The Creative Writing and Film Studies programs within the Department of English held a literary and video contest this past spring calling for student submissions of short prose, poetry, screenwriting, and video works exploring evolving notions of citizenship in the United States by asking students to respond to the question, “Who Is a Citizen?”
The works submitted focused on themes relevant to evolving notions of citizenship such as racial differences and prejudice, nationhood and personhood, interpersonal and systemic racialized violence, marginalized identities and experiences, migration and conflicted borders, or historical trauma.
The Who Is a Citizen? contest was held in conjunction with the John Lucas and Claudia Rankine: Situations exhibition on display at the Eli and Edyth Broad Art Museum until December 26, 2020, which marks the first time since 2008 that the entire series of Situation videos are presented in a solo exhibition. The videos combine still and moving images from archival, televised, and surveilled sources with voice-overs by Rankine to address both explicit acts of racism and insidious racist aggressions that are built into institutional structures and everyday life.
The contest also was held in conjunction with the College of Arts & Letters Signature Lecture Series, which hosted Rankine in an online interactive talk on racism and social justice on November 12, in which hundreds of people attended via Zoom from around the world.
The Who Is a Citizen? contest winners are:
- Maggie Lupton and Vanessa Thompson
- Tashal Brown and Vivek Vellanki
- Gabrielle Paulina-Hamill
- Kelsey Walker
- Hakeem Weatherspoon
- Hannah Ramirez
Each of the winners were awarded a $500 prize, and the winning projects are now on display at the Broad Art Lab until April 10, 2021.
Contest winners also attended a Masterclass on September 26, where Rankine and Lucas analyzed the winning works and facilitated an open discussion with the contest winners.
“It was so exciting to hear them talk about our work with that amount of detail and the level of analysis around it, and just knowing that they understood the different things we were doing was amazing,” Tashal Brown said. “To have Claudia Rankine and John Lucas recognize those themes and to name them was very exciting. I don’t really call myself an artist, but to know that what we were trying to do actually came across is powerful.”
I don’t really call myself an artist, but to know that what we were trying to do actually came across is powerful.Tashal Brown, Spring 2020 graduate of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Ph.D. program
The Who Is a Citizen? contest was made possible by an MSU College of Arts & Letters Engaged Pedagogy Grant, awarded to the Departments of English, Film Studies, Creative Writing, and the MSU Broad. The Who Is a Citizen? exhibition at the Broad Art Lab was supported by the Alan and Rebecca Ross endowed exhibitions fund.
The following are highlights from five of the eight contest winners, who offered to share a deeper perspective on their experience with the Who Is a Citizen? contest.
Maggie Lupton and Vanessa Thompson
Two collaborative projects were among the five winning entries. One of those was by freshmen Maggie Lupton, Arts and Humanities and Film Studies, and Vanessa Thompson, Arts and Humanities, who created the short film, Civil Trinity, which is modeled after a poem written by Thompson. For their piece, Lupton and Thompson, who are now both sophomores, flipped the stereotypical conception of an American citizen from a straight, white male to a queer, Black woman.
“I was basically writing about the oppressions faced by queer people, people of color, and women, which is the complete opposite of what people think when they think of a typical American citizen,” Thompson said.
A large portion of the video focuses on Thompson’s face.
“We also used imagery of hands and paint to depict being pulled in different directions and being exploited,” Lupton said. “We also did a lot with lights and shadows in the video to demonstrate the different sides of a person, kind of like that tonal switch that someone can make when they have different identities.”
For Lupton and Thompson, winning the contest as first-year students was a powerful way to kick off their Spartan journey.
Being recognized is just amazing and I’m really grateful for that experience. The way Claudia Rankine analyzed my film in the masterclass and was able to articulate everything that I was trying to make clear to the audience was awesome.Maggie Lupton, Arts and Humanities and Film Studies freshman
“Being recognized is just amazing and I’m really grateful for that experience,” Lupton said. “The way Claudia Rankine analyzed my film in the masterclass and was able to articulate everything that I was trying to make clear to the audience was awesome.”
Thompson, a first-time poet, also was thrilled by the masterclass and the analysis of her work.
“Hearing Claudia talk about my writing was really exciting and special,” Thompson said. “I have never really written poetry before, and I have definitely never published anything I’ve written or showed anyone anything. So, to hear her compliment it was really exciting.”
Tashal Brown and Vivek Vellanki
The other winning collaborative project, No, Where Are You Really From?, was submitted by Tashal Brown and Vivek Vellanki, who both graduated from the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Ph.D. program in spring 2020.
Their project is a four-year culmination of work that first began in 2016 as an assignment for Brown and Vellanki’s Critical Race Theory class.
“I moved to the U.S. for this Ph.D. program, and it was only my second semester here [when Tashal and I started the project],” Vellanki said. “Already, though, by then, I had been in a couple of situations where either I was or someone I was around was being asked, ‘Where are you from?’ and then people sort of pressing when they’re not happy with your answer. Most often it was white folks who would ask those questions.”
No, Where Are You Really From? challenges the narrative that United States citizenship equates to whiteness by directing questions about nationality toward white folks in order to understand how they respond. Although the project initially began as a term paper, Brown and Vellanki have transformed their work into both a 20-minute performance piece as well as a three-minute video for the “Who Is a Citizen?” contest.
Both Tashal and I felt that there is a lot written about microaggressions that people of color face, but not a lot about how white people are perpetrating it and how they don’t understand the racialized notions of the questions they’re asking when it’s flipped back to them.Vivek Vellanki, Spring 2020 graduate of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Ph.D. program
“What came out of asking that question in a slightly different way, was that most often white students and white people don’t understand the connotation of the question, so it was really a way of switching that gaze around,” Vellanki said. “Both Tashal and I felt that there is a lot written about microaggressions that people of color face, but not a lot about how white people are perpetrating it and how they don’t understand the racialized notions of the questions they’re asking when it’s flipped back to them.”
Vellanki is now a post-doctoral fellow at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Brown is a visiting professor at Denison University, Ohio. Although Brown and Vellanki have both graduated from MSU, they plan on expanding their project by creating a series that explores related questions.
Hannah Ramirez, an English Creative Writing junior, created another winning project, Eres Ciudadana.
The project is a spoken word poem addressing generational trauma and misconceptions about immigration rights. Eres Ciudadana tells the story of Ramirez’s grandmother coming to America in the 1970s and details the sacrifices she has made to give her family an opportunity for a better life.
“As an artist, I am a fiction writer and poet. My words are both a craft and a tool,” Ramirez said. “For me, this contest is a way to make my voice and my story known. It is a way for me to speak about my people and our struggle, and hopefully to connect with or educate other people.”
To view the additional Who Is a Citizen? projects, visit the link.