We are four writers/scholars who teach in home institutions across the US—two of us in California, one in New York, and one in Pennsylvania—and in Bard College’s summer Language & Thinking Program (L&T), where Citizen was required reading for incoming first-year students in the fall of 2016. We have each taught this text or some portion of it at Bard for the last two summers and then in our classrooms elsewhere during the academic year. In what follows, we offer summaries of some of our classroom activities, specific writing prompts, descriptions of classroom encounters, possible text pairings, etc; throughout we attempt to share our successes and failures, doubts, incertitudes, and the compelling reasons for reading and working with Rankine’s demanding, beautiful, and painful text. Some of the investments that traverse our various approaches include a commitment to an ongoing elaboration of engaging, student-centered pedagogies, a commitment that means we are revising our practices as we go, improvising in various fields of constraint(s). In the materials that follow, some themes/concerns recur:  who comprises the “we” whenever/wherever that pronoun is used?  How do we enable the naming/identifying of individual reader’s complex positionalities vis-à-vis the poems and pronouns and persons of Citizen? What is the history of race in the US? Who and what is a citizen? What historical—old and contemporary—information, knowledge, and experience are crucial to the reading of this text? How can we enable students to identify and trace the workings of power or authority—material and ideological? How does teaching this text challenge some theories and practices of composition and rhetoric, or our individual pedagogical investments and practices? What kinds of conversations are set up between word and image by Rankine’s incorporation of images throughout the text? What constitutes evidence of racism or sexism? What does it mean to “witness”? How do we account for or name our own positions as white female teachers? How might we identify and address systemic whiteness? What impact might the pain of racism have on the reading of this text?

 

Andrea Quaid

Write to describe your first responses to reading Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Share around the room, aloud, one after the other, without interruption.

The Language & Thinking Program is a three-week, immersive program for incoming first-year students that takes place before the Fall term begins. By immersive, I mean we – instructors and students – set ourselves up in the dorms and see one another in the breakfast, lunch, and dinner line. We meet three times a day in workshops of 12-14 students where we read, write, discuss. We go to lectures and performances, gather for student readings of their work, meet one-on-one outside of class to discuss texts, ideas and, ask “how are you feeling?”

The summer of 2016 we read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric together. We all read it as a core text shared across the forty or so workshops meeting in rooms around campus. (I feel the weight of the “we” in these lines. How its repeated use begins to obscure differences of identity, context, pedagogy. How it begins to muffle the intensely collaborative idea sharing and lesson planning that I mean it to signify.) Many faculty advocated for assigning the full book after using excerpts the year before; this book cannot be excerpted and to do so feels like its own violence, moving on too quickly from the text’s account of microaggressions and brutal systemic racism.

Language and Thinking’s liberal studies, interdisciplinary curriculum aims at engaging a student’s imagination and intellect while preparing them for college-level work. The program goals meet my intersectional feminist pedagogy that foregrounds collective analysis over individual mastery of subject matter, process as equally valuable to final result, and reflection on how we learn alongside what we learn. I ask all of us in the room to consider:

What is the critical and creative text about? What lens, or social location, are you engaging with it from? Or, who are you and why does this matter? How does this influence what you notice about a text? Can someone different from you have a different reading? How can these differences, as Audre Lorde suggests, be strengths? What relationships does the text silence, court, or make visible? What questions can you not not ask? What announces itself – as a concern or provocation to act? What do you need to create – as a written response or an artwork or an action challenging us to be different in the world we now inhabit?

 

Lesson plan 4: What does it mean to be an American Citizen? Students have read Rankine’s book and participated in several lessons focused on it. Students have James Baldwin’s essay, “The Discovery of What it Means to Be An American” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first chapter from Between the World and Me. In this lesson, we bring Rankine’s text into conversation with Baldwin’s essay, Coates’s chapter, and selected poems (listed below).

*Note: Instructor participates in all in-class writing and shares with the students.

 

Working with Rankine’s title

Write as a list: What associations do you have with the word “American”?

Write as a list: What associations do you have with the word “Citizen”?

Students go around the table and read from what they’ve written. Everyone shares at least one of their answers.

Open discussion: What do you notice about these associations?

 

Exploring the term “America”

Read each poem in its entirety to the students. In between the reading of each, we pause and write a response. (Poem excerpts below)

 

Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she

With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

 

Prompt: In this poem, America is _________________.

 

Bernadette Mayer’s “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty”

Give me the cops who laugh and sneer at meetings where they demonstrate the new / uses of mace and robots instead of the old murder against people who are being / evicted

 

Prompt: In this poem, America is _________________.

 

Luis Rodriguez’s “Running to America”

They are night shadows violating borders,

fingers curled through chain-link fences,

hiding from infra-red eyes, dodging 30-30 bullets.

They leave familiar smells, warmth and sounds

as ancient as the trampled stones.

Running to America.

 

Prompt: In this poem, America is _________________.

 

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric: “Stop-and-Frisk, Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas”

And yes, the inaudible spreads across state lines.

Its calling back away from the face of America.

Bloodshot eyes calling on America

that can’t look forward for being called back.

America turned loose on America –

 

Prompt: In this poem, America is _________________.

 

Everyone chooses one response to read and share.

 

Analyzing James Baldwin’s “The Discovery of What it Means To Be An American”

Reread parts of it together. While reading, please mark significant statements or ideas.

Read from “’It is a complex fate to be an American,’ Henry James observed, and the principal discovery an American writer makes in Europe is just how complex this fate is” to “(I was as isolated from Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)”

Read from “The American writer, in Europe, is released, first of all, from the necessity of apologizing for himself” to “”Where everyone has status, it is also perfectly possible, after all, that no one has. It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to just what his status is.”

Read from “That the tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are tremendous is certainly not even a question” to “In a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will be no easy matter.”

In-class writing:

Baldwin claims, “Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception.”

Look back at your initial lists for “American” and “Citizen” and choose one association.

Prompt: Write for four minutes: Thinking alongside Baldwin, what assumptions might exist in the association? For example, if you wrote patriot for American, what “unspoken but profound assumptions” live with the concept-identity patriot? Share and discuss.

Prompt: Write for four more minutes:  How can you connect Baldwin’s claim about “unspoken but profound assumptions” to Rankine’s text?

