While some voices are dividing us, “Americans are looking for someone who would boldly put in our face the realities of society,” Mayor Michael Hancock told a large audience gathered at the Tivoli Student Union last week.
The someone he was referring to was American poet Claudia Rankine, whose 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric, a response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had been the focus of a six-week Denver Talks program. The city had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to create Denver Talks in partnership with Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Components of the program included giving away 1,600 copies of the book; it was also checked out from the Denver Public Library over 1,000 times. Community conversations had culminated in a public talk between the mayor and Rankine on November 15; the next day, they both appeared before a gathering of students who'd been reading the book in their classrooms.
Rankine opened her talk by sharing other artists’ work from the Racial Imaginary Institute, a collaborative platform she founded in 2016 with the grant she was awarded when she was named a MacArthur fellow. The institute is a virtual place for writers, painters, photographers and other creators to comment on a racial theme. The Whiteness Issue, which launched the site in September, was a way to “present counter-narratives to the way whiteness is portrayed,” she said.
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Rankine shared Nona Faustine’s photographs, with an obnoxious barrier placed between the viewer and America’s most symbolic monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. Tracie Morris’s sound-design piece took the phrase “You better hope Jesus save you” and made crafty changes so that you hear “Jesus ain’t you” and other alterations as a response to the religious right. Toyin Ojih Odutola painted white men with cultural capital as black men, to see if it changed their influence.
Similar to the work highlighted on the Racial Imaginary Institute site, Rankine’s Citizen makes us question our own reality. In the book she connected personal day-to-day moments and national events as racial experiences on a continuum, “the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color,” she writes in Citizen.
Some instances are as subtle as a glance or a minor offhand comment: “As light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you,” she writes. Others are explicit: police shootings and obvious racial moments in pop culture, such as Serena Williams forehanding her way through the white world of professional tennis.
Both the mayor and Rankine briefly discussed white nationalism, DACA and the role of education in counteracting racism. “Raise your hand if you can tell me one person who signed the Declaration of Independence who was born in America,” Hancock said, pointing out the hypocrisy of distrusting and pushing out immigrants.
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When President Donald Trump said “Make America great again” or “Take back the country,” he was sending codes to those fearful of minority groups, Hancock continued. He wasn't speaking to the black community; “he wasn’t talking to me."
“Now, as citizens, we are implicated in white nationalism, because that government is our government,” Rankine added.
The Denver Talks program showed that art can be an icebreaker for what could otherwise be an uncomfortable conversation about race, stirring thoughts and creating empathy through connection. But when asked what role poetry has in politics, Rankine replied, “I don’t believe there is a role or agenda.”
The definition of the artist is “to do what you do” without purposely trying to make something political, she explained: “You don’t legislate the imagination.”