Incoming first-years will participate in the Undergraduate Orientation Book Forum, the only time the entire class reads the same book and participates in a discussion together with the author. This year, administrators selected acclaimed poet Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Rankine’s book takes a deep and critical look at race relations in America, and The Brandeis Hoot believes that it is important first-years are exposed to a work like this and will be encouraged to take a close look at race relations in their new community here at Brandeis.
“Citizen” is a lyric poem that draws on experiences of the author and stories she received from others about racial prejudice in America. She writes about racism with striking clarity, writing in a matter-of-fact tone to emphasize the reality of racism on a day-to-day basis. The book is interspersed with short “scenes” describing the effects of racial basis, like a coworker telling the narrator he doesn’t understand why a person of color has to be hired when there are so many other great candidates, or the narrator going to her therapy appointment and being shouted at to get off the property before the therapist realizes who the narrator actually is. The later half of the book also delves into the issue of police brutality, with several shorter poems acting as memorials to people of color killed by police.
Choosing this book shows that Brandeis is taking steps to help its community engage in important conversations about race and inequality that students have been pushing us all to have. Asking the whole class of new students to read a work which describes the author’s experience with racism is a positive step in making Brandies a university that lives up to the social justice ideals of its namesake in modern times. It is also valuable that Rankine will appear in person for the book forum, so that students can hear firsthand her motivations for writing the book. Time will also be reserved for a question and answer session, furthering the engagement between the author and students who thought critically about the material.
This is a step in the right direction, and first-year students should take a lot away from the book forum but must still continue engaging with material like “Citizen.” However, they should not take the book selection to mean that Brandeis has no issues with racial equality or injustice of all kinds. Instead, first-years should be critical of their new administration and know that racism is a problem at Brandeis. No institution is perfect, and for first-years and transfer students, this should only be the beginning of questioning the administration, criticizing injustice and confronting the country’s long history of racism. Students should see this book as an introduction to the types of questions they should be seeking out throughout their tenure at Brandeis—taking a AAAS class or the new course on the Asian American experience or attending a diverse array of events on campus—and beyond their years as a student.