Close reading claims: Race and Democracy in America

As a group, we read aloud, underlining any striking passages in Ta-Neishi Coates’s Between the World and Me. From “Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body” to “I think you know.”

Prompt for discussion: What is Coates claiming when he states the following:

“Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.”

“Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of ‘government of the people,’ but the means by which ‘the people’ acquired their names.”

“Racism – the need to ascribe … But race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Prompt: Look back again to your lists of associations for “American” and “Citizen” and choose one. Thinking alongside Coates, how does his description of America challenge or strengthen a term from your list?

Ask: What questions do you have for Citizen: An American Lyric?

Ask: What is Citizen asking from you?

 

Asking about genre, or what can a lyric do?

Rankine’s book was the National Book Critics Circle Award winner in the category of Poetry and, at the same time, a finalist in the category of Criticism.

 

Prompt: Write for three minutes to each question:

How is this a book of criticism?

How is this a book of poetry?

Share and discuss your responses.

 

As a way to remind us, we will list on the board: What are some of the elements of a lyric poem? Next, we will make a second list: What are some elements in Rankine’s book that don’t show up on our first list?  What could this suggest about Rankine’s book?

 

Prompt: Bringing our work on America, an American, and citizenship to this question, please reflect: how is Rankine’s book An American Lyric?

I noted above that this lesson was created in a deeply collaborative environment, and I’m certain that many of the above prompts are composed as much by me as by fellow instructors as we shared lesson ideas. The prompts are also, in a sense, composed collaboratively with my students who, in the course of reading Citizen, returned to questions about the responsibilities, racialized limits, and unequally shared protections of American citizenship. Rankine’s pronouns move the reader through identification and dis-identification, communion and complicity, and witness and actor, to depict the racism of our U.S. history and present time. This accompanies us into every classroom – a classroom “us” who lives this U.S. history-present both in shared and drastically unshared, unequal ways. To read Rankine’s text with first-year students as preparation for their future studies is, I hope, to make explicit the racist interpersonal and systemic oppressions whose undoing is the work to be done.

 

Bibliography

Baldwin, James. “The Discovery of What It Means to Be An America.” Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Dial, 1961. Print.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me.  New York: Spegel & Grau, 2015. Print.

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings. Ed. Gregory Eiselein. Peterborough: Broadview, 2002. Print.

Mayer, Bernadette. “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty.” The New Yorker. 26 Dec 2014. Web. 11 June 2015.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.

Rodriguez, Luis. “Running to America.” Poems Across the Pavement. Los Angeles: Tia Chucha, 2014. Print.

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Robin Tremblay-McGaw

 

Teaching Citizen: An American Lyric / Teaching Whiteness, History, Critical Distance, Seeing Otherwise

 

Context: “We”
Citizen: An American Lyric is a text that we read in medias res, as it is happening; who we are or from what location we read will impact our interpretation. I have taught Citizen in a variety of settings and, over time, come to understand that it is a text that requires context, precisely and because of the now in which we find ourselves. We are not reading this text with the distance of years or geography or systemic change (or in reference to the latter, rather, we are in a period of systemic re-entrenchment). At every turn, it is worth considering who this “we” is. We are in the middle of it. And wherever one is, there are manifest and myriad blind spots. For some readers the absence of historical knowledge is one blind spot. The absence, for many, of a rich and diverse experience of being with others is a blind spot. Or the lack of experience of being pre-judged and discriminated against by others is a blind spot. Whiteness is a blind spot. The social construction of race is a blind spot. How can we begin to perceive what our blind spots might be?

Context: History
Students, in the largely white small liberal arts colleges where I, a white middle-aged female first-generation college graduate teach, arrive in the classroom knowing perhaps Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or his “I have a Dream” speech, and maybe they have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Maybe. But beyond this, beyond some bare facts about the Civil War, about slavery, about Civil Rights, beyond the awareness that these things occurred in the past, for the most part, they bring with them little historical knowledge of any depth or specificity: When were Africans first brought to North America? How did the institution of slavery work? What is the Voting Rights Act? Who is incarcerated in the U.S. or attains what educational level and how do these statistics break down by race, ethnicity, sex, etc? What is the history of “race”? For many students, the notion that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (Coates 7), is incomprehensible. The social constructedness of whiteness mostly arrives as new information.  They have known a black president. Barack Obama is likely the only president they can remember. Many of them believe in a post-racial society. Even now. Despite the long list of names in Citizen, “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis/ In Memory of Eric Garner/ In Memory of John Crawford/ In Memory of Michael Brown….,” (134) a list that grows longer with every subsequent printing of Rankine’s book.

Students are not alone in the paucity of their historical knowledge. In Who We Be: The Colorization of America, Jeff Chang explains:

We need history, even recent history. In the United States of America, we still tend to begin each conversation about race as if it were new, from a willed presumption of what might be called racial innocence, as if we have lived nothing and learned nothing. We presume race and identity to be fixed, not subject to any past or any future, beyond interpretation and beyond change. (11)

 

Context: Race
The social construction of race can be taught; but I think I made the mistake this past fall, in my sense of urgency about the topic, of not attending fully to the lived and felt experience of racial identity and belonging. Consequently, some students may swiftly turn away from social construction in favor of their experiences of culture and community, the ways in which their communities nourish them, define who they are. How might we complicate the relationship between race and culture?

Context: Discomfort
Discomfort breeds silence. How do we talk complexly about race and racism as a nation? community? in the classroom?
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In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse. Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race. It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous liberal gesture…(Morrison 9-10)
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Context: Acknowledgment and Risk
I tell my students that I, like them, like all of us, am a product of the cultural context(s) in which I/we have lived. U.S. culture is racist and misogynist and homophobic. As a product of this culture, I too need to attend to my own racism, sexism, homophobia. Our culture produces and shapes us. This does not free me from the ethical responsibility of critical awareness. At the same time, in the classroom I am aware that as a white woman who lives with a man, of these three systemic injustices, I am more comfortable “naming” my potential complicity with sexism.

I want to be willing to put myself at risk, to name my participation in this culture, to identify the location of my privileges, as Peggy McIntosh does in her “Daily Effects of White Privilege” (see below). We are in this together. It is my hope that modeling this will help students do the same or that it might aid in shifting their thinking, illuminating the invisible ways in which ideologies and culture are shaped by us but also shape us.

