Award-winning author and poet Claudia Rankine spoke before a full crowd at Rackham Auditorium on Jan. 16, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Rankine presented excerpts from her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric, which combines poetry, prose and images into a critical commentary on racism in America.
Like her book, Rankine structured her presentation as a series of microaggressions, or everyday indignities from her own life and the world around her. Central to her presentation were themes of institutionalized and socialized racism, insight into the potential consequences of acquiescence in these issues, and important questions of public trust. Rankine spoke of racism as a fixture in American society. “Segregation is at the heart of American culture,” she explained. She incorporated artistic representations of racism and its manifestations in American life, and discussed how each worked to illustrate deep-seated issues.
At one point, Rankine showed a photograph of a crowd witnessing a lynching in 1930, intentionally cropped to omit the two people being lynched. She explained that the photo illustrates how the lynching itself is less problematic than the people watching it. We fail to address the issue, she implied, if we fail to properly identify it.
In the face of systematic oppression and murder of black people, hiding people away and limiting their freedoms “with the desire to keep them alive,” while a natural urge, is counterproductive, said Rankine. “We all have to step up even if it feels precarious.”
Rankine closed her presentation with a short video she produced about police brutality. Actual clips of these incidents and other sorts of racial profiling played on the screen as Rankine shared her thoughts in a voiceover. She emphasized a need in our country for greater public trust. “We want to feel comfortable,” she said, but currently, people have a “perceived inability to trust one another.”
Following her presentation, Rankine fielded questions from audience members. Jamie, a doctoral student in the School of Public Health, asked Rankine if any indicators of hope for a better, more just world exist. While Rankine stated that hope “is part of humanity,” she also expressed “complete perplexity” at the willingness of people to sacrifice their own humanity solely in order to destroy the humanity of others. Rankine characterized this as an “incredible dynamic” of our culture, but she maintained that the mere fact that this event was taking place was a signal of hope worthy of attention.
On January 17, she also participated in a cross-disciplinary discussion on American racism and the scholar-activist at the ISR’s Thompson Building. Both events were co-sponsored by the ISR and the U-M Institute for the Humanities.
Rankine has received several awards and honors throughout her writing career, including nine for her book Citizen. Most recently, she earned the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2016.