Class of 2019 First Year Book
Washington College’s mission is to challenge and inspire emerging citizen leaders to discover lives of purpose and passion.
But what does the phrase ‘citizen leader’ mean? Why does the word ‘citizen’ precede ‘leader’? What does it mean to be a citizen of one’s country…and the world? How is citizenship understood in the United States? Is the experience of citizenship the same for all citizens? Why does becoming a leader require challenge as well as inspiration? And what challenges and forms of inspiration best prepare citizens to be leaders?
For the Class of 2019, we have chosen a first year book that will give you much opportunity to think about citizenship – Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
In Citizen, Claudia Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened” she says, “I was at a loss for words.”
Writing almost exclusively in the second person, Rankine explores moments like this; moments when racial differences and preconceptions make understanding and communication almost impossible. She tells us of a friend who says that Americans “battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self.” Her friend means that “…you mostly interact as friends with mutual interests and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths.”
Citizen challenges us to think about how individual citizens sometimes absorb the ideas and paradigms of dominant culture that can marginalize others. It challenges those of us who belong to dominant groups to consider how—maybe unconsciously or accidentally—we can convey to others the message that they are inferior or don’t belong in the social realms we inhabit. Rankine’s book wants to show that we can, with care and knowledge, push back against these marginalizing moments and create a state that empowers all of its citizens.
Citizen also asks us to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of frequent or pervasive comments and interactions that leave you wondering just what the other person meant to say. Did she mean to insult me? Did he mean to make me feel excluded, inferior? Didn’t she realize that what she said could be taken as an insult? Doesn’t he know the history of the words he used?
Being insulted or excluded is undoubtedly painful. But the uncertainty is part of the problem, too: Many studies in psychology show that feelings of uncertainty can produce stress, anxiety, fear and self-doubt. Frequent interactions where others’ intentions are uncertain can thus be devastating.
So Citizen is a challenging work. Readers who are not African American might think they have no way to relate to what Rankine describes. But many people have experienced something similar, if not as pervasive, as the experiences Rankine presents.
Maybe your body weight and shape are larger than dominant American standards of beauty and you’re told that you didn’t make the cheerleading squad because “You don’t represent the image the squad wants to convey.” Maybe you’re Asian-American, a citizen born and raised in the U.S., but people tell you, “Your English is really good,” as if you couldn’t possibly have spent your whole life in the U.S. Or maybe you’re really into computers and science fiction and you overhear someone call you “One of those geeks with no social life.” These moments in our lives, while painful to revisit, are an important personal resource for understanding other people’s experiences of similar but more pervasive incidents.
For, after all, we all know the names, faces and places: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Freddie Gray. Sanford, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri…and now our own Baltimore, Maryland. These horrifying deaths and their communities’ responses to them have forced American citizens to confront the past and present effects of racism in American life.
At Washington College we value critical analysis and civil discourse. We believe it’s important to think about and analyze carefully difficult but significant issues and to listen attentively to what other people have to say about them. We think everyone should read about and discuss hard ideas that challenge us in our world today—and then talk about these ideas with others, especially others who may share different backgrounds and experiences and opinions than ours. In asking you to engage with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, we invite you to join this community and this conversation.
Patrice DiQuinzio, Associate Provost
James Hall, Associate Professor of English