 

Context: Witness Whiteness
Having taught Citizen: An American Lyric a number of times in the last couple of years and being informed by the collaborative pedagogy developed by faculty in the Language & Thinking Program at Bard College, I have found it crucial to approach this text by first learning about and naming the context of whiteness. Precisely because as Toni Morrison notes “….the pattern of thinking about racialism in terms of its consequences on the victim….from the perspective of its impact on the object of racist policy and attitudes….should be joined with another, equally important one: the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it (11). We need to name whiteness as a racial construction with material effects. One way we can do this is through reading aloud Peggy McIntosh’s “The Daily Effects of White Privilege,” a  brief piece in which McIntosh “identif[ies] some of the daily effects of white privilege.“ She names these privileges by way of  “I statements” such as:

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. (1)

Some students who have not thought about white privilege before experience a shock of awareness, some dispute its truth (e.g., one student contested the sentence “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented…” (1) arguing for the prevalence of black music, and thus using this fact to invalidate all of the other statements [note: McIntosh’s piece was written in 1988]), some know only too well the ways in which these privileges are or are not theirs.

 

Context: White Discomfort with Racism
White culture in America struggles to name racism. White culture in the United States has trouble naming whiteness as a racial category. As I write this in December, 2016, the U.S. is deeply divided. The President-elect is a man who ran a racist, misogynist, xenophobic campaign. And he won–not the popular but the electoral vote, itself a system with ties to slavery. Many white Americans, and our country as a whole, have failed to recognize, to address, to speak our history of slavery and indigenous genocide, to adopt a critical distance from this history, attesting to it, making reparations for it. To do so is to open up a path to discuss what has happened and what is happening NOW.

Text: Citizen: An American Lyric

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling….

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry (Rankine 18).

Classroom Activity:
In one exercise students are asked to look at an image in silence, noting down in their notebooks specific descriptive details of what they see. After five minutes of silent looking and notating, as a group we engage in five minutes of reading aloud our details, prefaced by the phrase “Look at…” Someone starts us off, reading one detail: “Look at all the people,” and then someone else, “Look at the man pointing up while peering at the camera,” “Look at the pregnant woman holding her stomach,” “Look at the blare of whiteness.”  We read like this, “popcorn style,” until we’ve each read most if not all of our details. We look closely at this crowd. We wonder about why they are there. We note their race, clothing, demeanor, gesture. This collaborative close looking or visual close reading enables us to perceive more than any one of us might on our own.
from Citizen (91) Lynching August 1930

Text: “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin” from Citizen
Rankine’s poem “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin” appears on the pages immediately prior to this image located in the lower third of the page. The text of the poem identifies an historical racism:  “the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony” (89), while in its title and body it simultaneously details the daily, ongoing structural racism that has shifted forms, and is perhaps less obvious or overt, but as damaging as ever. How does Rankine’s poem accomplish this?

The poem’s title, “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” along with the body of the poem and the accompanying image, suture past and present, signaling the presence of history in the now; it “accumulate[s] into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through” (89-90). We notice the “hanging”; we start to talk about that rope. We begin to get nearer to history and how it cleaves: another poem in Citizen puts it this way: “A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self'” (14).

The trees in this photo are not those of poet Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches. Rather they are those from which have hung, as Billie Holiday sang, “strange fruit.”

Looking at the original image, the class discusses: how many people recognize this image?  What is the history of lynching in America?  What happens when the black bodies have been removed from the photograph? What’s left?

We watch a video of Claudia Rankine reading her poem at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, on April 27, 2015 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RylFX9OG54]. We hear her explain what happened when she and John Lucas tried to secure permission to publish this image from The Getty archive. She describes the spectacle of whiteness that the photograph reveals once the lynched men have been taken out. I have found that Lucas’s erased image changes how the classroom responds: instead of everyone somehow turning their attention to the all-too–frequently-few Black students in the classroom, instead of the hypervisibility of blackness against a white background, the photo exposes whiteness, makes visible precisely that which is most frequently rendered invisible, and thus, non-existent. While it is still possible that individual white students and others might refuse to attend to or perceive this dynamic, the photo provides opportunities for discussion of whiteness as institutional rather than merely individual.

As part of a Campus-wide Understanding and Resisting Violence Locally and Globally Symposium at Santa Clara University in Fall 2016, the audience for which was comprised of students, faculty, staff, and older adults participating in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I passed out copies of “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” and 3 or 4 different individuals in the symposium volunteered and we read it aloud.  We then watched the Harvard video of Rankine reading this piece.  When I asked for responses to the poem, I was surprised by the reflection of an older white man who commented on how he was startled, astonished even, by Rankine’s reading of the poem. Why wasn’t she angry?  The poem’s subject–the murder of Trayvon Martin–is certainly worthy of anger, but it also occurred to me that this response to Rankine’s reading and affect, rather than to the poem itself, might have been one of the anecdotes that found its way into Citizen, particularly as the same person subsequently praised the restraint in the face of tragedy exercised by Jo Ann Beard, a white writer whose work was presented by one of my colleagues. The ensuing discussion provided some opportunities for noticing the discrepant responses to analogous strategies by writers of different races.

The Poem on the Page:
Returning to the poem, rereading it, we can work to notice the patterns in it: the relation of the words to the image. We can transfer our close looking/reading skills from image to text: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/56848/citizen-you-are-in-the-dark-in-the-car

There is much to notice and hear. We might attend to some patterns, practicing a kind of scientific observation: what happens when the class examines word choice? What if we look at some word counts from the poem: There are 18 appearances of “of.” This small word has some interesting etymology, some of which includes, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary,  that it is from Old English:

 

  • Indicating the thing, place, or direction from which something goes, comes, or is driven or moved: from, away from, out of.
    • Expressing position which is (or is treated as) the result of departure, and is defined with reference to the starting point a. Away from, out of. of life:  Obsolete.
    •           Of origin or source. Indicating the thing, place, or person from which or whom something originates, comes, or is acquired or sought a. Expressing ancestral or local origin, descent, etc.: following arise, be, come, descend, spring, etc.; be born, be bred, be derived, be propagated, etc.What readings might this etymology suggest? Some other patterns and repetitions: 19 “brother(s)”; 5 “heart(s)”; 7 “good-bye”; 7 “hang”; 1 “hung”; 3 “blue.” What do these patterns reveal? How can they help us to understand this poem?

