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Claudia Rankine Discusses Her Book "Citizen: An American Lyric"

By Betsy Hnath

In his introduction of Claudia Rankine, New York Times best-selling author of "Citizen: An American Lyric" on Thursday night in the Big Blue Room at the Ted Constant Center, English Professor Tim Seibles praised her work as "an invitation to reimagine who we are as individuals and to reconsider our notions of citizenship."

"In 'Citizen,' we often find the unseen, or often unclearly seen motions of racism uncovered, or held up to the light," Seibles told a full house. "... Most especially, the ways in which we interact across the many lines of difference that are typical of this society. For us to make a nation, a world worthy of our children we must begin this demanding work with daring and courage. This is the gift of books like 'Citizen.' This is why visionary minds like Claudia Rankine's are so essential to the transformation of human society."

Rankine's appearance served as both part of the President's Lecture Series and as the launch to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Big Read Hampton Roads. "Citizen" - the focus of a monthlong series of local Big Read events - is a hybrid of poetry, prose and images that explores the everyday acts of microaggressions and racism.

In addition to being selected for the Big Read, "Citizen" won several honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the PEN Open Book Award and the NAACP Image Award. It's also the only poetry book to be a New York Times nonfiction bestseller.

Rankine said the idea for "Citizen" came after living in Houston during Hurricane Katrina.

"People black and white would say to me 'How did this happen? How were those people abandoned like that in that arena?'" Rankine said. "I thought 'What do you mean how did that happen? It's happening every day in small ways all the time.'"

Rankine provided context and insight to elements used in "Citizen," including the book's cover image - a sweatshirt hood. Made by conceptual artist David Hammons, the piece was created in 1993, the year after the beating of Rodney King.

"It's on the cover of Citizen because it's an object that, worn by your university President, for example, is just a garment. And worn by Tim (Seibles), is a target."

"Citizen" is a collection of pieces reflecting experiences of Rankine and her friends. She interviewed more than 20 people for the book. Though the work has been featured in several Big Read events across the country, Rankine said she was impressed by the number of events scheduled in Hampton Roads.

"I have to say that y'all should turn to your neighbor and give them a round of applause," she said. "The comprehensiveness of this read of 'Citizen' is impressive and I know it takes an institution, it takes a community, it takes top-down support for these things to happen."

Rankine thanked University President John R. Broderick individually for his efforts. Seibles also took the opportunity to praise Broderick during his introduction for making "diversity and equity an indispensable part of the educational employment and community experience" at the University.

Hampton Roads is one of 79 communities nationwide participating in the NEA Big Read. From Feb. 21 to March 23, a full calendar of events is scheduled, including performances, lectures, book readings, art displays and more. The local event was two years in the making, led by Lea Lee, a professor in the Teaching and Learning Department in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, and George Fowler, ODU's University Librarian.

Local sponsors include the Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach public libraries; ODU's libraries and English, art, dance and theater departments; the Muse Writers Group; the Virginia Beach History Museums; the YMCA of South Hampton Roads; Teens With a Purpose; the Asian Pacific American Heritage Organization, and WHRO/WHTV public radio and TV affiliate.

Rankine's speech was sponsored by the President's Task Force on Inclusive Excellence. She is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. The author of five collections of poetry, Rankine has received fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim foundations and has participated in several video collaborations and edited anthologies, including "The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind."

The final President's Lecuture Series event of this academic year is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 19 at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, will be the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Speaker. His speech is free and open to the public.

The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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