Citizenship Through a Black Lens

Posters around campus ask the question, “Who are our citizens?” This question is considered and analyzed in “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a book by Claudia Rankine that details citizenship through the lens of black identity.

In a panel discussion held on April 3 in the Honors Center, members of the SUNY New Paltz staff considered Rankine’s work from their own experiences and perspectives on the issues of race and citizenship.

“I selected people I knew have great concern for the welfare of our students during a tumultuous cultural moment for our nation and the world,” said Dr. Sarah Wyman, an associate English professor and organizer of the panel. “Partly, this is a case of professorial curiosity: we are familiar with the academic theory, but we really want to know how students conceptualize and speak about issues of citizenship and identity.”

This interest in the student voice led Wyman to include a performance conceived and executed by students. The performance adapted the poem “Situation 5: In Memory of Trayvon Martin” into a movement piece that took place at the start of the event.

“I think theatre brings a sense of empathy that is hard to evoke in any other artistic medium,” said Raine Grayson, a fourth-year theatre arts and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies major and director of the performance. “By bringing Rankine’s poetry to life, it deepened the meaning and provided a visual narrative that aids understanding and discussion.”

Dr. Nicole Carr, assistant professor of Black Studies, focused on the impact of image in Rankine’s work and what it means for the black community. Carr emphasized that the appropriation of the black body and its image acts a form of “subtle violence.”

She believes that while black women are often mocked for the sexualization of their bodies, white women are lauded when they mold their bodies to the same shape. The Kardashian family has often been criticized for such an affront to black culture.

“What Rankine is trying to get us to see is how certain bodies carry weight and carry cultural baggage,” Carr said.

In the eye’s of the panelists, Rankine’s rhetoric not only conveys the issues of race and citizenship, but creates a more personal connection with the reader.

Assistant professor of Languages, Literatures and Cultures Sharina Mallio-Pozo emphasized how Rankine’s use of the second-person narrative evokes a certain empathy that would not be achieved had she not addressed the reader directly.

“As I was going through [the text], the ‘you’ was having an effect on me where I was feeling guilty,” Mallio-Pozo said. “Her aim is to engage us in her reflections of citizenship; of the marginalization, derision and constant criminalization of black bodies.”  

Other panelists discussed the economic and political implications of black identity and citizenship.

“I hope that the attendees of Monday’s event left the Honors Center wanting to know more about the racial injustices that still occurs in America,” said attendee and performer Andres Rodriguez, a third-year theatre arts major. “It’s also important that they all left thinking about what they were going to do to change it, whether it be through art, music, athletics or by actually getting involved politically.”