We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of one poem. But as a class we’ve moved from the present to the past to the present; we’ve explored context(s); we’ve begun to learn to look and read closely, to build skills for thinking critically about a time in which we are still in the middle.

 

While all of this is difficult, and at moments, uncomfortable, the potential for critical thinking and self-reflexive analysis is great, and never more urgent. Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, is a kaleidoscopic text addressed to all of us. Her book, however, is not only comprised of words and images; it is made from the material, psychic, real life experiences of people living and dying in the world right now.

Context: Pain
As I read through the final reflection letters I ask students to write at the end of the quarter, letters that are addressed to me and in which students assess their progress, challenges, and writing, I was moved by one student’s discussion of the student’s response to the topic of race. Here the student discusses not Rankine’s work but Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the first chapter of which we read just prior to reading Citizen. The student wrote:

Racism has been something I have tried to ignore, not because it doesn’t affect me, but because when I do so I remember that I am mixed and that according to the culture, I’m not truly accepted as an Asian or as a Hispanic. Thinking about racism hurts because it reminds me that I don’t belong and that I don’t feel accepted, not here and not much anywhere before. I wrote my first essay with the position that institutional racism that Coates describes to his son doesn’t exist, because it helped disguise my own position and pain. Reading about the racism of other marginalized groups not only educated me on the matter, but has also helped me understand myself.

This student took a risk and shared something personal and profound and in the course of doing so, enabled me to begin to trace the outlines of what I might not perceive in the multiple and shifting responses of a variety of readers to any given material.

Context: The Need for Critical Distance is Everywhere and Manifest
A friend in Memphis has a son who is in an elementary school gifted and talented program. The boy, let’s call him Frederick, a beautiful bi-racial 9-year-old, went on a field trip as part of this gifted and talented program. Hooray a field trip! Where did they go? What did they learn?

They went to a cotton field to pick cotton. Slavery, “too scary and violent” a topic to discuss in elementary school, was erased. Silenced. Made invisible. My friend pulled this gifted child out of this program that could not adopt a critical distance from its unexamined activities and beliefs.

Conclusion:
The work to engage critical self-reflexive distance, to enact a fluid mobility into and across various histories and nows, to offer multiple perspectives in a world bent on the unnamed and invisible never stops. What does history tell us? The day that has just passed? Our own and others embodied—thought and felt—experiences? Even right now as we read from Citizen. How might the classroom and our reading(s) move each of us, all of us? What have you just noticed?

Bibliography

Chang, Jeff. Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Print.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me.  New York: Spegel & Grau, 2015. Print.

Davis, Paul et al. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Modern World, 1650-Present. Boston: Bedford, 2009. Print.

McIntosh, Peggy. “Daily Effects of White Privilege. ” from “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” 1988. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

“of.” Oxford English Dictionary.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.
__. Reading “The Making of Citizen.” Harvard: Woodberry Poetry Room, April 27, 2015. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RylFX9OG54. Web.

 

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Karen Lepri

 

Writing With (Whose?) Power: A Response to Teaching with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

 

It is beyond common practice at the Institute for Writing & Thinking at Bard College for us to ask workshop participants to “write into” a text—“writing into it” might look just like it sounds, pushing one’s own words into the spaces between the text’s words and lines. It might also look like stealing several phrases or words and using those to build a new piece of writing, the stolen pieces acting as points of departure, sometimes aimed toward a certain prompt or assigned title. Much of this tactic evolved from Peter Elbow’s pedagogical arsenal, particularly his 1981 book, Writing with Power. We might question, power with, from, or toward whom? We might also question the excursionist “into” or the thieving “out from” the text. I get stuck on the colonialist echoes resounding within this practically simple assignment.

It was about three minutes till the end of the workshop—time for lunch.  Eva raised her hand to ask if it was okay to ask a question. She appeared distressed, and so of course I said, yes. She went on to question the writing activity we had just attempted in response to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Wanting to address racism and Black death through its curriculum last year, Bard’s Language & Thinking program adopted Citizen as required summer reading for first-year students. I had previously taught selections from Citizen in my poetry classes at Queens College to mixed results. Sections there varied from being majority students of color to majority white orthodox Jewish students. For some the text was mind-boggling and inspiring, for others depressing and silencing. In the June meeting before L&T began in August, I expressed concern that our 99% white faculty and majority white first-year class[1] might need certain forms of training to adequately work with Citizen through ethical forms of writing and discussion. My request for a specific workshop on dealing with white privilege and racial dynamics in the classroom went unheeded. Now Eva raised her hand.

We had spent the morning workshops transitioning from thinking through Arendt’s essay on the relationship between speech and action to thinking through Rankine’s Citizen. We read some excerpts aloud and wrote to various prompts, one which asked students to write about times when speech seemed to fail the speaker of the poems. Students also attempted to list Citizen, the text’s, wants and beliefs, in order to explore what the text might be assuming or proposing if we were to read it not just as speech but also as action, a manifesto perhaps. In groups, students were then asked to make a sound performance “using Rankine that addresses Arendt’s ‘action’ as we’ve defined it.  Constraints: something audible repeats, something inaudible repeats, use writing from your homework ‘Citizen wants…,’ use Rankine’s language…use found sound media.” The performances were varied in terms of their solemnity—their political feelings were hit and miss. The idea of using sound (not just language) was for students to explore what potential resided in non-verbal sound—a sigh, a tap, a blaze of static—what else was there in a poem, a performance, other than Arendtian speech. After their performances, we wrote poems called “The Sigh of the Citizen”—I simply said, “Write ‘The Sigh of the Citizen.’” As with all prompts, I reminded students what a prompt is, an invitation, not a demand. They were getting used to the odd-angled questions and abrupt shifts that Language & Thinking workshops invited them to navigate. When we were done, we shared our poems aloud.

