Renowned African-American poet Claudia Rankine will join the Yale faculty this coming fall, to excitement and fanfare from both professors and students.
Rankine, who is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, has authored five volumes of poetry and two plays. Her most recent work, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” is an award-winning book, written mostly in verse, with artwork and images interspersed. Some chapters recall Rankine’s own experiences, while others explain and critique historic and contemporary racial incidents. It holds the distinction of being the only book of poetry to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category. Rankine, currently a professor in the English Department at the University of Southern California, will serve as an adjunct professor of English and African American Studies at Yale.
Faculty members and students interviewed were overwhelmingly excited about Rankine’s arrival, and students in particular hailed the timing of her hire, given recent campus discussions about faculty diversity.
“I’m positively over the moon that Claudia Rankine is joining Yale’s faculty,” African American Studies Department Chair Jacqueline Goldsby said. “Rankine’s a tremendous talent. It’s thrilling to bring a poet working at the peak of her powers to teach here. Our problem will be a great one to have: how to manage these course enrollments.”
Rankine’s hire is the result of a joint search between the English and the African American Studies Departments. Goldsby said both departments have a long tradition of studying poetry and decided to join forces to seek out a “leading figure” in black poetry, which she called one of the most exciting, vital spheres in contemporary literary culture. Following the search, Rankine has been hired through a creative arts appointment on a renewable five-year contract.
Rankine said in an email that her decision to come to Yale was a hard one, but she looks forward to engaging with both students and faculty.
“It was a difficult decision, but given my interests I accepted this offer because there are a number of scholars and artists involved in a similar line of inquiry,” Rankine said. “Selfishly, I look forward to being in conversation with all of them, especially those in the category of students who are not known to me yet.”
She added that she is putting together a course on whiteness for the fall term.
Professors and administrators interviewed hailed Rankine’s hire as a “transformative” moment for the University. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler described Rankine as one of the “most distinguished living poets in the English-speaking world,” while English and American studies professor and Humanities Divisional Director Amy Hungerford said Yale’s faculty and students have been admiring, teaching and writing about Rankine’s poetry for years.
There was particular excitement from both students and professors about Rankine’s critically acclaimed work “Citizen.” Alicia Lovelace ’17 said Rankine’s words have stayed with her ever since she heard Rankine speak about “Citizen” in New York.
“Yale needs professors like Claudia Rankine, now more than ever,” Lovelace said.
Goldsby called “Citizen” an intense, haunting read and said Rankine exemplifies the daring intelligence both departments wanted to find in their search.
Both Goldsby and English Department Chair Langdon Hammer praised Rankine’s use of multimedia. Hammer said Rankine is an innovative and intellectually challenging teacher who is involved not only in poetry but also in film, theater and visual art. He added that she will make connections across departments and programs.
The news of Rankine’s expected arrival was shared on the popular Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” Wednesday afternoon and generated much student enthusiasm.
Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17 said Rankine will help boost the morale of students wishing to study African-American literature and poetry, especially in light of recent faculty departures, including that of English and African American studies professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84. Still, she said some students have concerns about the temporary nature of Rankin’s hire.
“I know many students are worried though about her status as an adjunct professor and what that says about the future of her career at Yale and the commitment of the University to retaining her,” Johnson-Levy said.
Citizen won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other prizes.
Correction, April 21: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rankine is the chair of USC’s English department; in fact, she is a senior faculty member in the department.