One side or the other of that 'you'
Note: This conversation between David Naimon and Claudia Rankine is part of Between the Covers, hosted by Naimon, and was recorded on November 13, 2014 at the KBOO-FM studios in Portland, Oregon. This interview was transcribed by Amy Stidham and is available for listening here. It has been lightly edited for publication. — Amy Stidham
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, playwright, and multimedia documentarian Claudia Rankine. Rankine is a professor of English at Pomona College who in 2013 was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She has five collections of poetry, including The End of the Alphabet, Plot, and Nothing in Nature is Private. Her 2004 collection, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, was a genre-bending and -blending work of poetry, essay, and TV imagery, and earned her the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Rankine is here today on Between the Covers to talk about her follow-up to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, an equally innovative hybrid work of essay, poetry, and visual art from Graywolf Press entitled Citizen: An American Lyric. Citizen is shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award, and New Yorker critic Hilton Als describes it as follows: “Claudia Rankine’s Citizen comes at you like doom. It is the best note in the wrong song that is America. Citizen is Rankine’s Spoon River Anthology, an epic as large and frightening and beautiful as the country and various emotional states that produced it.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Claudia Rankine.
Claudia Rankine: Good morning, David. Thank you for having me.
Naimon: Let’s start with the origin story for Citizen. What was the original seed that began this project for you?
Rankine: It’s hard, you know, after seven years to remember exactly the moment, but I think Serena Williams. I had been documenting and watching her for years and I wanted to write a piece about the kinds of stresses that she negotiated as a tennis player, and once you begin to look at those microaggressions that happened to her on the court, you begin to turn them back to yourselves. So, I began to document and to ask friends to give me their stories and that began to accumulate and eventually Citizen happened.
Naimon: At the beginning of Citizen, we start with personal microaggressions. A lot of the instances you include are happening in scenarios of established intimacy with colleagues or friends. Can you talk more about the importance of that choice?
Rankine: I think we all know the sort of supremacist aggressions. So, if I said, “A skinhead came up to me and did x or y thing,” it would be, like, of course. [Laughs.] Whereas, the idea that there was a postrace moment in the United States — you know, people kept saying that, and you kept thinking, “No, but I know that I’m feeling and experiencing and negotiating racism all the time.” So I wanted to look at it on the level of personal, close encounters, encounters that you seek out, encounters that you treasure, beloveds in your life. And yet, those ways in which skin color just kind of trips everybody up from moment to moment.
Naimon: Some of the more powerful examples were people interacting with you on the phone who didn’t know you were black and then the way that changed when they discovered you in person.
Rankine: Exactly. You realize that it really has to do with your skin color, and that’s it. The minute you show up as a black person, a previously harmless encounter turns into one that suddenly has this current of aggression in it. I don’t know if it has to do with expectations around blackness and whiteness, or if it has to do with what one would do for a white person versus what one would do for a black person, depending on who you are, but it’s always disappointing.
Naimon: I think one of the crucial points or choices in this book is that you chose to tell it from the second person in a way that I think is very powerful and very unsettling, both at the same time. I imagine that because it’s told in the second person that every person is reading it differently in terms of how much or how little they can identify with any given act that they’re asked to be a participant in.
Rankine: Exactly. That was the intent. The question of how one positions oneself relative to the people in any vignette. I wanted the reader to have to push it away or own it, and it seemed like the second person was the perfect strategy for that. Also, I liked that we were talking about the other people, and so the second person seemed to address otherness in a way. It pushed away the centrality of the first person.
Naimon: Talk a little bit about what the title means for you: Citizen.
Rankine: One of the things about that word as the title is that it begins to suggest a kind of insistence. I don’t know if I went in thinking that that’s what I was doing, but I both like the insistence of Citizen up against David Hammons’s hoodie, which he did in response to Rodney King’s beating, and not Trayvon Martin’s murder, because everybody thinks it’s a new image, when in fact it’s decades old. I like that way in which it says, “This too is citizen,” in terms of that hoodie. But I also wanted to have it as an open space, almost like a field, and one enters into what it means to be a citizen and what it looks like for some citizens. In fact, what it looks like for all citizens, if you’re on one side or the other side of that “you.” So everybody’s negotiating, and it becomes a very American word for me, in this context.
