Community Reading Project author discusses racism, microaggressions at GVSU

By Maddie Forshee | 4/10/16 9:53pm

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GVL / Kasey Garvelink - Claudia Rankine presented parts of her book at the community read event on Apr. 7, 2016 in Allendale.

by Kasey Garvelink / Grand Valley Lanthorn

Grand Valley State University's annual Community Reading Project wrapped up on April 7 with a guest lecture from the author of this year's chosen read, Claudia Rankine, who wrote "Citizen: An American Lyric."

Students, faculty and staff gathered on the Allendale Campus to welcome Rankine to GVSU.

"Citizen" is a novel about Rankine's experience with racial microaggressions. It outlines different scenarios and expresses her frustrations with racism through poetry and an essay about race in the media. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014, the year it was published.

"This book was one that challenged one's space," said GVSU President Thomas Haas. "This is a book that should make us uncomfortable in many regards. I'm thrilled that we're able to use this type of opportunity."

In a departure from lectures where she would have just read excerpts from her book, Rankine wanted to highlight the many photos throughout her book and talk about their corresponding stories.

"Citizen" is punctuated with photography and art pieces that relate to the story being told. A story about being mistaken for a stranger by her therapist, for example, was accompanied by a photo of a taxidermied animal with a human face to show the way that Rankine felt in that situation.

Rankine admitted that not all of the stories are hers. She reached out to friends to share their experiences for inspiration, and said she was surprised at the result.

"Many people, at first, said to me 'I can't think of a thing,'" Rankine said. "They would call back and I couldn't get off the phone. That was really symbolic of the way it had been logged down in order to allow them to be in their lives."

Rankine's book featured stories about childhood and facing racism in school to stories about everyday microaggressions that happened during adulthood.

Rankine poked fun at herself for not writing a book of poetry, since the book contains an essay in the middle. The essay focuses on Serena Williams and how she is perceived as a tennis player, being black in one of the most white-dominated sports in the world. Rankine uses the example of the situation where Caroline Wozniacki, another professional tennis player, was photographed mocking Williams' body shape, and when Williams tried to respond, the media criticized her as being "too angry" and "immature and classless."

"Caroline must not know about the history of the black body being exhibited and then experimented on later," Rankine said.

After discussing "Citizen," Rankine concluded her lecture by showing a video that she helped to create with filmmaker John Lucas. The video featured Rankine's voice reciting a poem over clips of video showing Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and other victims of police brutality.

"The problem with this book was that for me, I had no idea how to end it," Rankine said. "I didn't want to create an ending that seemed like it was an actual ending to the concerns of the book."

Rankine ended the book with an example from her recent life. She was sitting in her car before a tennis match, and a white woman pulled into the spot facing Rankine. Upon seeing Rankine sitting in her car, the woman started her car and moved it to a different spot.

"You don't have to have someone tell you when something is wrong," she said. "It's only as you come up close and begin to really look at what it looks like, that you understand what is happening."

The lecture ended with the announcement of next years' community reading project selection, "True American" by Adnan Giridharadas.

For more information about the community reading project, visit www.gvsu.edu/read.

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