Poetry can confront the racism that white supremacy pins on every black life, esteemed poet and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Claudia Rankine told a sold out audience at The Clarice late Thursday.
The free event included poetry readings, a conversation with Sheri Parks, an associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, and a question-and-answer period. The theme of white supremacy and the struggle to dismantle it was pervasive throughout.
“Through language we can bring back … what is actually real, rather than this constructed society where white dominance has to stay in place at all costs,” Rankine said.
The poet discussed how consistent racism is throughout black life, whether you are as successful as Michelle Obama or lose a loved one to police violence like Tamir Rice’s mother.
To inspire one poem in her acclaimed poetry anthology Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine asked a friend about a time racism interfered with an everyday activity, Rankine said. The friend told her about how she went to an appointment with a new therapist who ordered her to get off of the property before finding out she was the patient.
Rankine also showed a video that interposed her narrated poetry with police officers’ brutal treatment of African Americans.
“When I watch those videos, what I’m seeing, what I’m paying attention to is white rage,” Rankine said later in the event. “And unfortunately we can’t look at that without seeing the death, but if we don’t look at the rage, when are we gonna be able to dismantle it? Because right now, according to the justice system, it doesn’t exist.”
The university hosted Rankine as the first guest of this season’s “WORLDWISE: Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series.”
“We invite speakers to engage in thought-provoking lectures and conversations about their ideas, their bodies of work, the stories that inform our understanding of what it means to be worldwise in the 21st century,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.
It was also the keynote event for “Democracy Then and Now: Citizenship and Public Education,” a two-month initiative that examines the role of public education.
There were approximately 200 attendees, many of them being student fans.
“I’m starstruck right now … so please forgive me if I run on,” one student said before asking Rankine a question.
Rankine’s work includes five poetry books and two plays. Citizen: An American Lyric was a New York Times bestseller and 2014 National Book Award finalist. She is currently the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University where she is teaching a course called Constructions of Whiteness.
“I think of Rankine as our 21st century’s fearless poet, unsettling the territory between poetry and social critique, calling into question the possibilities for what poetry can be,” Professor Mary Helen Washington said, introducing Rankine.
During the conversational period of the event, Parks said she felt obliged to ask how Rankine felt upon learning that she won the MacArthur “Genius” Grant last week.
Rankine turned to the audience and smiled.
“I was happy,” she said.
The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
Featured Photo Credit: Poet and recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant Claudia Rankine meets with students in the special events room of McKeldin. When discussing the title of her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine stated, “You don’t have to be my friend, but we are here together and we’re here together in this capacity … How much can we rest on that label? Are there tow Americas in terms of citizens?” (Cassie Osvatics/Bloc Photographer)
Teri West is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.