On Sept. 25, Rhodes hosted acclaimed poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine as part of the Rhodes Reads program. Before a packed house in McNeill Concert Hall, she discussed her 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine’s award-winning book is a synergistic poem interspersed with images and artworks from various artists that explores instances of racism in everyday life, as well as America’s history of race and citizenship. In her remarks, Rankine described the process that brought this multimedia poem to life: “Citizen, for me, is an attempt to collaborate with people I don’t know.”
Rankine, a Yale University professor, coupled passages from her book with slides on a projected screen. Her presentation involved America’s painful and complex history of race, citizenship, and policing. She brought both laughter and complete silence to the hall with her relevant and provocative talk. She challenged the audience to reflect on their own reluctance to confront these issues, stating, “We are trained to not make other people uncomfortable, even in the face of racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
In her work, Rankine engages with the past, but with the future in mind; the issues she discussed remain relevant today, demonstrating that the conversation is not yet over. After her talk, the audience participated in this conversation with a Q&A. In one response, Rankine spoke about the responsibility we all carry as part of this discourse: “I didn’t want to suggest that by ending the book, anything was resolved.”
The Rhodes Reads program invites incoming students to read a selected work over the summer before coming to Rhodes. Students are also required to read other book selections as part of the college’s First-Year Experience, a year-long, integrative program that includes weekly seminar classes and a wide range of other events and activities to help students explore what it means to be an informed, active, and engaged student-citizen at Rhodes and in Memphis.
By Swaneet Mand ’18