Friday, September 4, 2015

Thoughts about Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a multi-form examination of the ways in which white Americans dehumanize African-Americans in small, daily, escalating ways.  The forms in this book include poetry, short essays, and visual art. Rankine begins with small stories of micro-aggressions  -- friends who make “just” an off-hand comment about race, service professionals who come to conclusions based on race, strangers who shift away on public transportation. All these “small” events collect in the life of the African-American narrator. Then the book turns to larger, more sensational events (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the “Jena Six” assault…), which Rankine writes as “scripts.” (And what are scripts? Part of a performance? A pre-written story? So much to discuss!). Photographs, paintings, and other images connect the different poems and essays.

One of the more arresting images from the book -- "Jim Crow Road" by Michael David Murphy. You can google the street in Flowery Branch, GA. Of course, Rankine's point is that this street is everywhere.
Some of you know that I teach classes about education policy. Much of the conversation in these classes centers on the achievement gap, which is the space between white and more affluent kids’ test scores and the test scores of minority kids and kids who struggle with poverty. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that my students’ increasingly relentless and well-intentioned focus on test score data has yielded an unfortunate consequence: they are not really talking about children as human beings anymore. Take out the word “child,” and substitute “growth rate.”

Quantitative data is important. It certainly lets us look at different variables across time and space. It lets us compare contexts. But when data becomes the end goal, it is easy to forget that real people exist under the numbers. And when we don’t think about real people – when we separate physically and emotionally – it becomes easier to dehumanize. 

Please listen to This American Life's "The Problem We All Live With, Part 1" episode if you haven’t already. There’s also a compelling Part 2, but Part 1 knocked me to the floor. That is what we get when we dehumanize. That is the society we create.

What I love about Citizen: An American Lyric is that it asks the reader to sit down and listen. Really listen. Citizenship is a common project, and we owe it to ourselves to take this critique seriously.

You can find interesting interviews with Rankine all over the place. I liked this one. I also liked this essay she wrote in the New York Times.


Serena said...

I really loved this book. I agree with your comments here about citizenship and the focus on test scores is over the top.

If you review poetry or would like to, I'd love to have you on my new company's blog tour for Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust. Here's the information on that:

I started the firm after 8 years working with poets through Savvy Verse & Wit blog. I hope you'll take a look. Glad to have found your blog and someone else who reads poetry.

jennifer said...

Hi Serena,

Thanks for visiting and also for thinking about me for your blog tour. I'm afraid that my experience with poetry is very limited, and I wouldn't be the right person for these reviews. However, I'm excited to check your blog out and learn more about it.