The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, up the winding staircase to the second floor. “I feel like I’m at a rock concert,” one young woman said as the crowd inched along. And she wasn’t far wrong: Poet Claudia Rankine, who spoke there Jan. 30, is a literary rock star. “Citizen: An American Lyric,” published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press, was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The Loft performance hall was at capacity; three overflow rooms held hundreds more. Novelist Marlon James introduced Rankine.
“Even at its most boldly confrontational, ‘Citizen’ grabs us with its big heart,” he said. “It’s the pre-Ferguson book that feels post-.”
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the genesis of her book. “I went to friends and asked them, ‘Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?’ ” she said. These stories found their way into “Citizen,” story after story, written in the second person, each one building on the next to devastating effect, as in this sequence:
A friend (“you”) went to her first appointment at the therapist’s house; the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine (“you”) asked a friend to baby-sit. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a “menacing black guy” in front of her house. Don’t worry, the neighbor said; he’s already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be the baby sitter, who had stepped outside for a phone call, “you” suggest that, in the future, he stay in the back yard.
The 200 people in the Loft Performance Hall were utterly silent as Rankine read:
“He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course.”
Afterward, questions came slowly, as though everyone needed time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man thanked Rankine for reminding him that he is not alone.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read “Citizen” and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way to respond, and that the teacher might ask her students to look for other ways, too. “We are all struggling around this,” she said. “The only chance we have is engagement.”