On Teaching Claudia Rankine's "Citizen"


I often joke in teaching panels that the only thing students are more scared of than science or math is poetry. D.A. Powell once told me that poetry isn’t a riddle, but years of lectures on symbolism have taught students otherwise. Bringing poetry into an unexpected space can be daunting, but it is well worth the risk.

Poetry doesn’t have to be about just wheelbarrows, rivers, or gardens, and I’ve found that when students realize this, it pushes open poetic possibilities for them. Unpacking contemporary writing with students who aren’t writers is an incredibly refreshing experience. Each time we read a text or have poets speak in a non-creative writing classroom, I hear students say I didn’t know poetry could be like this.

Teaching Citizen by Claudia Rankine is a perfect text for such spaces. As a woman of color, I am always concerned about bringing a raced text into a classroom, especially at universities that are less diverse. But as an instructor, I want that responsibility: to be a part of what bell hooks has called “the most radical space for possibility in academia” (Teaching to Transgress).  These are texts and conversations that may not make it into other classrooms, and it is my job to bring them to the forefront, especially for students of color who may not have this type of conversation in any other space.  

There are many ways to introduce Citizen to non-poetry students: as an autothnography, to practice close reading, or as book club reading. But it really doesn’t matter how you get this text into students’ hands, as long as you do. 

Citizen is beautifully crafted. The care that went into this text would be so thrilling if it weren’t heartbreaking. Christopher Soto aka Loma wrote about the pain caused by the Columbus-ing of racism in poetry for Best American Poets’ blog last year. Of Citizen, Loma writes:  

This past year, Citizen by Claudia Rankine was released and white people all across the literary world discovered racism. The sadness in Claudia Rankine’s book was eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime. Everyone was talking about Citizen and micro-agressions and feelings. But I didn’t see any of the white people in my MFA program marching next to me when Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, when Erica Garner was killed by NYPD. I didn’t see any of them working to dismantle the systems of oppression which created my sadness / my community’s sadness. Yet everyone raved about how revolutionary that book was. REVOLUTIONARY FOR WHOM???!.  

The labor itself of “proving racism,” and providing testimony is heartbreaking. Talking about it in spaces like poetry workshops, about the craft of it, breaking it down like it wasn’t about living people in that room, as though we can’t spend our entire lives with our own testimony, as though we weren’t witnessing in each poem we wrote? That just seems excruciating. I’m not saying that we can’t use Citizen in a poetry workshop. Or that it can’t be done with success and excitement. It should be, and, hopefully, in some places it is. But working with students who don’t consider themselves writers lets us shift the focus to something that sometimes gets lost in the creative writing classroom: the content.

The refrain of What do you mean? echoes in Citizen and re-situates readers in the text. I find students following Rankine’s lead, bringing the question with them into the classroom, asking each other: what does it mean? But instead of the frustration often associated with that question and literature, they are excited to answer each other, each with a new perspective. This is a text that builds on itself, moving backwards and forwards and back around. Citizen is self-referential as a reminder that this is a living text. And as a reminder that it’s a part of a living landscape, Rankine leaves room at the end of one of the most quoted pieces from the book:

            In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis

            In Memory of Eric Garner

            In Memory of John Crawford

            In Memory of Michael Brown

            In Memory of Laquan McDonald

            In Memory of Akai Gurley

            In Memory of Tamir Rice

            In Memory of Walter Scott

            In Memory of Freddie Gray

            In Memory of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

            In Memory of Cynthia Hurd

            In Memory of Susie Jackson

            In Memory of Ethel Lee Lance

            In Memory of DePayne Middleton Doctor

            In Memory of Clementa Pinckney

            In Memory of Tywanza Sanders

            In Memory of Daniel L. Simmons, Sr.

            In Memory of Myra Thompson

            In Memory of Sandra Bland

            In Memory of Jamar Clark

            In Memory

            In Memory

            In Memory

            In Memory

            In Memory

She does this in part because this is not going to be solved or even fully encapsulated in one book or in one meeting. As we wrap up our meeting, we think about how many more names we can add to her list. We can name them together, and we can remember. But we can also think about moving forward. By reading this in a space where we’re talking about context, we can move it from our classroom to our lives. Looking around, we can see how poetry is being used as a tool, of witness and protest. Yes, there are skills involved in creating this text, but what does this text say?

Last fall Johari Osayi Idusuyi gave us a real life example of how context can change a text. She attended a Donald Trump rally out of curiosity, but found herself directly behind Trump for, as she says, “obvious reasons.” Idusuyi becomes not just disinterested during the rally, but actively angered, and instead reads the book she brought with her: Citizen

She’s reading for a few minutes when she’s angrily interrupted by a white couple who demands she put down her book. Idusuyi refuses, and, moreso, she holds the book higher. She was reading Citizen because that was the book she had with her, but now that has changed. The context and placement become not just promotion but protest. 

Move poetry outside of its context. Find a way to protest. Bring it to students in classrooms, in book clubs, in auditoriums, in Gender Studies offices, in American Studies syllabi, in Rhetoric and Composition discussions, in Media courses. Then move it further. To shelters and community centers, to prisons and protests. De-contextualize poetry to open it up, re-contextualize it to show what we can do with our language. Poetry is not an elite art; it is a testimony.  

Suzi F. Garcia has an MFA in Poetry with minors in Gender Studies and Screen Cultures. She is a poetry editor at Noemi Press and a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Her writing can be found in The Offing, the Pinch Journal, Reservoir Journal, and more.