Established in 1991, the Forward Prizes for Poetry award three poets each year who extend the boundaries of modern poetry and have the capability to reach broad audiences. Last On Sept. 28, Jamaican poet and professor Claudia Rankine won the organization’s most prestigious Best Collection award for her modern poetic essay “Citizen.” Along with 10,000 euros, Rankine now has another prize to add to her already impressive collection garnered from the book. At times disorienting, at other times universally understandable, and at all times chilling, “Citizen” explores the context of racism in the modern world, where inequality is more often than not found through everyday subtleties and internalized wounds, rather than screaming attacks that demand legislative reform.
Rankine focuses on the concept of micro-aggressions, and channels her stories through a second-person perspective. She gathers all of the discomfort, pain, exhaustion and disorientation felt on the receiving end of racism, and projects it onto her readers. “Citizen” is concerned with everyday acts of racism that are all too often hidden and brushed over, like when the cashier “wants to know if you think your card will work,” but “didn’t use it on the friend who went before you.” Or, when you arrive at a meeting and are met with “I didn’t know you were black!” It calls attention to racism that is commonly — and incorrectly — believed to be nonexistent. Poor attempts at engaging in supposed “black people language,” blatant acts of disrespect and even complete oversights of people of color are all forgiven far too often. Rankine debunks the common myth that intention is more important than effect. In reality, the effects of subtle comments are harmful and their pain is easily absorbed, no matter how well-meaning.
“Citizen” rarely reads like traditional poetry. Instead, the book follows an often disjointed approach that, at times, nearly contradicts traditional poetry entirely. Rankine’s tone is overwhelmingly simplistic; she addresses feelings of invisibility within the black community, and plays with silence, with the unspoken. Certain moments — like Rankine’s discussion of the negative media depiction and subsequent demonization of Serena Williams — read absolutely like an essay. In other sections, Rankine maintains this essay-like quality while filling her pages with metaphor. This carefully constructed combination is akin to currently popularized Tumblr-esque poetry (Lang Leav comes to mind). Rankine’s voice is fresh, modern and accessible — all of which serves to bring “Citizen” to the attention of a diverse audience. And a broad audience is an incredibly important part of helping a project like this reach its full potential.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect is the page that receives an update with every new release. “Citizen” was first printed in 2014, in memory of Jordan Davis. In the most recent edition, however, Rankine has edited this page to include names “in memory” of black men killed by police officers, such as Michael Brown. The chilling part is the full list is blank “in memory of” lines running down the rest of the page. Rankin very clearly suggests that, as time progresses, this page will be filled by the names of more black men killed by the police. According to a Washington Post database, as of August 2015, there have been 28 unarmed black people killed in the past year. Rankine’s suggestion was all too correct.
I am a privileged person in alliance and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And, despite all of my previous experiences that have led me to this, I will never and can never fully understand the depths of racism’s wounds, because I have not personally experienced them. However, that has not stopped me from trying. It is imperative that people work tirelessly and ruthlessly towards empathy and understanding on a personal level. “Citizen” personalizes racism, contributing to a culture of support for those previously affected by inequality and misunderstandings, and a culture of understanding for those of the privileged party who can benefit from this insight into others’ experiences and the resulting emotional consequences.
I cannot encourage anyone reading this to pick up a copy of “Citizen” enough. Rankine explores invisibility, absorption, identity and even physical manifestations as they respond to the very current, very constant stream of everyday racism. Thought-provoking and immediate, “Citizen” is activist art resonating eerily well with the current state of racial inequality. And, with continued praise and attention, “Citizen” has the potential to evoke widespread change by encouraging discussion, empathy and understanding.