In March, Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.
The book also had been nominated for the criticism award, the first time in the award’s history that a single book was nominated in two categories.
The book’s “inventive composition and topical content” invited readers to consider different avenues toward the urgent conversation about race and politics in America,” according to the poetry committee chairman.
Rankine, an English professor at Pomona College in California, speaks in Kansas City this week as part of the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University.
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“She is genuinely innovative as a poet,” said Robert Stewart, series director.
“She uses the techniques of poetry, but she blends them with prose and visual images in a combination of ways that are really moving the art form forward.
“Secondly, she is confrontational about her subject matter, especially in regards to racism in America. I like poets who confront the details of real experience, and she is one of those tough-minded people.”
Rankine speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday at Arrupe Hall on the Rockhurst University campus at 54th Street and Troost Avenue.
Admission is $3; no one will be denied admission for lack of funds.
WWI’s black 369th regiment in fiction
Earlier this year, Sgt. Henry Johnson posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
He received the nation’s highest award for valor for his actions during World War I as a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit sometimes called the Harlem Hellfighters.
Many supporters, some of them in Kansas City, worked for years on Johnson’s behalf, building a meticulous case from historical records regarding his courage.
So it’s a jolt to open “The Wilson Deception,” the latest presidential mystery by Washington lawyer and writer David O. Stewart, and follow the fictional exploits of another sergeant in the 369th.
That’s Joshua Cook, recently found guilty of desertion after he was apprehended while foraging for food for his starving comrades.
Cook’s quest for justice proceeds amid the post-war peace conference in Paris following World War I. Historical figures stroll through several scenes, chief among them President Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister.
But much of the book’s appeal comes from the edgy relationship between Speed Cook, a former baseball player and newspaper publisher who is the father of Joshua, and Jamie Fraser, a white U.S. Army physician.
Fraser is worried about influenza, especially since he has been leading the president through hospital wards.
Cook, meanwhile, wants him to pass along his son’s troubles to those accompanying the president and prime minister.
“It was interesting to try to sort out the relationship between a white man and black man in that era,” Stewart said. “It was socially uncomfortable and presented me with a provocative thing to work through.”
There are several parallels between the younger Cook and the actual Johnson, said Stewart, who as a child lived in Albany, N.Y., where Johnson spent much of his life.
The 369th fit his fictional needs, Stewart said.
“I wanted a fighting unit, but most of the black soldiers were sent over there to dig ditches. There was a lot of resentment among black soldiers over that.
“I wanted to use this setting as an opportunity to explore the experience of black soldiers during World War I, which were pretty bad. It took Henry Johnson almost 100 years to get his medal; that is unbelievable.
“It was an era of terrible injustice.”
Stewart speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to kclibrary.org.