As this workshop description reveals, I had prioritized student exploration of Citizen through making, collaborating, performing, and writing, not through open discussion. Eva made her first point, “I think it’s kind of weird that you asked us to write those poems and we aren’t going to discuss them any more.” I guaranteed that there would be more time to discuss, just not right then, due to the schedule. But she wasn’t satisfied. She rephrased her concern, “I don’t think it’s okay for us to write poems from someone else’s perspective, especially if the student is white and the writer is black.” (Eva is half Arab, half white—if this matters to my readers.) I noticed her increasing stress—tears were welling up in her eyes either from the risk of defying the teacher, of bringing up the role of race in the assignment, or of critiquing the students (really only one or two) who had taken on Citizen’s “I” in their “Sigh of the Citizen” poem. Eventually it became clear to me it was the latter—she was upset that one or two white students had written as if they were the presumably black speaker in Rankine’s work. One student had written:

Sigh I, I sigh

No one seems to hear my cry

 

Just listen to me with gentle ears

Allow my problems to disappear

I reacted somewhat badly, thinking she was blaming the prompt, a liability I wasn’t ready to accept at the time. I attempted to clarify, “You know the prompt doesn’t ask them to write that way, right?” It didn’t seem to matter to her. She knew I had authority over the space, and I had expressed a certain authority over Rankine’s writing by turning it into material for inspiration, for further creative, personal responses by students. I had failed to foreground Citizen’s context or ours (individually and collectively) and the differences between them. I had also failed to consider my students’ position relative to the various subjects in the book and to ask how best to invite students to engage with Rankine’s text—what pre-/post-position should they take? Is it better to write into it? Alongside it? All around it? Above or below it? Furthermore, I had not taken into account the relevance of decades of debates in college composition over the importance of personal and academic, informal and formal, forms of writing, to my particular concerns about teaching Citizen as  a white instructor to a mostly white class.

Responding to Elbow’s growing popularity in the 1990s and his strong emphasis on personal and informal writing, Comp-Rhet scholar David Bartholomae writes,

I am arguing for a class in time, one that historicizes the present, including the present evoked in students’ writing. Inside this linguistic present, students (with instruction more precisely, with lessons in critical reading) can learn to feel and see their position inside a text they did not invent and can never, at least completely, control. Inside a practice: linguistic, rhetorical, cultural, historical (65).

 

What Bartholomae emphasizes is critical context, awareness of the student’s position relative to the author’s position, in time and place. At the same time, it sounds almost like he too wants to guide his students “inside,” into the text, and to write their ways around and back out of it. Nevertheless, he has his own questions about what it means to encourage students to seize such power. He continues, “I don’t have an easy answer to this question. It is like asking, should students be allowed to talk about their feelings after reading The Color Purple? Of course they should, but where and when? and under whose authority?” (96). So yes to feelings, but by what right? And yes Bartholomae’s concern[2] seems more to do with propping up a myth of authorship—earlier in his essay, he presses, “Why am I in charge of the reproduction of this myth of American life?” (70).

Bartholomae concerns himself with authority/authorship generally as a verifiable concept, not the issue of his students’ seizing authority/authorship via the racial hierarchy implied in the relationship between his students and the author of the particular text he mentions—Walker’s Color Purple. I wish to extend Bartholomae’s question then to ask, by what authority do we teachers ask majority-white groups of students to “write into” Rankine’s Citizen, or any text about racism written from the perspective of a poet of color?[3] I ask this question not because I am concerned about students seeing themselves as authors. Nor do I worry about defining originality in these contexts—I believe that unique, reflective writing can stem from a stolen line. But it seems that in this moment—Eva’s urgent hand, the tense classroom air—that my use of the pedagogy, in which I had believed so much, failed. And yet what if I still believe that in order for students to grow in empathy and to learn the skills for social change, they have to imagine the experiences of others, and writing is one of the most effective paths to imagine and learn through the experiences of others?

At Erica Hunt’s Leslie Scalapino Lecture in 2015, she spoke on pronouns and poetry’s potential to remap and remake our positions relative to each other. In this talk, titled “I, You, We With An Aside on Zee and They”, she used a diagram invented by sociologists Roger Brown and Elbert Newman to spatially plot and conceive of the varying powers of pronouns. The chart graphs power, low to high, on the y-axis, and presents a spectrum of full solidarity to no solidarity on the x-axis. Hunt posited moving pronouns around the chart as she spoke pronouns with different intonations and postures. The words gained and shredded authority, depending.

After positing this co-constitution of space, power, and language, Hunt delved into Kamau Brathwaite’s “tidalectics,” his poetics which work to shift away from center-periphery concepts of space and empowerment. Brathwaite echoes Jamaican dialectic by using the composite pronoun (literally, and also pidgin-ly) “IandI” throughout his works. Hunt spoke about “IandI” as not just representative of a multiple, intersectional self, a self that cannot be defined or contained one way, but also as a self that can collectivize or join with others, form a “we.”  She spoke of Brathwaite’s “IandI’” as a gesture toward “a self that is invented from the language of the possible…a self that is capable of fusing with community, of address” (Hunt, Leslie Scalapino Lecture).

Swerve back to Citizen, Rankine’s flood of pronouns, her deliberate grasping at the word(s) that could possibly belong to the bod(ies) she mourns: “I they he she we you.” And as much as Rankine lands on this “you,” one that mysteriously, almost imperceptibly, switches back and forth between a black speaker and a white reader or spectator, she also acknowledges the struggle to speak “I,” if one is not deemed subject, citizen, person, because “The worst hurt is feeling you don’t belong so much / to you—” (146). How then to explore, and flounder in, this very power struggle through writing, as opposed to assuming power with or over it?

Possible rewrites:

Chart the pronouns in Rankine’s Citizen.

 

Score a song to the rise and fall of their authority.

 

Chart yourself on the same map—which pronouns sound like they represent you, in all your particularity, as the reader?  Why? Where do you get confused? Why?

 

Score your appearance (sounded or silent) in the song.

 

Translate sections of the poem by replacing the pronouns with names—describe the effect this has.

 

Translate sections of the poem that are in you to I, or I to you—describe what difference it makes.

 

Research the author—how do you think her background, past projects, historical context inform the writing?  Research yourself—how does your background, your interests, your historical context inform your reading of it?

 

Steal a favorite phrase or line from Citizen—use it repeatedly in a piece about something entirely different than the material at hand in Citizen. Write a reflective piece on what questions this raises for you.  Merge the two writings, edit, make a new piece.

 

Write a personal response to your experience of reading Citizen. Rewrite a section of this personal response using a pronoun other than I. Describe what difference it makes.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow,” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 62-71.

