The "Big Read" Takes On Racism
For the second summer in a row, New Haven will transform from “the city that reads” to “the city that reads together”—this time about microagressons and everyday manifestations of racism.
That announcement came Wednesday evening, as representatives from the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven Free Public Library, Gateway Community College, The Word, New Haven Public Schools (NHPS), Baobab Tree Studios, Citywide Youth Coalition and the Institute Library gathered to kick off the city’s “Big Read” at Stetson Library.
This year, the festival has selected is Citizen: An American Lyric by poet and Yale Professor Claudia Rankine. From now through June 23, the NHFPL will be distributing free copies at each of its five branches.
The “Big Read” is run through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), from which the festival received $16,000 specifically for the program this year. Each year, the NEA provides a list of suggested books for its cities; Citizen is one of the 2018 picks. This year, New Haven is one of 75 cities participating.
“I like to think the Big Read creates a citywide book club,” said New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. “This project inspires me on so many levels … the Big Read is meant to advance New Haven toward a greater love for learning by reading.”
A book of poetry, prose, and multimedia, Citizen opens with a series of vignettes in which Rankine is the intimate, unflinching first-person narrator, our front seat to the fact that racism is alive and well. Behind the cover—a work by the artist David Hammons that reads as a nod to Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, but was made almost 20 years before his murder in Florida—is a world of pain that will be intimately familiar to some readers, and too new to others.
In one snapshot, she is in a checkout line, and the person behind the register asks her if she’s sure her card will work. A white friend who has checked out before her looks on, but says nothing. The cashier asked her nothing of the sort moments earlier.
In another, her friend has stepped out onto Rankine's lawn in the evening, and a white neighbor calls the cops on him. Over the phone to Rankine, the neighbor assures it couldn’t possibly be her friend—he knows what her friend looks like, and this is someone else. But when she calls her friend to check in, she hears sirens in the background.
The stories continue, punctuated by history lessons, detours in popular culture and visual art, until they flow into verse. Her prose is succinct and hard-hitting, carrying with it the weight of history, and white America’s collusion in its misdeeds. So too the poetry, which demands reading and rereading for its use of language and dense verse.
From now through the end of June, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and its participating partners will be holding over two dozen community conversations, film screenings, and family learning programs across the city.
But the book has already been making an impact in New Haven, where it is being taught in this semester’s Gateway Community College curriculum and in six New Haven public schools. Earlier this year, The Word came in to train teachers in a Citizen-focused curriculum, and will be hosting a poetry slam linked to the material on June 13, at First & Summerfield United Methodist Church downtown.
“Our students are a good example of people who leave with microaggressions all over their environment, and they believe that no matter what, they’re going to succeed,” said NHPS Director of Instruction Dr. Abie L. Benitez. “Success looks different in the cities. The cities are full of resilient individuals.”
So too at Gateway. As poets J-Sun and Tarishi “Midnight” Shuler performed (watch the video at the top, or a Facebook live from the event here) and attendees munched on collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and cornbread from Sandra’s Next Generation, Festival Co-Director Tom Griggs said that the team was excited to announce Gateway as a new partner.
In March, the college’s poetry club hosted a discussion of Citizen, where students read aloud from the book and then talked about the experiences that Rankine had gone through, and how those lined up with their own. Then on May 1, the college brought Rankine to campus, after students requested a chance to meet the poet, and ask her questions about the book.
“It was like wildfire on campus,” recalled Dr. Clara Ogbaa, director of library systems at the college. “It’s impacted so many Gateway students whose voices were never heard.… some people were talking about what happened in their homes, schools, in their environments that they bottled in and couldn’t say to anybody.”
“Everybody was talking about how racism affects them,” she added. “If you have not read this book, read it.”