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Courtesy of Elizabeth Weinberg / The New York Times

April 21, 2019

Claudia Rankine Reads; Details New Book

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Cornell’s Statler Auditorium buzzed with excited whispers as people settled into their seats. The famous cover of her bestselling book, Citizen, dominated the backdrop as we waited anxiously for Claudia Rankine, a celebrated poet and author of many works including Citizen: An American Lyric, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and, most recently, The White Card: A Play. Her reading was the culmination of the Barbara & David Zalaznick Creative Writing Reading Series, organized by Cornell’s English Department.

Through the reading and subsequent discussion, Rankine introduced us to her works, reading selections from Citizen and others. In her soft, melodic voice, words took on a different shape from the page, imprinting the air around us. Her poems came alive, heightening their visceral impact. She claims that writing is more like math to her and that the real emotional part of the process comes from the sharing of the stories themselves. Still, her work never fails to pack an emotional punch.

In addition to her previous works, Rankine also spoke about her upcoming book, Just Us: An American Conversation, the writing of which was a bit different. Interested in how conversations explore whiteness in American culture, this project involves transcripts of conversations, notes from fact-checkers and interpretations of these materials from a therapist.

Rankine’s new book will also feature some of her own pictures for the first time as part of a look into blondeness, asking women why they chose to dye their hair that color. She summarized the results: white women over 50 wanted to hide the grey, white women around 20 said the color made men treat them better and black women almost universally said: “Why not?”

As well as discussing this photo series, she also talked about the photo that dominates the cover of Citizen. Created by David Hammons, this piece, titled “In the Hood,” was first exhibited in 1993, not created in relation to Trayvon Martin as popularly believed.

Though it was wonderful to hear an author’s words in her own voice, I do wish there had been more time for questions. In the 10 minutes allotted, only three questions were asked and answered. And to me, they were the most interesting part of the night, offering glimpses into her own experiences and thoughts on her work.

Jessica Lussier is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jll335@cornell.edu.