Poet Claudia Rankine, born 56 years ago in Jamaica, returned to the city of her first college teaching post to kick off a community read of her slender, seminal book, Citizen: An American Lyric.
“In a sense, I am home,” she told a Cleveland audience. “My husband grew up here. My time here was very important. I met my husband at Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry and I had my very first teaching job here.”
The crowd, gathered in the Parma-Snow auditorium of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, cheered this bibliophilic beginning to romance. Rankine, a Yale University professor and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, saw her first book, Nothing in Nature is Private, published in 1994 by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
Filmmaker John Lucas, Rankine’s husband, has collaborated with her on several projects, most recently an art exhibition in Brooklyn last year that explored blondness called “Stamped.” Lucas is white and Rankine is black.
“It is possible to love white people as family, friends and colleagues but that does not disallow them acting on racism,” Rankine said. “What allows you to feel safe is you can call it. You can say, ‘That’s racist,’ and they don’t run screaming from the room or cry. They say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right.’”
Wearing one of her signature purple-infused scarves and crossing her ankles in black boots, Rankine spoke mellifluously and frankly: “America is an anti-black society.” She interrupted herself often to recommend books – White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and especially The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde.
But before she found these books, when Rankine was an undergraduate studying at Williams College in Massachusetts, she read poetry by Adrienne Rich, followed by prose of James Baldwin.
“I remember thinking as I was reading Adrienne Rich that I really liked this stuff but that I could do this better, something only an 18- or 19-year-old would think,” Rankine said. “But I also understood later that this was because I wasn’t included in this thing I was reading. When I got to Baldwin, there I was, and there was no going back.”
The poet told a version of this literary baptismal story the next day for about 1,000 high school students gathered at the Maltz Performing Arts Center. She recommended they see Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” She urged them to make sure family members vote. Students asked her about the school-to-prison pipeline, the cover of her book and why she wrote Citizen in a second-person voice.
“Everybody commits crimes,” Rankine said about the false narrative of black criminality. “Our president commits crimes. You can’t be a black kid walking around in a hoodie. It takes away your citizenry.”
She employed the “you” pronoun, Rankine said, “so you have to wonder who the ‘you’ is. It’s a way to answer those people who say they don’t see color, they don’t see race.”
Rankine, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient, is an exacting observer who takes pains to document the language and slipperiness of racism in day-to-day exchanges – from the news commentary in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to the treatment of Serena Williams on the international tennis circuit.
“Sports have always been a ground where racial politics play themselves out, not just here, but across the globe,” she said. “Now, you can see these matches on Youtube. Everything is recorded, watched, check-able.”
In a droll voice, the poet said, “I’ve been in the world awhile. I think people mean what they say.”
Rankine noted that Serena Williams was called on a foot fault in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open – the writer stressed that she wasn’t contesting the validity of the call – but on the next play Williams turned that ankle.
“The amount of trauma black people carry around in their bodies because of racism is profound,” she said. “It throws the woman off.”
Charles Ellenbogen, an English teacher at Campus International School in Cleveland, said he appreciated how well Rankine taught, how intently she listened and how she spoke to students as individual human beings.
Rankine told them, “It’s good for you to know that you go out in the world and there will be people who don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s important to read to know that there are people who have negotiated this world successfully and happily. It can be done.”
On March 24, two maestros of fiction – Esi Edugyan (Washington Black) and John Edgar Wideman (American Histories) – will join poet Rita Dove to discuss how their historically-attuned writings pierce the legacies of racism. Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf juror and the University of Virginia Commonwealth Professor of English, will moderate.
She also led the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf panel at the Virginia festival, which movingly addressed the response of artists to racial violence, particularly the white supremacist mayhem in Charlottesville in August 2017. Anisfield-Wolf winners of that year – Tyehimba Jess, Peter Ho Davies, Margot Lee Shetterly, plus Dove – spoke to the urgent need to tell a complete American story, as Shetterly stressed, and to acknowledge that racism had shed blood on every particle of American soil, as Jess observed.
Davies noted that all of their Anisfield-Wolf winning books might be called by Shetterly’s title, “Hidden Figures,” as each of the writers excavated stories less told.
