Critically acclaimed poet Claudia Rankine was named a 2016 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant. The prize couldn’t be more timely.
Recognized by the MacArthur Foundation as “a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence,” Rankine’s work borders on prophecy, particularly her lauded collection of lyrical essays Citizen and its searing commentary on police brutality, featured in two pages of the book.
The original focus of these two pages was not police brutality but racialized vigilante violence.
In the first print edition of Citizen, published in October 2014, one page listed “November 23, 2012 / In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” the day the 17-year-old from Florida was killed by Michael Dunn for playing loud music at a gas station. The other followed with “February 15, 2014 / The Justice System” marking the day a Florida jury declared a mistrial in Dunn’s case.
The pages visualized systemic racism in very sobering terms: Not even black children could be shielded from the deadly consequences of racism, and the criminal justice system couldn’t be trusted to provide redress. The onslaught of police brutality victims has made this even more palpable.
As Slate noted last year, Rankine’s subsequent editions have gone on to add the names of police brutality victims like Mike Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, and then a succession of lines with the words “In Memory of” followed by a blank space — the implication being that more names will soon fill the void. Rankine then replaced the text on the next page with a devastating three-line poem:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Rankine explained the change in an interview with the Guardian last year: “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he ‘looked like a demon’. And I don’t disbelieve it.”
She added: “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people.”
At least 2,195 people have been killed by police since Brown was killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson two years ago. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. Research has shown racial biases put black people at risk of being perceived as both magical and a persistent threat, regardless of what they do.
And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.
This week’s police shootings prove Rankine’s point. Terence Crutcher, 40, and Keith Lamont Scott, 43, are the latest black victims killed by law enforcement, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively.
Crutcher’s shooting is especially devastating: Crutcher had a stalled car when police approached him. Video evidence shows he had his hands in the air in the immediate moments before he was shot. Nonetheless, he has been called “a bad dude,” and the officer who shot him, Betty Shelby, said she “was never more scared in [her] life as in that moment right then.”
According to Time magazine, Rankine plans to use her MacArthur grant to build a Racial Imaginary Institute, bringing together scholars and artists that will have “as its center the dismantling of white dominance.”