Who counts as a citizen, and what does it take to become counted?
Claudia Rankine addresses this question in her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric. Just as the question of citizenship often defies clear and easy categories, so does Rankine’s book, which is a collection poetry, photography, quotes from artists and critics, slogans and scripts for films. Thanks to the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning (CAL), I distributed copies to my students.
Iyana Hendrix, a sophomore at Campus International School in Cleveland, says the book “speaks to the black community as something we relate to on a daily basis. It can give those who read it a perspective of what we deal with. The thing is, no one will truly ‘understand’ until they live it.”
Cleveland’s CAL is one of 79 nonprofits across the nation selected by the National Endowment for the Arts to host a Big Read program. This year, the selection is Citizen, called “an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium” by Bookforum. Several community groups are organizing to read and discuss Rankine’s work.
“One of the first steps in uniting a community is to find common ground, and what better way to find common ground than for every member of a community to read and discuss the same text?” says Megan Thompson, CAL special projects manager.
After reading the book, Hendrix shares Thompson’s vision. “This can be something that the east and west side Clevelanders can benefit from,” Hendrix says. “By sitting down and discussing our differences, we can uplift our city. If we have conversations once or twice a month, that’ll be great. But it can’t just be adults. It needs to be the young adults connecting our experiences and views on ways we can change.”
Thompson had young adults in mind when she chose this book from the menu of choices the NEA offered. “As a youth-focused organization, I have to consider our students and teachers when I’m choosing a book,” she says. “With Citizen being a short read, I knew it would be easier for students to commit to the book, and with the way she broke the ‘lyric’ into seven separate vignettes, I knew it would lend itself to curriculum.”
Cleveland, as one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, is an important place to discuss the themes addressed in Rankine’s book. “Our Cleveland youth face microaggressions [subject of the book] every day, but there are rarely spaces for them to share their experiences and frustrations,” Thompson says.
Thanks to support from CAL, I took about 30 students, including Hendrix, to hear Rankine speak at the Maltz Performing Arts Center. Hendrix told me she was most affected by the author’s story about a teacher who asked a class, “Who threw the toy?” while looking directly at a black child, when a white student had actually thrown the toy.
“Rankine said, ‘The eyes look before the words come out,’ and it’s true,” Hendrix says. “Before you accuse someone of something, you look at them before asking, ‘Hey, did you do this?’ Making assumptions can be someone’s downfall.”
Having done some research in advance of Rankine’s visit, Hendrix became intrigued by the author’s play, “The White Card.” Hendrix says she “envisions it [the play] as a way to share the different perspectives of two races.” I’ve promised her that we can do a staged reading of the play and facilitate a discussion with the class.
More immediately, though, our plan is to take advantage of some of the upcoming activities that are part of #BigReadCLE, including a concert on Feb. 27 at Trinity Cathedral and a County-Wide Poetry Slam at the Cleveland Museum of Art on March 9. For information about these and other related events, visit NEA Big Read 2019 – Center for Arts-Inspired Learning.
FEATURE IMAGE: Author Claudia Rankine, left, speaks at the Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland. Credit: Katie McCullough