By Lauren Indyk
Students expecting a quiet poetry reading were in for a surprise when they settled into the Library Auditorium on Tuesday, March 1. Pomona College professor and poet Claudia Rankine lectured and read poetry about racism.
Though the crowd of students and professors was small, the dimly lit room provided a comfortable, intimate venue for discussion of the charged topic.
“You know, you write from where you live,” Rankine said, mentioning that most of her writing and videography pertain to racism and hate.
The lecture portion of her visit revolved around her reaction to “The Change,” a poem by Tony Hoagland, which describes a “big black girl from Alabama” who remains “unintimidated” while playing tennis against a “tough little European blonde girl.”
Through the poem, Hoagland admits that he “couldn’t help wanting the white girl to come out on top, because she was one of (his) kind, (his) tribe, with her pale eyes and thin lips.”
After reading the poem, Rankine showed a video of Serena Williams, angrily responding to a bad call against her, during a match against Kim Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open women’s semifinal match. The call against her was believed by many to be unnecessary, unfair and possibly due to her race, as her white opponent had no such calls made against her.
Serena Williams was angry, which played well into Hoagland’s poem.
Rankine then read her response to the poem, which began not with words of sadness or anger, but incredulity: “What? What!”
Though she says she doesn’t like to use the word “racist,” because of the “angry black” connotations it can bring, Hoagland’s poem does portray, as she says in her response, “a certain kind of white thought” that “just wasn’t right.”
Following her lecture, she played videos on which she and her husband, videographer John Lucas, collaborated.
The first video depicted a scene from the 2006 World Cup of Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi. The couple slowed down the video, and Rankine narrated it, reading several quotes from Frederick Douglass and William Shakespeare, among others.
The second video played was a series of still photographs that she and her husband had taken over the course of two years of passengers sleeping on airplanes. The video had three levels of sound, consisting of recordings of emergency 911 calls made on September 11, the sound of a heartbeat and her voice reading a poem she had written.
“We’ve become such a media-crazed culture,” Rankine said. “These videos depict little moments in the public media. With the Zidane video slowed down, it allows such media to be slowed down.”
Although she had intended to read her own poetry, Rankine did not, admitting she couldn’t find her poem.
Nonetheless, her lecture touched many members of the audience.
“It was so important to have this,” said associate professor of English Cassandra Jackson. “I’m so disappointed with racism. I love the fact that she was able to move the conversation from it to tennis.”
Closing on a light and supportive note, Rankine encouraged the audience to “go forth and do your own work.”
More information on Claudia Rankine and her work can be found at ClaudiaRankine.com.