On Thursday, Oct. 9, Claudia Rankine spoke at the University of Rhode Island’s 2018 Honors Colloquium about different poets and artists that affected her writing.
Rankine is a writer of numerous critically acclaimed pieces, ranging from plays to poetry. Specifically, her book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” is a bestselling novel that uses many poems, essays and images to tell the story of what it means to be an American in society today.
She started out the night with the topic of the universality of whiteness, which is the idea that white people are somewhat afraid to speak about race. In addition, she said white people are just standard normal people.
“This conscious or unconscious simplicity that the idea that white life is the standard for normal life and the characters and personas in the work of white writers are people motivated by anything but the maintenance of their own whiteness and power remains a mystery to me,” Rankine said.
Rankine continued with a small section about a poet she deeply admired named Paul Celan. Celan and his family were persecuted for being Jewish, and his father and mother were executed in a Concentration Camp. Celan went on to live in France and died by committing suicide in 1970. Rankine was captured by the honesty of Celan’s work and the horrors of what happened to the Jewish people.
“I bring up Celan, not to create an equivalence between the Holocaust and our own homegrown histories of genocide, slavery and mass incarceration, but to show the formal chances Celan made to his work to resist the amnesia, silencing and totalizing that threatened to engulf the narrative around the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews,” Rankine said.
The next poet mentioned was Walt Whitman. Rankine also stated that she believed he was a racist.
“[Walt Whitman] did not believe in slavery,” Rankine said. “[Whitman] thought slavery was beneath them as human beings, but he was as racist as the next guy.”
She said that these two ideals of how Whitman felt about slavery versus his feelings about black people should be differentiated. According to Rankine, Whitman referred to slaves as a “black tide threatening white working men.”
She wanted to highlight the difference in his ideals using the term “troubled knowing,” meaning that Whitman knew something negative was coming with the way that society appeared to him.
Rankine followed with a talk about Gertrude Stein, another poet she was enamored by. She commented on Stein’s style of writing by calling it “troubled knowing,” just as she did with Whitman. Stein was a very famous poet who wrote many famous works, including “Sacred Emily.”
“[Stein was] someone who needed to re-calibrate her troubled knowing,” Rankine said. “Her own status as a queer Jewish woman might have led her to design her language to lose its referential limits.”
Rankine referred to the “troubled knowing” style because Stein tried to dehistoricize certain ethnic slurs through her writings, similar to other famous works of hers such as the famous line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” However, according to Rankine, her use of those ethnic slurs does not work in that context. Stein herself did not look down on people of color but she used those words and the concept of the black person to feed her own different narratives.
The next poet Rankine spoke about was Allen Ginsburg. Rankine spoke on Ginsburg’s apparent doubt and confusion surrounding blacks. “Were they to be feared or admired? He was of several minds. They were romantic savages, downtrodden workers and the coolest of Americans.”
Ginsburg was an avid user of the n-word describe black music and prostitutes, but only referred to men and women of color as black., In many ways, he was similar to Whitman in terms of their feelings towards blacks and how they referred to people of color.
The first woman Rankine referenced was Harryette Mullen. Mullen is an author of many acclaimed pieces of writing and goes back into many historic pieces of poetry in an attempt to uncover the deeper messages.
“Unlike Stein, who Mullen has made a project of interrogating, the attempt is not to decontextualize but instead to insist on the racial coding that underlines the colloquial and institutionalized language,” Rankine said.
Tracie Morris is the other artist who Rankine spoke about. Morris’s message is similar to that of Mullen. She directly uses her voice to uncover the more hidden messages within text. “In a 2014 interview, Tracie Morris states, ‘For me, sound poetry teases apart the meaning that is embedded with sound and separates that from literal meaning. So what I try to do is pull these things apart and then create a narrative from it.’”
Rankine then commented on Morris’ criticism of the film “Eyes Wide Shut.” Morris took out the original audio from the film, and substitute it with her own words to expose an “unsaid layer of whiteness.” She channels all of this in her book titled “Handholding: 5 Kinds,” a piece of text that comes with six different audio tracks that contextualize the work of many different pieces of art.
Rankine ended the night by talking about Alexandria Bell, an artist who went to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. However, instead of going on to write for a paper such as the New York Times, she began to critique what was on the front page. She then takes the cover of issues and reprints the front page in a way that highlights the stories that need to be told. After, she takes the reprinted covers and pastes them all around New York City.
The Honors Colloquium will continue next Tuesday with a presentation by Loretta Ross in Edwards Hall.