Naimon: And you’re also talking about the supposed postracial America that we’re in, and this book feels of a time. Thinking of the people obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate, it feels like this idea of Citizen — it isn’t just about a question of belonging, of being citizens together, but it also is about us vs. them. Who is the citizen?
Rankine: Exactly. The whole thing around the birth certificate was ridiculous, but that’s exactly what it was asking. Is this man a legitimate citizen, basically. And I think it seeps out into the bodies of all blacks. I went back and forth about whether or not to include the longform birth certificate itself, rather than just a reference to it, but in the end, I thought, to include the actual birth certificate would be to be making an argument that doesn’t need to be made, if that makes sense.
Naimon: No, that totally makes sense. You mention that it seeps into the bodies of all blacks and this idea of the bodily experience feels very present in Citizen. You have a line, “resilience does not erase moments lived through,” “the body has memory.” Can you talk a little bit about the body in relationship to your poetry?
Rankine: You know, the first question you asked me was about the origin of this book, and I said it was Serena Williams, and it was Serena Williams, but I was also very much interested in the health of people, especially black people, the rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, all of those things within the black community. So, I started out doing a lot of research on why certain diseases, obesity hit the black community so high. On a certain level, you feel like it has to be tied to trauma and has to be tied, on some level, to having to negotiate more than one should have to negotiate. Much of that material got stripped away, but it was also one of my concerns, initially.
Naimon: You mention the cover, by David Hammons, In the Hood, which was not about Trayvon Martin, but now is also about Trayvon Martin. It feels like the perfect cover for this book in the sense that a hoodie can be used as a way to conceal or to try to blend in, and it also is a signifier in our culture for race, class, and gender, potentially. It deals with this seen/unseen, belonging/standing out, and when you’re reading the parts about Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane, the French Algerian soccer player who headbutted the Italian player in the World Cup, you really get this sense that there’s something treacherous about trying to call out someone as a racist if you are a person of color. Can you talk about that conundrum a little bit?
Rankine: Yeah, I think that the incoherency of these moments, especially when you’re talking about microaggressions rather than, you know, the big, overt lynchings, just moment to moment, that becomes the issue, the question of who’s crazy. Are you crazy for having done this to another person? Or are you crazy for having called it out? What is able to be read versus what is open to interpretation? That, in a way, becomes the subject of Citizen, rather than racism itself. It’s really about: Can we at least begin to think about the things that we say and do as impacting another person, despite our intentions? A friend of mine was telling me that her son brought home a thing from school saying, “If you have a costume for Halloween, we only ask that you consider how it will impact someone else if that someone else belongs to that costume in a certain way,” which I think is a fantastic thing for a school to have sent home. But it’s that question of can you understand that despite your intention maybe you are in fact embodying or communicating aggression against someone else?
Naimon: This ties into the moments of anger that happen for Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane that make them labeled as if they’ve gone insane or they’ve gone mad instead of looking at what they’re ultimately calling out at this moment.
Rankine: Exactly. Our sense of decorum in the United States means that we forget everything up until the moment of the response so that the response becomes its own thing and not reactive at all. There’s no sense of a call and response. There’s just response. And if you step back ten minutes before, you would say, “Oh, of course that is the appropriate response to that,” but for some reason we don’t. It’s almost like we think it’s bad manners to say, “That person did this thing, and so therefore, she responded in this way.”
Naimon: Well, it also makes me think of family narratives. When one member of a family is calling out something messed up in a family dynamic, often they’re being blamed by the other family members for saying it, rather than what they’re saying actually being looked at, as if it’s threatening the narrative.
Rankine: Exactly, and I think that is the problem. One has kind of an idealist notion about what America is and what it should do and be. And if you call out the moments of breaks, the breaks in those narratives, you are causing people to have to do a kind of looking. They don’t want to have to look because then they are implicated in it.
Naimon: In case you just tuned in, you’re listening to Between the Covers and we’re talking today to Claudia Rankine, the author of Citizen: An American Lyric. How much or how little did you have your hands in creating Citizen as an actual, physical object: the choice of color, the brightness of the paper, or the type of print that was used in the book?
Rankine: I have to admit that I can’t give it over to anyone else. [Laughs.] And the nice thing is my husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, he is a visual arts person, so in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and here, we are on the phone constantly with Graywolf, and that’s what’s lovely about Graywolf. They allow us to do it. Just like, “this can’t happen, this has to do this, this has to be that.” And they’re incredibly responsive — and responsible — to the idea that the presentation of the book is part of the book, so it cannot be handed over to someone else.
