“Poetry has no investment in anything besides openness. It’s not arguing a point. It’s creating an environment.” —Claudia Rankine
When what is happening in the world becomes too much to bear, when I am exhausted from listening to the news and feel hopeless or helpless, I often turn to poetry. When the days are dark, poetry can illuminate the darkness.
As we are all too aware, it is a difficult—to put it lightly—time in America right now, a moment that has brought ignorance and hatred to light. This hatred and ignorance has always simmered below the surface, remnants from the history of how America was built, a residue that remains ingrained in the fabric of our society today. But while Obama was our president, light was not shone on this lingering evil. There was too much progress to be made, work to be done, moments to celebrate. Now, that has changed.
Though it has changed, though what happened in Charlottesville sickens, saddens, horrifies, or enrages us (even if it doesn’t surprise some of us), we still must hold on to what we know to be true: that fascists and white supremacists are not the majority. We—people who do not hate, people who come from various backgrounds, people who seek equality and justice for all, not few—are the majority. We the people will not stand by. This is not our America.
But what surprises me is that so many people are shocked by the retaliation that happened in Charlottesville when the statue of Robert E. Lee was to come down. That people say, “This is not how America is. This is not what our country believes.” Though times have changed, though the institution of slavery is gone, it’s not over. America’s history is written in blood. The blood of Black people.
It hurts to write it, to think it, it is a reality that we all wish to sweep under the rug, but nonetheless, it is true. And in order to remove this hatred and ignorance that remains, we must acknowledge the past and our present. In order to envision and create a future that is devoid of racism, we must acknowledge racism. And one way to do this is through art.
Art is the great interpreter, the great equalizer, a mode of seeing and thinking and living that can bind us all together. We must bear witness, and art can help us witness that which we don’t wish to see, or don’t understand, or can’t articulate. Art can help us feel deeply, whether in recognition or new understanding, and art can help us heal.
I have felt this way for a long time, since I was small and started making “art” of my own—that it can heal. But as you grow older you can forget this, lose sight of it, minimize its power. But when I read Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, in college, my belief in art, in words, as a way to see, was fortified. Art as a way to define, articulate, transcend. And after Charlottesville and the current president’s response, I turned to Rankine’s book of poetry again.
If you haven’t yet read Citizen, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2015 and has been featured in many independent bookstores’ displays in the wake of Charlottesville, I urge you to. Even if you don’t usually read poetry, if you feel it’s too obscure or weird or whatever; it will make you feel. Whether you identify as a woman or as a person of color or neither, it will change you. And that’s what we need right now, change. We need people seeking to feel, not to desensitize (tempting as it is). We need people either seeking to understand or people articulating their experiences. We need conversations, both on and off the page, so that we may exact actions that are thoughtful, purposeful. Actions that remain peaceful yet are mighty.
Rankine’s words are powerful in times like these. She articulates the Black experience, her experience, in deeply personal yet universal terms. Her poetry is not simply for people of color. Her words are for us all. To see, to hear, to witness. You may be thinking, How does a poet translate her own personal experience into words that address everyone? That make everyone feel? Perhaps you think, Well I’m not a Black woman; how is this book for me?
Rankine compels the reader to feel both implicit and accused when reading Citizen. Throughout her poetry she uses the second person: “you.” “You” as the reader, as the speaker, and also as the spoken to. And we are all of these things. We are all living in a time where some of us, depending on the color of our skin, are in danger of being shot by the police. We are all living in a time where many of us are disadvantaged and disenfranchised because we are Black. You, whether you are Black or otherwise, are a part of the whole:
“You are you even before you
grow into understanding you
are not anyone, worthless,
not worth you.”
Is it comfortable to read this, to feel this? Of course not. But being comfortable hasn’t gotten us anywhere. And many of us don’t have the luxury of turning away from that which makes us uncomfortable. It’s when we are uncomfortable that we must seek other modes of being. The discomfort we feel when we read Citizen, or when we are simply alive in this country, is exactly what warrants examination. Why are we uncomfortable? What institutions or situations create these spaces of pain? If we turn away from asking these questions, we allow these systems that create suffering to survive.
I was an advocate for this book as soon as I read it, and now? I believe we need this book now more than ever. With a president like ours, we need books that voice what is true and real, words that mean something. Though it is difficult to acknowledge it, I will say that there is one—only one—good thing to come from this current presidency. The good that has come from this dire situation is that it has brought the hate and inequality that still exists in our country to light. When the darkness of our country remains in the dark, it festers. When we don’t talk about the remnants of the “peculiar institution” that still stain the fabric of our society, we don’t, won’t, and can’t achieve growth, change, and healing. Now that it has risen up to the surface from the depths, we must confront it.
I wish you a wild, free life.