Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ shows what racism really feels like – PRI

Claudia Rankines book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, won the the National Book Critic Circle Award in Poetry, and wasthe first book ever nominated in two categories poetry and criticism. That reflects the books varied literary approaches as well as its timely, acute critique of contemporary American culture.

Some of the 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.

The book combines lyric poetry with prose poems, pasticheand visual art in unusual ways. Rankine says 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 its the one place where you can say I feel bad, she says. In poetry, feeling is as important as perception and description.

But Citizenalso contains outraged responses to the killings of unarmed black men that have shaken the country over the last few years. The books cover image isa 1993 artworkby David Hammons that depicts a sweatshirts hood, reminding us of the way Trayvon Martins killing turned hoodies intoprotest 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 youre going to get these explosive events, she says.

The title, Citizen, suggests an optimism that hasnt 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 Citizendetail the ways, large and small, in which citizenship does not override those distinctions.

(Originally aired February 12, 2015)

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Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ shows what racism really feels like – PRI

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