Naimon: When you started Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen — prior to that your books were less multimedia oriented, and your press at the time, I read, didn’t like the direction you were going and didn’t want to give you the freedoms that Graywolf has ultimately given you.
Rankine: Exactly. You know it’s funny, because you have a press and they do a number of your books, so you expect that as you change and mature as a writer that they will stay with you, but they said, “No, this is not what we signed on for.” And in a way, it was a great thing for me, because after the moment of incredulous horror, of feeling like, “Oh, I don’t have a publisher for Lonely,” and then Graywolf showed up and they have been so fantastic to work with in that they trust you. They — Jeff Shotts — even if he comes in with one idea and you say, “This isn’t going to work for me,” it’s gone. So, it’s been fantastic. I have to say, it’s been a really great marriage between Graywolf and me.
Naimon: One of the reasons I asked about the book as an object and how much it came to be that way because of choices you made is because I kept inferring things about the book’s physicality, the body of the book, and I wasn’t sure whether it was my imagination or not, but even the contrast of the bright, white paper and then the quote you have from Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” I’m connecting those two things. I’m also fascinated by how, reading all these reviews of Citizen, people are all coming away with different things from the format. I read, I think yesterday, it might have been in the New Yorker, that it reminded someone of a police log, the way the text was laid out on the page, and I hadn’t thought of that.
Rankine: I hadn’t thought of that either.
Naimon: Yeah, it’s fascinating. So tell us a little bit about the role that the visual art plays in Citizen. So we have three levels of text. In terms of narrative, we have the everyday microaggressions of invisible racism, then the celebrities that we follow that are judged in a certain way around their struggles around racism. And then we have more notorious acts of violence that we see, mostly against black men. But all of this is punctuated by different pieces of art, and I would love to hear some of the considerations you had around placing the images in the book.
Rankine: In a sense, I almost see the book as a collaboration with these amazing artists, because they had to give permission for the use of their work. Then it became almost a curatorial moment, where you’ve — I, I shouldn’t be disassociating from my own action — I went and found images that were in a symbiotic conversation with the text. Often I was already thinking about, for instance, the Glenn Ligon piece that takes the Zora Neale Hurston line when I was writing. I don’t usually like to have images that illustrate; I like when the images kind of create their own path and don’t lock onto the text as a moment that shuts it down as an illustrative moment. But in this book, I decided that I would weave in references to some of the images as part of the fabric of thinking, because for me, that’s how these images in the world work. I see a collages piece by Wangechi Mutu and it stays with me and I think about the impact of it in terms of racism, antiblack racism, whatever kind of racism, and then it becomes a real object in your thinking life, as you move around, it seems to move into a space of answer. So, I put the images in the book in places where I wanted quiet or I wanted a break from the text, but continued engagement with the subject, if that makes sense.
Naimon: It does make sense. You also include some transcripts and some video stills of the situation videos that you do with your husband, John Lucas. Tell us a little bit about the videos.
Rankine: The videos — you know, John just finished a film called The Cooler Bandits, in which he documents the life of four African American men who committed a robbery when they were eighteen and then went to prison for twenty years. So sometimes when he’s talking about these things, I’ll go and write something because I’m thinking about it. The piece on my brothers, dear brothers, was a piece that got written partly thinking about them, partly thinking about Trayvon Martin, on the phone. Then he will have footage, that he’s had from his documentary, somehow we just take a break from our individual projects and work together for a moment, and then we go off again into our own stuff. So, they’re very organic to our domestic life, if that makes sense.
Naimon: Yeah, and it sounds like it’s mutually stimulating and beneficial for your genres.
Rankine: Yes, exactly. For a while he was thinking of putting poems in his film, but it didn’t work, because it didn’t work. But it’s that same kind of thing, where it’s like, well, you have that material and I have this material and what can we do together?
Naimon: One of the areas of Citizen that haunts me the most, and perhaps it does because I’m coming to it as a white reader, is when you go to England and you’re hanging out with an English writer and there are riots going on in England similar to the Rodney King riots and the writer says to you, “Are you going to write about this?” with the sense that he would never consider writing about it. I would love for you to unpack that moment for us a little bit and tell us what place that has in Citizen.