“An ethos of both mischief and deep truth-telling animates Washington Black and American Histories,”notes Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “It thrills me to have the chance to read and listen to three of the English-speaking world’s most talented writers: Edugyan with her genre-bending exploration of 19th-century slavery, exploration and freedom and Wideman with his latest collection of short stories, which start by inviting readers to eavesdrop on a conversation between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. And I suspect we may hear a poem from Professor Dove too.”
Their session is called “A World Built on Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” The trio will take a multi-generational view on the stage of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24. (Novelist Kevin Powers is no longer able to participate.)
Wideman won the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011, four years before the MacArthur Foundation recognized him with a “genius” grant. Edugyan received the A-W award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a story of intrigue set among American jazz musicians in Berlin before and after WW II. It was a Man Booker prize finalist.
This program, which welcomes audience questions, will be free and open to the public.
Claudia Rankine and her “slender, musical book that arrives like a thunderclap” are coming to Cleveland, the first major literary event of the year.
Thanks to the Big Read of the National Endowment for the Arts and the moxie of the staff at Cleveland’s Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, residents of Cuyahoga County will have eight weeks to soak up the brilliance of Citizen: An American Lyric.
The book, which reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2014, is “a well-timed amalgam of poetry, essays and Serena Williams analysis,” according to Boris Kachka in Vulture. It is poised to launch a thousand local conversations.
“Citizen,” as critic Parul Sehgal writes, “is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium.” Megan Thompson, special projects manager for the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, quotes Sehgal’s line as one reason the book is a good fit to citizen readers – especially students — in northeast Ohio.
“We are not going to change the world in eight weeks,” Thompson said. “But our hope is that art will change some lives. And Citizen, first and foremost, is a work of art.”
At last count, 26 schools have signed up to teach “Citizen” and more than 50 public events are clustered around it. A finalist for both poetry and criticism, the book won a National Book Critics Circle prize in the poetry category.
She will kick off the initiative with a reading and conversation with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas at 7 p.m. January 23 in the Parma-Snow branch auditorium of the Cuyahoga County Library. Tickets are free; register here.
“Citizen began as a response to events happening in American culture,” Rankine says in her MacArthur interview in 2016. “The first piece in Citizen was written right after Katrina. I recorded all the CNN coverage and was fascinated by how racism colored the reporting. . .
“I call it An American Lyric because I see these pieces as a different kind of song,” she said. “Instead of ‘Oh say can we see,’ this is what I’m really seeing.”
Thompson said the brevity and discrete sections in Rankine’s book make it ideal for student readers. So does the author’s unusual – and arresting — incorporation of fine-arts photography, on museum-grade paper, so that images join her book’s investigation of racism in the United States.
The Big Read will spread to encompass library, museum and church book discussions and workshops, film screening and poetry slams.
Rankine’s kick-off will be livestreamed in multiple locations. And Lake Erie Ink will curate the original work of 20 student poets, finalists who will compete in a public poetry slam at the Cleveland Museum of Art Saturday, March 9.
And if you’ve already read Citizen, whet your appetite for the upcoming Big Read with this recent Krista Tippett interview, in which Rankine reveals the sentence that cost her most dearly in composing this work.
N. Scott Momaday, a captivating storyteller long considered “the dean of Native American letters,” is the new recipient of the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize.
Established in 2016, the young prize honors artists, authors, educators, filmmakers, historians, and scientists “whose body of work has advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” Momaday is its third honoree. Born a Kiowa 83 years ago in Lawton, Oklahoma, Momaday is an artist, essayist, novelist and professor who identifies first as a poet. He accepted the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in September. His 1969 novel, House Made of Dawn, won a Pulitzer Prize and ushered in a new chapter of American literature that explored contemporary indigenous lives.
“I am truly honored to be named the recipient of the 2019 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize and left speechless by this recognition,” Momaday said in a statement. “None of us lives apart from the land entirely and I am deeply concerned about conservation. I fully support American Prairie Reserve’s remarkable and courageous effort to preserve a disappearing landscape that is sacred to so many Native Americans.”
American Prairie Reserve’s mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, now nearly 400,000 acres in northeastern Montana. Momaday will accept the prize on May 1 in New York City. Watch a snippet of last year’s ceremony honoring the 2018 recipient, artist Maya Lin. The inaugural prize went to historian David McCullough.
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.