Dear Faculty, Staff, Alumni and Friends,
On the evening of November 13, the award-winning poet Claudia Rankine zoomed into campus from her home in New York City and spent two hours talking primarily with our students. The event was organized by a group of faculty from the English Department, including Maya Hislop, Matt Hooley, Kimberly Manganelli, Jamie Rogers, Hannah Pittman-Goodwin, and Michael LeMahieu. It was the crowning event of a common read for English students of Rankine’s remarkable Citizen: An American Lyric (which I highly recommend, if you haven’t read it). Published in 2014, it is particularly apt and haunting in the wake of this past summer, a summer that was perhaps a watershed moment in race relations in this country. The book doesn’t belong to any fixed genre. It is more like a collage, combining anecdotes, personal recollections, poetry, reflections, journalism, and images.
It is the book’s last image I would like to ponder for the remainder of this message. Rankine ends with a painting by the 19th-century British artist, J.M.W. Turner, titled “The Slave Ship” (Original title: “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On”) (1840). It depicts the historical event in 1781 of the slave ship “Zong” caught in a terrible storm. The ship’s captain had decided to throw slaves bound for Jamaica overboard in an effort to collect insurance for cargo “lost at sea.” The event caused an uproar in England and subsequently moved Turner to portray the moment in his inimitable way.
Rankine reproduces the painting in its entirety and adds a detail from a corner showing the limb of a black person still in shackles surrounded by hungry fish. The image is grotesque and disturbing. But Rankine leaves it there without comment. The work of literature ends with an image. There are no words.
Towards the end of her presentation, Rankine talked about the painting and her thoughts. For her, it is, perhaps surprisingly, an image of hope: a white man from England more than a century and a half ago moved to express his horror at the treatment of people as though they were mere cargo.
How much has the world changed since then, I wonder.
Then Rankine added something very important: it doesn’t matter if it’s the 1800s or the 21st century. People who know something is wrong know something is wrong.
And I would like to add: the arts help us see and know when something is wrong.
Poets, artists, and composers have long held up a mirror to show us who we are. They have exposed the dystopian worlds we inhabit and towards which we are headed. They have also been able to imagine other, better, worlds towards which we must strive.
The creative arts compel us to reflect. They point out the consequences of our behavior. They also inspire hope and illuminate the way forward…
Nicholas Vazsonyi, Dean
College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities
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