This is a short piece I wrote in response to a powerful reading and presentation done my one of my greatest inspirations: Claudia Rankine. I highly recommend her short book, “Citizen: An American Lyric” for anyone trying to learn; trying to think amongst some of the pain our society continually experiences. This piece only reflects on a tiny moment of her presentation:
Reflection On Claudia Rankine’s Reading
Claudia Rankine’s reading on Tuesday night was one of the most sincerely provoking experience of my life. Throughout the reading, she used a slideshow to display images from her book, among others, and took frequent pauses from her moving prose to discuss them. The discussion and images that proved most challenging, engaging, and contradictory for me was when she addressed the taxidermy piece (Rankine 19). She presented this image along side another taxidermy piece, of an antelope, sitting tall, with a stoic black woman’s face on it. She explained that when she asked the artist for permission to use the image (the one she ended up using in her book), the artist read Citizen and created the latter piece as a “commission.” (see below)
The contradiction that Rankine presents here, is that this artist perceived her work to be about how black people, specifically women, ought to be proud. She viewed the work as an almost glorification of strength in the face of tragic oppression. To this, Rankine poses the question, “Why must black people be strong enough to overcome, to bear this?” In her discussion of this story and these images, she presented innocent questions, demanding the listener to understand the work more deeply. Upon this encounter, I revisited the image that she had in her book: fragile, frightened, human.
These images present a stark contradiction when presented side by side, at first, a distinction between pride and fear, yet after a closer look, the present deeper contradictions still. The distinction between stereotype and humanity became continually apparent to me throughout this presentation, specifically at this moment. Rankine’s presentation seemed to display through this that is is just as easy of a trap to fall into to glorify as to condemn, and that honest recognition of mutual humanity is the missing piece of our experience of race in this country.
Another moment in Rankine’s reading that addressed these holes in how we respond to race in this country, was when she showed the photo of the Rutger’s women’s basketball team. She later discovered that the popular, reproduced image actually covered up the white basketball player (receiving an apology with her teammates), with the Rutger’s logo, in her words, as if to say, “This isn’t about you.” To which she replied, “How is race not about white people?” The audience laughed uncomfortably. She spoke this moment without judgement, but with the explicit display of mutual responsibility. These two questions expand how race is typically regarded in this country, and they allow the reader or listener to defy the usual traps of victimhood, oppression, glorification, and perhaps worst of all, dismissal.
In a word, Rankine’s reading was contradiction. She embodied and yet transcended race. Fragility and great strength grew from her words. The work did not accuse, yet was unyielding evidence of pain, responsibility, and the authentic nature of individual humanity. As she ended both her book and her presentation, how she ends the work that is never ending, “It wasn’t a match, it was a lesson.”