Rankine: Well, the question of whose problem is this. Is this an American problem? Is the problem as much whiteness as it is aggression against blackness? Should the white reader think, “Wait, I, in fact, should be writing this book?” You know, I was thinking about policemen the other day, and so I had this one line: “Because white men can’t manage their imagination, black men are dying.” But then I thought, no I’m really talking about policemen, so I changed it to “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.” But I began to think that those white policemen, I think, really believe that they’re threatened. I don’t think that they’re really just going out there shooting to shoot. I think that they’re so jumpy inside their imagination, that when they’re presented with these unarmed black men, they, in their imagination, think that the next moment they’re about to be attacked. And so they kill them. So the question is how can whiteness control its own imagination. So it is our problem, this white imagination.
Naimon: But if we step back from the white policeman and we look at, say, the white writer in his comfortable home in England, talking to you about the riots, I wonder if also part of it is the white assumption that everything that they do is the norm, that they’re not actually aware of the fact that they’re making a choice not to engage, essentially.
Rankine: Exactly. Right.
Naimon: Because the policeman is engaged and is imagining the threat, potentially, but the white writer, who’s not writing about it, waiting for you to write about it and engage it, it seems to me they don’t realize that they’re imagining something.
Rankine: Exactly, and they’re imagining the fact that this is not connected to them. And they’re imagining and enacting microaggressions all the time and they’re not aware of it because they don’t see whiteness as its own construction. And they don’t understand that their own positioning is a position of privilege that they walked into, not that they are.
Naimon: This makes me think of the ultimately productive exchange/conflict you had with Tony Hoagland at the AWP around one of his poems, which interestingly had to do about tennis also and involved some racist language in the poems. Can you talk about that, about this white poet writing what he wrote in relation to what we just discussed around engaging these issues?
Rankine: Well, Tony was my colleague and I think much of his work is intentionally provocative around sexism, homophobia, racism. It’s meant to engage one in considering these things. When we discussed it, what was unfortunate was his unwillingness to engage, because I do believe that if he were willing to have a public discussion around my perception of his work, for example, it would be a useful dialogue. Instead, it degenerated into something where people just felt like they had to take sides. You know, “I support this poet” or “I support that poet.” But, you know, if not Tony, then someone. I think it’s important for us to begin to talk about these things, because I think we get stuck, because we are thinking and thinking and thinking within our own heads and coming up to our own impasse because we’re not able to communicate.
Naimon: So in a way, I wonder if this imaginary — I know he’s not imaginary — but this imaginary white writer in England who’s not going to write about the riots there, if he is fearful of that dialogue, fearful of the dialogue that Tony Hoagland invited by engaging it in his art but who was unable to engage it once the art was out there and being responded to.
Rankine: I think something positive that came out of my interaction with Tony was I started this website where I invited people to write about the racial imaginary and their own difficulties writing race and we received some really interesting essays by white writers who expressed their own frustrations, their own sense of fear around addressing a hot topic, the fear of saying the wrong thing. We had essays that always went to Africa, always went to the South. You know what was interesting was that since whiteness itself wasn’t a subject, the only way to talk about race was to talk about it relative to the black body, and not in terms of what it means to inhabit whiteness and move around the world as a white being. So, those essays are going to be published in January by Fence Books.
Naimon: That’s fantastic.
Rankine: So I’m hoping that will be a moment when at least there will be explorations of the thinking around, the fear around writing about race by white writers.
Naimon: Do any writers come to mind who do write about moving around in a white body and engaging the issue of race from that whiteness?
Rankine: Martha Collins is a poet who does it. Rachel Zucker, whose work I love, also. I like her work because she’s always calling up her own inadequacies and questioning them within the work itself. Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down, I think is an excellent example of a white male writer investigating white masculinity, especially with the pressures of a capitalist society. So his book Shut Up Shut Down is an excellent example of that. So I think people are beginning to move into this arena.
Naimon: Perhaps our listeners can hear a little bit of the language from Citizen, if you have something you could read for them.
Rankine: Sure. So here’s one of the microaggressions.
[Reads from Citizen.]
Naimon: You’ve been listening to Claudia Rankine read from Citizen: An American Lyric. You’ve said before in interviews that you write into moments that astonish you, and you can feel that in what you just read. Does the outcome need to be uncertain or in flux in what you’re exploring when you begin to explore it?
