CSU Diversity Symposium: Keynote speaker Claudia Rankine

Ceci Taylor

The 20th annual Diversity Symposium at Colorado State University brought Claudia Rankine, author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a book-length poem about race and the Black experience in the United States. 

Angelica Murray Olsen, the program coordinator at the Women and Gender Advocacy Center at CSU, introduced the speaker as a collaboration with the Rams Read program. 


“‘Citizen’ lands on every reader as both an emotional and intellectual journey engaging all senses,” Olsen said. “I found the stories told to be personally relatable and also reflective of the everyday experiences of Black people in the United States. I’m glad that the impact of this book is one that we can share with all of you.”

Throughout the session, Rankine made references to her book and explained her thought process through the use of images and Black history. 

Rankine said that, although the pandemic was able to shut down a lot of things, it was not able to shut down anti-Black racism. 

“Somehow, Black people are still being killed in the streets, shot in the back, stopped from breathing,” Rankine said. “So I feel that these discussions are as crucial as they ever were.”

“So if you’re wondering, ‘why do diversity training?’ … This would be why. Because either you’re racist, or you’re anti-racist.” -Claudia Rankine, author of “Citizen: An American Lyric”

Rankine talked about the cover of “Citizen,” which depicts a black hood cut off from the rest of the hoodie against a stark white background. Rankine said the image is titled “In the Hood” and was made by David Hammons in 1993 after the beating of Rodney King. 

“What’s amazing about David Hammons is his ability to take one object and have it represent an American dynamic,” Rankine said. “The hoodie, as you know, is one way of criminalizing Black people.”

Rankine also referenced Hammons’ work “Concerto in Black and Blue” where Hammons turned off the lights in an empty gallery. Rankine said that they handed people blue flashlights so as not to bump into anyone else. 

“I found it an interesting metaphor to use to think about Blackness,” Rankine said. “That you enter into a kind of space and suddenly racist comments (and) anti-Blackness will just come up out of nowhere; you don’t know when you’re gonna bump into it.”

Rankine also talked about the way Black people have learned to accept the racism they experience. She referenced a story she had heard from a friend who had made a therapist appointment over the phone.

Rankine said the friend had approached the house and was yelled at by the therapist to leave. When the friend got the chance to explain that she had an appointment, the therapist apologized and let her in. 


“When I asked her what she did, she said she went to the appointment,” Rankine said. “I was shocked, … but we often do that: we often manage racism and take it in and move forward.”

Rankine also talked about her interest in tennis, especially with the racism Serena and Venus Williams experience in the sport. 

“I thought I would write this essay about Serena (Williams) because I felt like people had no idea how much she’s had to endure in terms of moments of aggression, misreading, unfair practices — simply because she is a Black woman,” Rankine said. 

The essay talks about the Williams sisters’ place in the tennis world, and despite their success, there are always people who are enraged they are there at all. 

Rankine also talked about her use of the image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 and why this particular image was the most difficult for her to get for the book.

Rankine said Getty Images was prevented from granting rights to use the image because people were buying the image in support of what was going on in it. 

“I guess white supremacist groups or white people of some kind were buying the image to use it in much the way that lynching postcards were used originally, during Jim Crow,” Rankine said. “They were sent around to friends and family: ‘This is what I did on the weekend.’ And they were also sent through the mail, as acceptable.”

Rankine said that the deaths of Shipp and Smith were horrible enough, but the true horror of the incident was the people attending the lynching, as seen in the picture, and just letting it happen.

Rankine said she removed the hanging Black men from the image to shine a light on the people attending the event. 

Rankine ended the lecture with an image by English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, who painted “Slave Ship.” Rankine said that this image is interesting to her because Turner painted it at a time when a ship captain, who had thrown dead and dying slaves overboard, was making an insurance claim for the destroyed “merchandise.” 

“It wasn’t even about people,” Rankine said. “It was about merchandise. He says he threw the Black people in the ocean to lighten the ship during a storm.”

Rankine said she wanted to end with this painting because she loves it and she loves Turner. She said that no matter what is going on, there are always people who know better and who are anti-racist. 

“So if you’re wondering, ‘why do diversity training?’” Rankine said. “This would be why. Because either you’re racist, or you’re anti-racist.”

Ceci Taylor can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @cecelia_twt.