Hunt, Erica. “I, You, We With An Aside on Zee and They.” Leslie Scalapino Annual Lecture in Innovative Poetics. Pratt Institute. Brooklyn, 4 December 2015.

 

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Minneapolis, MN: Greywolf, 2014.

*

Emily Abendroth

Reflections on Two Experiments in Juxtaposition with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

 

Experiment #1: The “Evidence”

 

I have taught Claudia Rankine’s Citizen on two different occasions at two different institutions in the past six months (at Bard College in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). In both cases, our class also worked with the scholar and activist Sarah Ahmed’s essay “Evidence” prior to reading Rankine. Ahmed’s essay investigates the nature and status of “evidence” in the face of incidents and systemic dynamics of racism and sexism.  She prods her readers to examine who is deemed as a credible witness or narrator in such moments and by whom, on the basis of what criteria and under what conditions. What role, she asks, do power dynamics, both material and ideological, have in those perceptions and interpretations. It’s a richly probing and beautiful essay with a kind of poetic density that happily resists any easy summary. It can be found here.

By way of entry into a discussion of the work, students were asked to choose one of the following three lines from Ahmed and respond to it in writing. They were asked to consider: What was meant by this sentence they had chosen? Could they restate it in their own words? They were encouraged to take note of other associations that came up for them in response and/or to think of an example that might illustrate or illuminate its contours. The sentences were as follows:

 

            When racism is how a world is seen, racism is not seen.

 

This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things.

 

Our evidence is often evidence of the removal of evidence.

 

Together we shared and discussed our responses – clarifying things, confusing things, wading into the layered waters of visibility and invisibility in its many forms:  orchestrated and unconscious, alienating and appropriative, physical and psychic. Next, students (and myself alongside them) were asked to: “Describe three instances in the last six months in which you have been required to provide evidence for something or someone. What qualified as evidence in that instance and why? What didn’t or wouldn’t qualify even if it may also have been an indicator of the same and why? What parts of the evidence, if any, were in dispute?”

One student talked about his current job at the national chain retail store Camping World, remarking upon: the endless reams of documentation that every entry level employee is required to produce concerning their hourly conduct; the time cards; the surveillance cameras; the light of permanent suspicion into which they are cast. Another student spoke about recently being delayed by immigration police upon entering the U.S. from Iran and questioned at length about the status of their student visa. They explained how their clear paper documentation – their evidence of multiple citizenships – was cast in doubt by officials and treated as if inadequate. Another bemoaned an impossible catch-22 of university enrollment in which she was embroiled, wherein a failure to show capacity to pay was prohibiting her from beginning a work study job which was to constitute a critical component of her capacity to pay. The examples of what “failed” to qualify as “evidence” in specific scenarios were often as, if not more, revelatory of the given system’s priorities, values, and conditions as what did. I was surprised to find myself attempting to inventory the three, compulsory online Title IX trainings I had taken in the preceding two months – one for each institution at which I was employed. My own notebook page read: “This triptych of 20-50 minute, interactive, screen-based engagements constitute my institutional ‘evidence’ that I not only am aware of how to avoid perpetrating sexual harassment in the workplace, but also of how to report it if I see it occurring. Only my utterly isolated online participation can qualify as recognizable preparation. If I answer a multiple-choice question incorrectly (including in the form of ‘over-response’ or, in other words, if I think something described is more sexist than the university believes it to be), I have to start over again, with a new scenario, with different multiple choice options, but the same end goal of avoiding legal liability. What is ultimately being tested is: Do I know how to correctly position myself so that the institution cannot and will not be sued; am I confident in my capacity to say the ‘right’ things in order to prevent litigation? All other responses are ‘wrong’ even if and when they might be understood as ethical.”

My example was by no means the only one raised in that classroom wherein disqualification was motivated by perceived needs to “protect” an institution and might suffer from competing hierarchical interests. As a class, we paused on this sequence of observations from Ahmed:

 

            Racism and sexism are walls in this sense: in the world but assumed as in our heads not in the world.

We have to live with that assumption.

In the world.

What is a phantom for some for others is real.

What is hardest for some does not appear to others.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

People disappear too: because of what they try to make evident, what they try to bring into view (“Evidence”).

 

For the sake of our own view, as a class we kept slowing down, allowing different students to give examples, to paraphrase, to parse, especially when other students got lost in a particular knot or circle of words or in the tangle of so many lived contradictions. How can it be, someone asks, that some individuals have in certain instances the privilege to “not notice what is right in front of you without having to make any effort to turn away”? What are the conditions that make this seeming impossibility so regularly possible?

With all this on the table, students were then invited to think about how “evidence” – both its presence and its erasure, alongside the many appended questions and implications that Ahmed had provided us with – can be seen at play in Citizen. We focused particularly on the first three sections of the text, and the students themselves were asked to hone or narrow in still further (to one section only).

This portion of the exercise worked best when it was performed as a written homework assignment the night before and then discussed in class. The students’ attention to detail was greater and we all benefited from the outside time they had spent thinking their responses through on their own, in ways which we could then marshal to ensure that we weren’t speaking in clichés or broad generalizations. However, if one was working collectively in real-time in class, the Serena Williams essay can serve as an excellent entry point. Consider a passage like this:

Perhaps the committee’s decision is only about context, though context is not meaning. It is a public event being watched in homes across the world. In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief – code for being black in America – is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship (30).

 

“Again,” Rankine writes, “Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of self as systemic, as ordinary” (32).

The class began pointing out those many narrative moments in Citizen that make explicit what is often left implicit – moments where evidence accumulates and insists on itself. Rankine: “I didn’t mean to say that, he then says. Aloud, you say. What? he asks. You didn’t mean to say that aloud” (44). One student observes, with audible concern, what can happen to the person who reveals what others don’t want to notice.

What felt most successful to me about this sequence of activities and this pairing of texts had to do with the way in which the work we did with Ahmed required students (and me) to generate and contend with examples from our own daily lives as an initial entry point. We did so across our multiple and varied identifications of class, race, gender, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation. We used those recollected “incidents” as advance invitations to examine our own positionality and assumptions, as well as the positionality and assumptions of others that defined those experiences. And, at least to some degree, the students were then able to carry that effort over into Citizen. It provided us with some tools to set about performing what Rankine, in an interview in The New Yorker, encourages: “I also wanted readers to always have to position themselves relative to the pronoun [you, I, they, we]. Who was talking about whom? Where do you stand relative to the information that’s being communicated? Because the ‘I’ either puts you in that voice or allows you to reject that voice immediately: ‘That’s not me.’ And I was trying to destabilize the immediate ability to say, ‘That’s not my experience. That’s not me’” (Schwartz, “On Being Seen”).

