Claudia Rankine Wins MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

Claudia Rankine is an important voice in today’s society. Her fifth book, Citizen: An American Lyric, has been nominated numerous times, and won many awards including this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant. She provides a distinct echo of the pain that racism inflicts on its targets and the consequences of the divided society we live in. I read it in an African American Literature class and was stunned at how hard it hit home.

Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica. She received her BA in English from Williams College and her MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Rankine discusses racial tensions in America and the ways in which it has affected both her and society. Citizen not only contains poetry and pose, but images. Listen to some excerpts:


The cover of Citizen is reminiscent of Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead in 2012, unarmed, walking with his hood up. The subject of her book deals in part with the murder of innocent black men in America and racism as a whole. We know all too well the racial tensions we face today. We know the names of so many innocents who have been murdered. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott, and the list, sickenly, continues. 

And what does every one of them have in common? They’re black, and murdered. Rankine tries to tackle the emotion of this and the deep understanding of the black body in America. How do we continue to face the same kinds of racism and hatred as 300 years ago?   

 Image courtesy of and

In Citizen, Rankine says, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Here is a live list of the number of people killed in 2015 and 2016 by police officers via The Guardian.

Zora Neale Hurston in her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, said, “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” Rankine has done just this with her book by producing black ink and photographs against a white background to make it evident that there is a major problem in this country. Rankine sampled Hurston’s quote in Citizen to discuss Venus and Serena Williams’ feat in a white dominated tennis world.

“What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?”Citizen 

Here is Dane Caroline Wozniacki attempting to impersonate Serena during a match: 

Image courtesy of Citizen 

I cannot begin to unravel the long, painful history of every aspect of racism that has led us to where we are today, or engage with every piece Rankine has written. This article would be a novel if I did. 

Rankine is one of the 23 people chosen to receive the $625,000 stipend over 5 years as a MacArthur fellow. According to Time, Rankine plans to create a Racial Imaginary Institute, which would enable people “to come together in a kind of laboratory environment to talk about the making of art and culture and…the dismantling of white dominance.” Rankine said, 

What we had been talking about was getting a gallery space inside the world of galleries, so that we have a presenting space where we could have art shows and talks and show films, but also come together and talk about these issues, and where other people would know that if they wanted to workshop something that deals with this subject, that we would be there to be in conversation with them. But I think it’s important that it not be hidden away. I think the visibility of a Racial Imaginary Institute is part of what is important about it. Because the constructions around whiteness are crippling everyone.  

What is holding our country back is ignorance and an unwillingness to be educated and accept the situation at hand. So many turn a blind eye to the injustices that have been committed against people of color and make excuses for what is obviously murder, blatant, systematic racism. Until society is able to unhinge their racial bias and unlearn the racist attitudes that have been instilled in them, then this country will not move forward. Rankine is a voice that enables people to consider personal and national agressions against people of color and not only does she create a valuable and useful discussion, she dominates the ability to make us feel the hurt our people are crying out.

Here is a list of the 2016 MacArthur fellows:

Ahilan Arulanantham – human rights lawyer
Daryl Baldwin – linguist and cultural preservationist
Anne Basting – theatre artist and educator
Vincent Fecteau – sculptor
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins – playwright
Kellie Jones – art historian and curator
Subhash Khot – theoretical computer scientist
Josh Kun – cultural historian
Maggie Nelson – writer
Dianne Newman – microbiologist
Victoria Orphan – geobiologist
Manu Prakash – physical biologist and inventor
José A. Quiñonez – financial services innovator
Claudia Rankine – poet
Lauren Redniss – artist and writer
Mary Reid Kelley – video artist
Rebecca Richards-Kortum – bioengineer
Joyce J Scott – jewellery maker and sculptor
Sarah Stillman – long-form journalist
Bill Thies – computer scientist
Julia Wolfe – composer
Gene Luen Yang – graphic novelist
Jin-Quan Yu – synthetic chemist


For more Claudia Rankine, check out her other books: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Plot, The End of the Alphabet, and Nothing in Nature is Private. 


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