Claudia Rankine’s latest book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, recently became the first book ever nominated in two categories by the National Book Critics Circle Awards — poetry and criticism. That reflects the book’s varied literary approaches as well as its timely, acute critique of contemporary American culture.
Some of Citizen’s most affecting poems relate moments of casual racism, some of which Rankine herself experienced; others, she tells Kurt Andersen, she collected from friends. The book documents in painful detail the psychic damage that everyday slights inflict on African-Americans:
That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping.
That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.
The book combines lyric poetry with prose poems, pastiche, and visual art in unusual ways. Rankine says that poetry is uniquely qualified as a medium to grapple with the problems that interest her. Rather than simply condemning racism, “Poetry allows us into the realm of feeling, and it’s the one place where you can say ‘I feel bad,’” she says. In poetry, “feeling is as important as perception and description.”
But Citizen also contains outraged responses to the killings of unarmed black men that have shaken the country over the last few years. The book’s cover image is a 1993 artwork by David Hammons that depicts a sweatshirt’s hood, reminding us of the way Trayvon Martin’s killing turned hoodies into protest symbols. For Rankine, racist violence is on a spectrum with a casual slight she might endure at the supermarket. Because if that rude shopper finds himself “in a position of power — on a jury, organizing Katrina evacuations, or if you arm that fear and call it policing — then you’re going to get these explosive events,” she says.
The title, Citizen, ambiguously suggests an optimism that hasn’t been dimmed. “One hopes that when you step out with that passport, that it overrides racial distinctions — sexual, gender, all of those things,” Rankine says. The poems of Citizen detail the ways, large and small, in which citizenship does not override those distinctions.
Hear Kurt’s extended conversation with Claudia Rankine:
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