Renowned poet visits Northeastern, discusses poetry and racism

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Renowned poet visits Northeastern, discusses poetry and racism

Claudia Rankine, renowned poet and author, spoke to Northeastern students about her life and poetry./Photo by Leila Habib

Claudia Rankine, renowned poet and author, spoke to Northeastern students about her life and poetry./Photo by Leila Habib

Claudia Rankine, renowned poet and author, spoke to Northeastern students about her life and poetry./Photo by Leila Habib

Claudia Rankine, renowned poet and author, spoke to Northeastern students about her life and poetry./Photo by Leila Habib

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By Jenna Ciccotelli, sports editor

“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?’”

Claudia Rankine read aloud from her poem titled “You are in the dark, in the car…,” one of the pieces in her latest book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” in a nearly-filled West Village F classroom Thursday night. The poetry collection and photo book, published in October 2014, examines the origins and consequences of everyday racism in the United States.

Rankine, a California-based poet from Kingston, Jamaica, said the inspiration for her hybrid style of prose and lyric poetry was conversations she had with her friends.

“I said to [my friends], tell me a moment when you were going about your ordinary day among your friends and your colleagues and suddenly racism snuck up on you,” Rankine said.

“Citizen” has received numerous honors and awards. It was named a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, as well the winner of the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. Most recently, “Citizen” was awarded the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, a $10,000 award presented by the Library of Congress. Rankine was also the recipient of a $625,000 MacArthur Genius grant, which she will use to build the “Racial Imaginary Institute,” which she said will provide a platform for artists to explore the concept of race.

Rankine opened the lecture by reading her poem “After David Hammons.” Hammons is a conceptual artist based in New York whose piece “In the Hood,” which features the hood from a sweatshirt nailed on a wall, is on the cover of “Citizen”.

Nicole Aljoe, the undergraduate program director for the English department at Northeastern, said “Citizen” provides a platform to begin conversations about racism.

Art is not just an esoteric extra, but a crucial way for us to understand ourselves and the inherent complexities of our world,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘The world is a racist place,’ but quite another to be confronted by its quotidian-ness in a story, poem or image.”

“Citizen” opens with a prose piece describing a middle school classroom scene where a white student cheats off of a black student’s paper, a system which the teacher, Sister Evelyn, never figures out. The piece explores the idea of race as a sort of invisibility cloak.

“Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there,” the piece ends.

The work is followed by Michael David Murphy’s 2007 photograph of Jim Crow Road, which is found in a town less than 50 miles north of Atlanta. Rankine said the photograph depicts a blatant demonstration of everyday racism.

“No matter how you think about race, you cannot think about it without thinking about segregation,” she said. “Which school gets funding? Which community should have the polluted water? Who gets to be rescued during Katrina? Who gets to drown? Segregation forever.”

Mina Nikolopoulou, an English doctoral candidate and a lecturer in Northeastern’s English department, said Rankine’s personal anecdotes and reflections were a highlight of the lecture.

“Her performance made palpable the nuances and contours of racism in American culture,” she said.

Rankine continued to read her poetry and explain the backstory behind the pieces, highlighting the feelings of the subjects of the poems—including herself—using colloquial language and asides to elicit gasps and laughter from the audience.

She told the story of a time she went to lunch with a white, female colleague who went on to tell her, to the surprise of the audience, that Rankine was only given a teaching position at a college because the school “need[ed] a black person.” Rankine said 20 years later, she saw the woman again and told her that what she had said two decades ago was wrong.

“This is the determining factor in American history,” she said. “Whiteness can exclude others.”

Rankine had a piece of art commissioned for the book: “Little Girl” by Kate Clark. Clark uses animal pelts to create sculptures depicting human faces on animal bodies. The piece in question features a deer. Rankine said she was inspired by Pamela Ramsey Taylor, a West Virginia county employee, who called former First Lady Michelle Obama “a [sic] ape in heels” in a Facebook post.

“[I thought] instead of fighting this thing, being an animal, why don’t we just choose our own animal?” she said.

Rankine said her choice of a deer to represent African-Americans was symbolic. She compared victims of racism to deer in headlights.

“You feel wounded, you feel devastated, you’re down on the ground,” she said. “It doesn’t even matter how you negotiate the moment. You still feel like that.”

In her book, Rankine wanted to use a famous photograph of a lynching that took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. The archive group that owned the image was no longer selling the rights to replicate the photo because they wanted to prevent use of the image to promote racism, Rankine said. After sending the group a copy of “Citizen”, they agreed to let her publish the photo.

But Rankine brought a different perspective to the often-reproduced photo. She used photo editing software to remove the victims of the lynching from the photo, so all that was left in the photo was a large group of spectators.

“The real problems are these people,” she said. “They’re the ones who have given birth to some of you. We don’t talk about them. You grew up in those households. You internalize white dominance. You walk around thinking, ‘I am better than those other people because I am white.’”

Rankine also shed light on important moments regarding race in recent popular culture, including Caroline Wozniacki mimicking Serena Williams in 2012—Williams later called Wozniacki her friend and advised her to “do something different next time”—and MSNBC radio host Don Imus’ racially charged insults toward the 2007 Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

Rankine called upon the crowd to take responsibility for the culture that allows everyday racism  to thrive.

“Everything about our culture has said this will happen,” Rankine said. “If we could begin to back up from the spectacle into the day to day, into the ordinary […] where we ourselves are doing the things that lead to those larger things. Look around. These are the juries. We are the jury. We are the people out here.”