AST FALL, I READ Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric in one fast sitting on a plane from Montana to Alabama. I knew immediately that I wanted to introduce my students to this text, and also that I wanted Southern Humanities Review to somehow join the important conversation on racial microaggressions (and macroaggressions) that this formally inventive book has helped to push into a wider public consciousness.
Initially, SHR chose to invite poet Erika Meitner, writer Ira Sukrungruang, and literary scholar Susana Morris to participate in a round-table discussion over email, which we planned to publish on our website. But, not surprisingly, our panelists had more questions than answers, many of them touching lightly but insistently on potential pedagogical concerns. Meitner noted that “most of white America will be unfamiliar with some of the references here, though they're public narratives.” At the same time, as Morris put it, “The descriptions invite any reader to feel a part of the speaker’s anxiety, anger, and confusion.” That negotiation of intimacy and distance, and the silence between those spaces, drew Sukrungruang’s attention, asking, “How does that [narrative or psychic distance of the writer] add to Rankine's narrative/testimony/invective?” In examining Rankine’s choice to explicate as little of these narratives as possible, Morris drew a comparison to Junot Diaz’s decision not to translate many of the Spanish words and phrases in his fiction, remarking, “If the reader is disoriented, then s/he experiences the same disorientation the immigrant feels in larger American society. I think that Citizen likely invites that same disorientation, not unlike the disorientation and incredulity that Blacks feel at racism.”
So, how does a professor invite students to experience such disorientation, or navigate a classroom divided by disorientation and profound recognition?
Because Citizen, though not wholly autobiographical (as Rankine has made clear in interviews), is written in such an intimate voice, feelings—rather than form or even theme and content—come first. And so emotions are where I began my own teaching of the book when I brought it into my advanced undergraduate poetry workshop this past spring. In the days preceding our initial discussion of the work, I had my students read Rankine’s interview in the Los Angeles Times, where she says, "When you're writing, you think: How does intimacy happen in the work? You don't know who your reader is, woman, man, child, black person, Asian, who knows? So I thought it might serve the book best if a reader had to think about where they were positioned each time something happened, to think, 'Where am I relative to this interaction? Where do I stand in this?'”
On that first day of discussion, I asked my students (eight white and five black) to reflect on the myriad emotions they experienced while reading Citizen, and then to approach the board as a group and record those emotions there. Their feelings filled the front of our classroom--sadness, empathy, confusion, shame, anger, despair—and that’s where we began. Our discussion of Rankine’s deft formal choices would come later, but we started with feeling and the freedom to feel.
While SHR ultimately scrapped our original round-table discussion, what our panelists led us to—an exploration of the ways in which any reader might meet this text and make discoveries in that meeting—now forms the foundation of a new online symposium that we plan to run indefinitely. “Teaching Citizen” will be an ongoing forum featuring brief essays from the front lines of the classroom. While we hope there will be much to glean in these responses that will help you, too, to bring Citizen to your students, the series won’t so much focus on giving advice, but instead will explore experiences and questions surrounding the teaching of the book. Lesley Wheeler will kick off our series with an essay she originally published on her blog. Lisa Olstein will follow with a lyric response about her experience bringing the book into a graduate poetry classroom. And we’ll have many more, including an account of Erika Meitner’s days teaching the book in Ireland.
Citizen is a beautifully difficult and daringly troubling text, and the editors of SHR are grateful for the continuing discussions it has prompted in and out of the classroom. Join us. If you’ve taught the book, we want to hear from you.