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Convocation on Monday with Claudia Rankine, author of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was a catalyst for some disconnected thoughts that have been floating around in my head. Her poetry synthesized them into a whole and provoked several meaningful conversations outside of the auditorium, exactly like convocation is supposed to.
The subtitle of her book is “An American Lyric,” and I struggled with that choice for a while after convo. The poetry in her book isn’t what I would call lyrical. It’s a synergy of free verse, formatted and content-driven as an editorial on world events. You could submit her poems to a newspaper and find them in the Op-Ed section, only different for the improved symbolic and aesthetic quality and the occasional stream-of-consciousness style.
Then I thought of Walt Whitman’s poetry and suddenly “lyric” made sense. This is Claudia Rankine’s “lyric,” the “song of herself.” It is individualistic and self-reliant, not unlike the Transcendentalists we’ve been reading recently in my American Literature class. It is an active, reflective response to events between 2000 and 2004 that many of us remember, but few have processed the way she has.
Why haven’t we processed these things? I say across the aisle from a woman who burst into tears during Rankine’s reading of a reflection on 9/11. The rawness of her emotion was discomforting. 9/11 was a tragedy, so why don’t I feel that strongly about it? I could tell myself that time numbs the grief (though clearly it hasn’t for her) and the direct effects of that day did not touch me as deeply as it did her.
But I wonder if it isn’t because I’ve become cynical.
Before our country could begin to process 9/11, it was seized by the media and the government as an instrument of persuasion, proof that we needed to go to war and that the world was no longer safe. We couldn’t treat it as a tragedy because it became a rallying cry, and I think there’s a difference. When we found out that the war’s support was not as sound as they originally cast it, 9/11 got muddied by the fallout of trust in the government, and that’s a shame.
The same day as that convocation, I had a current events quiz in Mass Media Writing and death and destruction had been the themes of weekend news. The U.S. military sent helicopters into Syria, a raid which resulted in the death of eight civilians. An attack in Pakistan killed twenty. Jennifer Hudson’s mother and brother were both stabbed and her nephew’s body was found later on Monday. There was an assassination plot on Barack Obama diverted.
Rankine said she was inspired to write her book following two events in 1999: the Supreme Court’s call to cease the voting re-count votes in the Bush-Gore election and the dragging death of a black man in Texas. Both events struck her as incidents that “should be happening in our time.”
Were the events this weekend any different? There was even another dragging death. How is it that most of us sit by and watch these things without comment?
Violence is incessant. These things happen all the time. Cynicism and the distance it creates is a defense mechanism for us. If we felt the grief that each of these events deserved, we would spend most of our lives crying. I understand that would cripple our ability to act even more than we already seem to be crippled.
But Monday, I decided that I would embrace those kinds of emotions, especially for that day. I felt indignant, angry, and sad. I even succumbed to emotions over Extreme Makeover Home Edition, even though I knew the show’s content and design were selected to bring those heart-wrenching warm fuzzies.
I could probably been more judicious with my emotional openness; choose events, rather than days to open up. But we do need to choose those moments. Being cynical all the time is an easy way out. And Claudia Rankine’s convocation showed us that reacting to events doesn’t have to be a grandiose, overly activist act. Just something.
With the election in less than a week, I hope people are choosing this time to NOT be cynical. Here is an event in our government—flawed as it is—designed to receive our input. We need to trust enough, be open enough, to believe that it’ll make a difference.
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