by Claire Oxford
Claudia Rankine’s powerful, provocative words in Citizen: An American Lyric engaged listeners on Sunday during a marathon reading of the book in the back of the Kenyon Bookstore.
After Rankine canceled her reading, originally scheduled for March 23, due to health reasons, Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt discussed the possibility of holding a marathon reading of her work with her colleague Professor of English Jennifer Clarvoe.
They envisioned an inclusive, engaging event, in which all members of the audience would be invited to read excerpts of the text, which is centered on moments of racism, largely in America. It emphasizes themes of marginalized narratives, racial prejudice, invisibility and what it means to be a U.S. citizen.
One aspect of Citizen Heidt thought affected the bookstore audience directly during the reading itself was the second-person “you” Rankine often repeats in her piece.
“That’s going to hit your ear differently, but she’s talked about wanting to bring everybody into a community and a conversation and a shared responsibility for everything she’s writing about in the book,” Heidt said. Rankine places everyday moments of racism — such as when a man cuts in front of one of Rankine’s speakers and, embarrassed and flustered, apologizes and repeats, “I didn’t see you” — alongside narratives that capture the pain institutional racism and police brutality inflict.
The event kicked off at 2 p.m. with President Sean Decatur taking the podium and reading the majority of Citizen’s first section out of seven. About 15 people were in attendance at the beginning, but by the end of the reading, two and a half hours later, only this reporter, Clarvoe and Heidt remained.
Decatur praised Citizen and the marathon reading, saying he personally related to several passages and enjoyed taking part in sharing the literary work with members of the community.
“Citizen is a marvel — it manages to capture issues that are pressing and timely, yet also capture timeless questions and feelings about human nature and human relationships, all with a beautiful lyricism that completely blurs the line between poetry and prose,” Decatur wrote in an email to the Collegian.
The dwindling numbers at the event did not faze Clarvoe or Heidt, who felt it still had an impact on those who attended earlier, or those who may have heard about the event and become curious about Rankine’s work.
“I like the idea that we were going through the whole thing for the sake of those who were with us at the beginning, and maybe this is selfish but the reading holds a space, it marks an occasion for something to happen,” Clarvoe said. “So it’s sort of the ripple effect of the event.”
Heidt and Clarvoe also had audio recordings of Rankine meant to accompany short films her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, made that document stories of hers titled “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” “Stop-and-Frisk,” “October 10, 2006 / World Cup” and “July 29-August 18, 2014 / Making Room.” The dates correspond to when these respective events — Trayvon Martin’s death, the date when, during the 2006 World Cup, France’s Zinedine Zidane head-butted an opposing team member after being called racial slurs, and finally the date marking a series of exchanges on public transport. While the reading’s organizers did not show these videos, the audio recordings included sound effects and accompanying music that added to the narratives. For example, during “Stop-and-Frisk” the sounds of sirens amplified the emotion of Rankine’s voice repeating phrases such as, “get on the ground, get on the ground now” and “there’s only one guy, who’s always the guy fitting the description.”
Heidt expressed her combined optimism and ambivalence towards the event’s impact, “I know that we’re not going to wake up Monday and magically we’ve read this book and everything’s better,” she said. “I think the more people who have their thinking provoked or their thought provoked, the better chance we have at something shifting.”