Not a collection of poems but a single “American Lyric,” Rankine’s fifth book is an artful and uncompromising portrait of racism. The poet charts a continuum of discrimination from the low hum of daily indignities to racial profiling to deadly violence. The names—Treyvon Martin, Rodney King, Serena Williams—and images remind us that this is not about abstract ideas but about individuals. “Did you see their faces?” Rankine asks again and again, the repetition underscoring that, fresh as the pain of King’s beating is, “before it happened, it had happened and happened”; there is a tradition for such things. That many of Rankine’s refrains are questions—“What did you say?” friends’ callous remarks startle her into demanding--references James Baldwin’s credo that “the purpose of art…is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” As Rankine tests American assumptions about race, she’s actively looking for “an answer to question,” and she turns even Rodney King’s lament into a greater challenge: “just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition,” she says. Her powerful, chilling work shows it should be a given—that is, every citizen’s right.
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