Hofstra Citizens

A Conversation between Dr. Vimala Pasupathi and Dr. Jennifer Henton

If you saw my most recent post, you know how very excited I am that the poet Claudia Rankine is coming to Hofstra. As part of that excitement, we at HUHC are partnering with the Hofstra English Department in sponsoring a contest for creative work inspired by Rankine’s award-winning book Citizen.

Because the book was so meaningful to me, I have been very excited to hear from others who have similarly felt its impact; I’m looking forward to seeing what students submit for the contest, and I also have been seeking out other faculty with whom I can discuss the book. This post is a conversation between Dr. Jennifer Henton and myself . Here’s what two English professors (with very different specializations and distinct racial/ethnic identities) had to say!

Pasupathi: What were your first impressions of Rankine’s book?

Henton: I think the first thing the reader notices about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is the title — that the book is a “lyric,” rather than a poetic or a lament. As a reader, I associate the word lyric with language meant to be put to music or language that is musical. So upon reading the text, I was curious about the way the text was unfolding rhythmically. The book is so visual, to be sure, but it is also spatially effective in creating a rhythm, a flow, a crescendo. Upon a second reading, I felt myself pulled into the speaker’s song, the speaker’s lyric.

Pasupathi: Interesting! Given that idea of being “pulled in,” have you read the book in a single sitting to take in that “flow” and “crescendo” in one shot? (I read the book in pieces, over the course of maybe a month, on public trains, so mine was more of “a dive-in, but only-for-a-little-bit” attempt.) And either way, besides or in addition to the rhythm and flow, what do you think is the force behind that pull? For you, what was the experience of being “pulled in” like? What kind of social world and mental space does it make you inhabit as you read?

Henton: the book was very painful so I took it in sections. Only on a second/ third reading could I read it in a sitting. There is too much mirroring. In other words, the text brings up a lot of experiences and emotions that I see myself in or that reflect my experiences. I think the book encourages meditation and reflection. It isn’t like a pop song, but more like jazz or classical music — there may be long stints where you are away from it but it is working on and in you. Then you may read it at a good clip, finding it bouncy and tight. So the time it takes someone to read it does not diminish its musical quality, you see. Like with jazz or classical, you listen and allow the piece to unfold.

Pasupathi: Speaking of titles: you’re teaching a class on Rankine’s book this semester, “Black Lives Matter: Rankine’s Citizen.” In what ways do you think Citizen is part of or distinct from that larger movement? Does reading the book mean taking a position in current debates about the movement?

Henton: The text is deeply conversant with the movement Black Lives Matter. On page 134, the names of men and women who became victims of police brutality are listed in fading typeface. It is not a book that holds back. So teaching it, picking it up, reading it, requires some courage. In that sense, yes, you take a stand by being willing to open yourself up to the text.

“I think the book encourages meditation and reflection. It isn’t like a pop song, but more like jazz or classical music — there may be long stints where you are away from it but it is working on and in you. Then you may read it at a good clip, finding it bouncy and tight. So the time it takes someone to read it does not diminish its musical quality, you see. Like with jazz or classical, you listen and allow the piece to unfold.” — Dr. Jennifer Henton

Pasupathi: One of the things that struck me when I read the book is the sense of fatigue the speaker(s) feel(s), particularly in response to people who are typically supposed to be allies, namely university colleagues, and friends; as an academic, I recognized familiar territory in the colleague’s comments about “having” to hire for diversity or the other academic’s complaint about her child not getting into a college because of affirmative action. As somebody who identifies as brown but not black, I found that the book was a constant reminder of Rankine’s status vs. my own. Because of the demographics of college faculty, people of color often unite in solidarity and are sometimes lumped together by universities for the purpose of diversity statistics — but when it comes down to it, we aren’t equally vulnerable to scenarios like those Rankine addresses. I think people like to think the university is a place where you can escape from racism and to assure themselves “we’re not like that here.” But that “we” is doing a lot of work, a vexed pronoun for sure…

Henton: that is a good point indeed. The university/college is often a microcosm of the US. So there is no uniform guarantee of a difference except for the heightened intellectual level at which the landscape unfolds. If there is a positive difference between a school and the social arena of the US, it is because that institution is proactively seeking to engage the dilemma and get creative with solutions.

Pasupathi: If students like Rankine’s book, what other books or authors might they like? Do you have recommendations for further reading, books or poems that resonate with the themes in Citizen? For students who aren’t enrolled in your current class or Connie Roberts’ Poetry of Witness seminar, what courses are you teaching in future semesters that will give students opportunities to read works like Citizen?

Henton: I’d suggest reading Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which I think is just as compelling as Citizen!

I hope you all are excited as I am about Rankine’s visit on October 24th. I also hope you’ll check out the news about our contest — including submission rules and procedures as well as how to get a copy of the book for free. I invite you all to read the book, respond to it, and attend the various events that will take place over the course of the day!

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