Today at 5:30 Claudia Rankine gave a reading of Citizen: An American Lyric at Eastern Michigan University. Intellectual though she is, I found her to be so open and personable, I cannot imagine anyone not falling in love with her. Through all the heaviness of her subject material–that is, everyday racism, intended or not, felt specifically by African Americans masked underneath the tight phrase “micro-aggressions”–she put an ease in the air where some people come in with an automatic feeling of tension.
She went through her book based on the images she had interspersed throughout the poetry, explaining the specific reasons for each one’s inclusion. Now and then she digressed but never without intention of making an applicable point. While the short narratives I had assumed were based off of interviews with people she knew, I was surprised at the amount of instances that involved Rankine herself, both in the book and in her digressions.
In the conclusion she showed a video made by her husband with her voice over. While not quoting directly from the line in Citizen, the whole video’s footage echoed “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying” (135). Rankine never used the word “scapegoating” but that is what white supremacy does. White prejudice, white threat, and white violence onto others is projected onto black communities who are then seen as the threats, the dangerous ones, the violent ones. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson–who advocated for freeing slaves though never found it economical for him to do the same–Rankine quoted, “‘After we free the slaves, we should send them back. Because they will have every right to want to kill us.'” This, Rankine said, is a piece of white fear that is perpetuated to this day, to keep the projection of potential for violence on blacks instead of whites.
At the end of the reading, the first question was asked, “What can I do to help?” I sensed the whole auditorium hold its breath, everyone feeling uncomfortable at the ignorance of the question. Rankine, bless her soul, gave a fantastic response that pointed out the privilege and why someone might feel they are able to ask the question “What can I do to help?” Because it is not a “black problem.” Racism is a problem for humanity as a whole. And as the man tried to recover himself later and the rest of the audience squirmed in our seats as he backtracked, a thought came to mind. That question is ignorant and I may be laughing at him inside my head, but have I ever had that question myself? I may have never verbalized it or made a fool of myself, but I have had a white-guilt reaction in the past with that question in mind. My hope is that he doesn’t take any humiliation he felt too much to heart, but rather actually listened to what Rankine said, because we all need to “self diagnose,” as she says, and realize where the problem is really coming from. That it is something everyone should be dealing with and working on, so that as one person changes at a time, how we view the world and interact with others like and unlike ourselves is filled more and more with empathy and respect.