Race, Books, Social Justice

How Claudia Rankine calls for us to grow as citizens with her writing

Claudia Rankine, writer and OG Black Lives Matter advocate, is my hero.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I remember the time I met Claudia Rankine at last year’s London Literature Festival with pride and wonder. Starstruck with her resolute and wise energy, I remember standing in front of her,  gushing about Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen before asking if she would mind signing my copy of the former title. Thankfully, despite my rambling inability to contain my amazement, she happily didn’t mind at all.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1963, Rankine earned her BA at Williams College and her MFA at Columbia University. While writing her poetry, she also teaches at Yale University. She co-edits the American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language anthology series with Lisa Sewell. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014), are part of her An American Lyric series in progress.

Rankine’s writing sets the groundwork for why #BlackLivesMatter is such a relevant, important movement that should include all of us. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, she recalls what her political state of existence when she watched the news. She talks about the time George Bush forgot whether two or three people were convicted of dragging a black man to his death in Texas:

… in Bush’s case, I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t remember because you don’t care.

I forget things too. It makes me sad… The sadness is not really about George W… the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter. Or, as there are billions of lives, my sadness is alive alongside the recognition that billions of lives never mattered.

Rankine voices the inequality that has always affected people’s lives, even before #BlackLivesMatter came to fruition. She holds readers accountable for the injustices that benefit the racially-privileged who are, in turn, actively indifferent to those injustices.

Years after the publication of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine advocates not only for the rights of black people to be recognized but also for white people to use awareness of their privilege to advocate for them. She states that the sociologically-engineered inequality of our society is further perpetrated by the problem of whiteness: “[its] inability to see how intertangled it is with white supremacy” and how there is a continued “investment in centralizing whiteness” everywhere.

Rankine points out the problematic behavior of statements that dominate white discourse on the internet. For example, many white people often state that it isn’t their responsibility to right the wrongs of their slave-owning ancestors. Furthermore, vitriolic responses of “All Lives Matter!” to the #BlackLivesMatter movement prove that blindness to the connection between whiteness and white supremacy. Reactions such as these show a further cultural investment in whiteness, whether via white people’s indifference to the oppression of black people or their societally-imposed desire to maintain the status quo.

Rankine does not blame President Trump for reverting a utopian social order of “post-racial” “equality” into regression. Instead, she classifies him as “a symptom” of white supremacy. She states that the election of Trump granted repressed white males permission to voice their disdain for political correctness. 

Praised as “the book of a generation” by the Sunday Times, Citizen takes Rankine’s critique of white supremacy further. Rankine highlights that critique not only in her words but also in their visual presentation. Most notably, she commemorates victims of police brutality such as Sandra Bland and Michael Brown in her “In Memory of” wall. As the wall fades out,  she leaves us with:

Because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

Pages with In Memory Of people of color who were killed in recent years on left page, and on right page there are the words Because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying
Pages with In Memory Of people of color who were killed in recent years on left page. On right page, the words: Because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying

The isolation of the aforementioned lines further accentuates Rankine’s point about the sociological investment in whiteness. By placing those three lines on their own page, she forces us to focus on the statement they form. Her prose forces us to think about how black people are at the mercy of white anger. Moreover, she forces us to confront the reality that white entitlement matters more than black peoples’ lives.

One year later, I am in awe of Rankine and her presence in our lives. As artist and advocate, Rankine uses her love for language to raise her voice above the cacophony of systemic brutality. She reminds us of the complex evolution of racist behavior, calling for us to know, grow, and be better. May she be a testament of Dylan Thomas’ urge for us to not “go gently into that good night” but to “rage against the dying of the light.”

May we be a generation that carries her torch of truth into our futures.