Experiment #2: Looking, Seeing, and Perceiving

For this second juxtaposition of materials, our class watches the short film 5,000 Feet is the Best by Omer Fast, which serves as a bridge between Rajesh Parameswaran’s harrowing short story “I am an Executioner” and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The film production crew describes 5,000 Feet is the Best as follows: “The film is based on two meetings with a Predator drone sensor operator, which were recorded in a hotel in Las Vegas in September 2010. On camera, the drone operator agreed to discuss the technical aspects of his job and his daily routine. Off camera and off the record, he briefly described recurring incidents in which the unmanned plane fired at both militants and civilians – and the psychological difficulties he experienced as a result. Instead of looking for the appropriate news accounts or documentary footage to augment his redacted story, the film is deliberately miscast and misplaced: It follows an actor cast as the drone operator who grudgingly sits for an interview in a dark hotel. The interview is repeatedly interrupted by the actor’s digressions, which take the viewer on meandering trips around Las Vegas” (Commonwealth-projects.com).

Before we watch the film, the students are asked to write in response to a pair of focused free-writing questions which I directly adopted from fellow Bard Language & Thinking teacher Ramsey McGlazer (who also provided the initial recommendation of this film). In reference to no single work in particular, and in the form of first thoughts, they investigate:

            What is the difference between looking and seeing?

—long writing pause—

            What is the difference between seeing and perceiving?

 

We keep these answers to ourselves for the time being. We turn our eyes to the screen and watch. The film we view is full of surprises. Certain scenes seem to be repeating in visual verbatim, but then suddenly veer elsewhere. The sound is often non-synchronous: it militarizes a scene that would have otherwise been coded as a peaceful pastoral; it domesticizes and personalizes a moment that might otherwise be read as bureaucratic, even strictly mechanical. Often the pictured landscape that is being policed or occupied or targeted through scope-lines is not the one the viewer has been socio-politically trained to anticipate (whether along racial, cultural, geographical, or gendered indices). The “reality” of what’s taking place in the video is often difficult to disaggregate. The bird’s eye camera tracks an affluent gated community in the U.S. desert from on-high while a computer-modified voice talks about missile discharge to impact times and the “beautiful white blossom” of heat signatures.

At one point a narrating voice both asks and answers: “What’s the right target? Everyone!” It’s the drone pilot who is speaking (or at least the actor who is playing a drone pilot), but he’s talking at that moment about a small-time casino heist aimed to stiff gambling men of their wallets, not about the onscreen identification of military targets. An interviewing journalist (or at least an actor playing one) attempts to redirect the drone operator back onto the subject of his occupation: “Alright, so getting back to Afghanistan,” the journalist urges. “Pakistan,” the operator corrects. “Las Vegas,” someone else might respond (but does not), since this is where the operator is actually located as he executes his missions. You can find the film in its entirety here.

After viewing the film, students are asked to recall and describe two scenes in which there is a tension present between either “looking and seeing” or “seeing and perceiving.” It is noted that this can be a tension experienced by the characters onscreen or by the viewer themselves. Students should describe the nature of this tension and how it is cinematically rendered in as much detail as possible. There are so many to choose from, it can be hard to isolate and pick just one or two. One student focuses on a monologue delivered by the muffled voice and censored face of the “real” drone operator who notes: “A lot of guys play video games, believe it or not, in their free time. I guess that’s their way of unwinding. Mine were a lot of role-playing games, flight simulators. I guess Predator is similar to playing a video game, but playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” Another student reminds the class that as we hear this monologue, the camera aerially pans not Pakistan, but a small New England town, circling around its wooden, steepled church and sleepy woods.

Similar to how Ahmed’s essay was used in the previous exercise, Omer Fast’s film becomes a vehicle and lens through which to ask subsequent questions of the work performed in Citizen. In what ways, we inquire, does Rankine’s text ask us to think about the tensions between looking, seeing and perceiving? Where or how is the nature of perception pressured or strained or cast in doubt?

Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? (9 & 63)

Oh my God, I didn’t see you.

You must be in a hurry, you offer.

No, no, no, I really didn’t see you. (77)

 

You tell your neighbor that your friend, whom he has met, is babysitting. He says, no, it’s not him. He’s met your friend and this isn’t that nice young man. Anyway, he wants you to know, he’s called the police. (15)

 

Students reflect on the acts and conditions of racism that Rankine’s text gives body to, those instances of being alternately invisible and hypervisible, of being watched too closely or not seen at all. We think about the recurrent utterance – “what did you say?” – that repeatedly rises to the speaker’s lips when a phrase has been heard perfectly but is unacceptable, unbelievable in its present dimensions or stupidity (the aural equivalent of looking without seeing, of speaking without thinking, of language as filtered through the idiot veil of variously mindless or intentionally sinister prejudices).

The cinematic work of 5,000 Feet is the Best with its resonant, but open, couplings of sound and image, invites us to newly consider how word and image interact with one another in Citizen. We turn to Rankine’s own words (from an interview with Lauren Berlant in Bomb Magazine):

“They [the images] were placed in the text where I thought silence was needed, but I wasn’t interested in making the silence feel empty or   effortless the way a blank page would” (47).

“The use of images in Citizen is meant in part to destabilize the text so both image and text would always have possibilities, both realized and unimagined by me, beyond my curating powers” (48).

In speaking about Wangechi Mutu’s work, whose mixed media collage “Sleeping Heads” appears on Citizen’s final pages, Rankine admires how Mutu’s work “refuses the simplicity of the final read” and reminds us that “relationality is complicated shit” (49). It’s a line I come back to (not aloud, but in my own head) in the classroom all the time, as we collectively struggle to navigate difficult conversations with one another –sometimes successfully rising to the occasion and sometimes failing to, sometimes trusting each other enough to hold space for a fragile mutual exposure and sometimes precluded from doing so by a messy host of non-synchronous reasons the reaches of which are both intimate/personal and the size of geopolitics itself.

