Poet Claudia Rankine's multiple award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) artfully documents the experience of being Black and embattled by racist aggressions, both macro and micro. Some of these aggressions can be so very, very subtle as to make the person on the receiving end wonder if she is imagining things. In a society in deep, purposeful, willful denial about the legacy and continued pervasiveness of racism, Black people walk around with original trauma compounded, on the daily, in numerous ways that can tear at our overall well-being. Rankine brings all of this out in her book, and it was exciting to see this literary hero in person and hear her read passages from Citizen last night in an Unterberg Poetry Center event at 92Y.
Billed as "a conversation on art, trauma and social justice," the evening opened well with Rankine's introductory remarks and reading but took an odd turn as Cleonie White and Sarah Stemp, clinicians from the William Alanson White Institute for Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology, joined the author onstage. That might have seemed a reasonable pairing, given Rankine's concern for the way that racism threatens the health of individuals as well as societies. However, it turned awkward, particularly as Stemp delivered a long, labored statement before the increasingly restive audience.
Rankine betrayed no impatience, but the multigenerational, largely white crowd voiced displeasure several times, yelling "Ask questions!" at Stemp and even criticizing one another when, after something like 75 minutes, the floor was finally opened for their own questions. Even before the outbursts, though, you could sense an unhappy vibe around the hall. It felt less like a dignified literary event and more like a music gig where the crowd realizes it isn't getting what it came for.
At one point, Rankine mentioned the concept of "ethical loneliness"--that undercurrent of isolation--when you live in a society diametrically opposed to your ethics. Her observation was not only intellectual, it had a personal feeling tone that reached me. I got my pen out and made a note just as Rankine took matters further, adding how hard it is, in that situation, "if you don't have people...or you can't pay for people."
That got White's attention. She quickly responded that the Institute accepts sliding scale, a defensive rejoinder that seemed to come from out of nowhere. How had White envisioned this event, then? As a marketing tool?
I turned to the friendly woman on my right and whispered, "This is just not gelling. I don't know what's going on here." She agreed--"It's like they didn't communicate beforehand"--and made an early exit. I hung on but left a little bit into the audience Q&A.
So, what to tell you? Read Citizen: An American Lyric. Just read it.
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