankine’s verse did not go unappreciated; she recounted stories of dozens of readers who came to her, crying, to thank her while thanking her for writing the book. She had represented the everyday of their lives, the quotidian injustices they kept silent because no one told them they were worthy of discussion. I cried too; like so many others, I had never read a text with which I identified so strongly. We all wanted to tell her, “You are my voice.”

That said, I was wary of the perception of Citizen as a universal text. Yes, it vocalizes the experiences of many, but at the end it is still one person’s narrative. I read a review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that said, “Ngozi Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness.” Or, better, Ngozi Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness and Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare are to whiteness. These authors are not all the same; there is not one whiteness, nor is there one blackness, nor is there one person-of-colorness. Our voices are many; more than one must be heard.

by Coryna Ogunseitan