“Relationality is complicated shit.”

And the pervasive toxicities of U.S. racism and misogyny run wide and deep.

 

Experiment #3: Performed in the Mind Only

Bonus: Here’s one additional experiment of juxtapositional research that I wish I had done in my classroom. This desire is motivated by the fact that some of the history that Rankine refers to in her text was not known to my students (and some of it could also certainly be more deeply known by me). This included some of the references coming from more recent news and some from the more distant historical past, and was particularly true in relation to the scripts for the Situation videos that dominate the second half of Rankine’s text (designed as multimedia collaborations with her partner John Lucas). I wish I had assigned different students the task of researching and providing further context for some of the figures and events that are named in those pieces and/or to whom they are dedicated. I think it would have provided us with an important opportunity to digest and discuss how knowing that information/larger context might further inform our reading of the text.

For instance, as a student, I might be assigned James Craig Anderson (see Citizen pp. 92-97). I might learn the basic circumstances of his death. I might learn that Anderson was a 49-year-old African American who was murdered in a hate crime in Jackson, Mississippi by 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon who drove his pick-up over the older man on June 26, 2011. Prior to killing Anderson, Dedmon and a half-dozen other white teenagers had robbed and repeatedly beat him.

Looking a bit more deeply, I might learn that with the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the family of Anderson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against seven of the teens involved. I might uncover that this suit gained significant attention within the LGBTQ community because Mississippi law wouldn’t recognize Anderson’s partner of 17 years, who therefore could not participate in the lawsuit.

I might further discover that Anderson’s family asked that the perpetrators be spared the death penalty, writing in an open letter:

 

We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’s killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue… (Griffin & Bronstein, “Family of Alleged Hate-killing Victim Opposes Death Penalty in Case”)

My research might raise some additional questions for the class concerning where and how race and sexual identity and the criminal justice system come into violent contact with one another.

In a recent piece in the Boston Review responding to Trump’s election, Robin D.G. Kelly noted: “It is not a matter of disaffection versus racism or sexism versus fear. Rather, racism, class anxieties, and prevailing gender ideologies operate together, inseparably, or as Kimberlé Crenshaw would say, intersectionally.”

In the spirit of Kelley’s observation, I’d like to close these reflections with one final excerpt from Rankine’s Citizen, from a poem titled “Making Room”: 

You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.

You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.

Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train. You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where why the space won’t lose its meaning.

You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it’s okay, I’m okay, you don’t need to sit here. You don’t need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.

All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?

The soft gray-green of your cotton coat touches the sleeve of him. You are shoulder to shoulder though standing you could feel shadowed. You sit to repair whom who? You erase that thought. And it might be too late for that.

It might forever be too late or too early…. (131-132).

 

In Lauren Berlant’s interview, she posed a question to Rankine about this exact poem to which Rankine replied: “In a way, the train piece was meant to critique the position of wanting to repair historical damage in localized moments. The question for me was: What do I gain by dwelling in the struggling public spaces that wish to obliterate the black male body? The train piece attempts to stage the impossibility of actually putting your body in the place of devastation if it doesn’t belong to you. Or it asks: If its intent is to destroy someone else, but comes out of the same history that made/makes you, does it also belong to you?… If you can’t or won’t do the math, then the space must hold your reactions too. I struggle with wanting to reroute the content I am living, and often its supremacist frame is pushing back, pushing back hard” (47).

Sometimes, I, as a white educator in a largely white institution, operate as part of that supremacist frame, even when the materials I’m teaching or the conversations I’m facilitating attempt to push elsewhere or otherwise. Sometimes, I, as a female liberal arts educator, in a largely male, historically conservative, visual arts university, struggle to enact political interests and investments that are blatantly erased or quietly resisted by the prevailing institutional culture and policy. Sometimes I, as an adjunct educator, in a largely adjunct institution whose self-myths are nonetheless predicated on the rarely-achieved dream of tenure and health benefits, both participate in and fight against the capitalist economic fantasies which so dominantly shape our available means of engagement.

As such, I stand in gratitude for Rankine’s work and for the many ways it invites us (as readers, as students, as educators, as community members) to push back hard in turn, against all the supremacist frames to which we are variously subject and/or which we disproportionately benefit from participating in. And further, for her work’s firm insistence that the transparent self-examination of one’s own positions and privileges must be a critical part of that push and cannot be shirked if we are to succeed. I continue to strive to rise to the occasion of Citizen’s invitations and demands, and to do so not alone, but with the many others with whom I share fraught spaces. To meet ourselves where we are at and to move forward.

It might forever be too late or too early, but it’s the now, the time we have, the places we’re in.

 

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, Sarah. “Evidence” posted on her blog feministkilljoys on July 12, 2016. https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/07/12/evidence/

Commonwealth Projects, online description of collaboration on Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best.

http://commonwealth-projects.com/project/omer-fast-5000-feet-is-the-best/

Fast, Omer (Director). 5,000 Feet is the Best, Commonwealth Projects, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-8dW1dg7KY

Griffin, Drew and Scott Bronstein, “Family of Alleged Hate-killing Victim Opposes Death Penalty in Case,” CNN.com, Sept 19, 2011. http://www.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/09/14/mississippi.hate.crime/index.html

Kelley, Robin D.G. “Trump Says Go Back, We Say Fight Back” Boston Review, Nov 15, 2016.

http://bostonreview.net/forum/after-trump/robin-d-g-kelley-trump-says-go-back-we-say-fight-back

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

__ Interview with Claudia Rankine by Lauren Berlant, Bomb Magazine, Number 129, Fall 2014, pgs 45-49

__ “On Being Seen: An Interview with Claudia Rankine from Ferguson” by Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker, August 22, 2014

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/seen-interview-claudia-rankine-ferguson

 

 

 

 

[1] While Bard’s website reports that only 51% of the incoming class this year self-identifies as white, most workshops of thirteen students do not have more than three participants of color, and often these students are internationals.

[2] It seems likely to be that Bartholomae does not reference The Color Purple casually—he is referencing a presumed identitarian and experiential gap between his students and Alice Walker.

[3] In part to reverse this power dynamic, or complicate these kinds of queries, Rankine has decided to use her MacArthur genius grant to start an institute “The Racial Imaginary Institute” for the study of whiteness and the production of racial constructs.