Rankine: Mostly, because then I wouldn’t think about it as much. Barbara Johnson says that a stereotype is a text that’s already read. So I think as a writer, the moments that engage you and dog you are ones that throw you into flux, that stay open because there is a moment of, not just incredulousness, just wanting to understand, wanting to understand how you even got there, in a sense.
Naimon: Well I love that James Baldwin quote you have, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”
Naimon: That’s great. You’ve also said that you reject the idea that there’s a division between politics and poetry. You’ve cited Cornel West as an influence around how he evokes this sense of responsibility. Yet, you’ve also said, “I am not interested in narrative or truth or truth to power on a certain level. I am fascinated by affect, by positioning, by intimacy.” Tell us about that juxtaposition of those two parts of you.
Rankine: You know, Lauren Berlant is a brilliant critic, she wrote Cruel Optimism, and she and I are friends.
Naimon: Is she the person you discussed Citizen with in BOMB Magazine?
Rankine: Yes, we did the interview together in BOMB Magazine. She, I think, is engaged as a critic, also on a certain level as an activist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself that way. Partly because I don’t know where the text will lead me, so I don’t necessarily think of the destination. In that way, even though I feel fully engaged politically, and I feel that the material of politics is the material of poetry for me, I don’t feel as if I’m writing towards an argument, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m writing inside encounter, inside exploration of the encounter within a very politicized field. You can’t strip away the components of our citizenship, our race, what capitalism does to us in terms of what we want and how we’re structured in terms of desire. So those things, our politics around gender, sexuality, all of those things are alive for me constantly and in play constantly. But I don’t think that I’m writing towards the resolution of any problem.
Naimon: And so I guess the corollary might be that if you had strong feelings about something politically, but you knew how you felt and knew the outcome of whatever exploration might happen there, you might not be compelled to write about it.
Naimon: That’s interesting.
Rankine: Yeah, for instance, I wouldn’t write about Barack Obama becoming president, but I would write about the anxiety around Barack Obama’s body during his run for the presidency. So I know I support his presidency and I know I will vote for him, so I’m not interested in writing about that. How I hold my own anxiety relative to his black body in a country that also holds supremacist bodies, that is interesting to me, that I would write about.
Naimon: I’m interested in hearing how you feel Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the book before Citizen, and Citizen are a pairing and how they aren’t. I feel like there’s this great resonance between the two in the sense that I do think that Citizen is a record, in a way, of the illusion of a postracial America in the time of a black president and that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a post-9/11 George Bush-era exploration of racism and loneliness. Is that how you see it as well? Do you see them as somehow a resonant pair or are there ways in which they’re very distinctly not related?
Rankine: I think I agree with you completely that they come out of a time. And those times are headed up by certain presidents with certain policies and certain positionings, which determine how we as citizens respond and what we think about and what we fear and what we are disgusted by, you know, all of those things. All of the emotions are coming forward. So I think the tie and the continuity, the continuance is there. The difference is the ranginess of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. I feel that Citizen is much more focused. The camera suddenly is focused on this pendulum between the black and white bodies. Whereas in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, it was more of a pan across the country, in a way, with all its concerns. In Citizen, I didn’t take up issues with Arab Americans or immigration issues around border abuses. I thought about doing it, and I actually did a lot of research and considered ways to open out, but it was almost as if the momentum of the microaggressions began to form its own place. So the other things are just waiting, I guess. They’re waiting.
Naimon: Well it feels like some of the things you explored in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, for instance, the loss of complexity after 9/11, in terms of our response, have come back to haunt us now. And some of what you’re exploring in Citizen, I think of, for instance, even though Ferguson is not in Citizen, I would imagine it would probably would have been in Citizen if Citizen had come out later. But the overmilitarization of the police force feels like something that was born in the world of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and it has borne rotten fruit in the world of Citizen. It just feels like that conversation between the two books is still happening.
Rankine: Because it’s the same country. [Laughs.] You know, we are moving in very logical and unfortunate ways, unfortunately.
Naimon: I’d love to touch on the role of technology in your work. Both of these books are multimedia, essentially, and also you have this repeating image in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely of the television and the static on the television. When I think of technology, much like I think of the word citizen, I have a sort of doubling of my response. One, I think of the ways in which it estranges us, the ways in which we don’t look in the face of the person next to us. We don’t go out in the world and form community. On the other hand, I see all the ways in which technology connects and might make visible things that we wouldn’t have a chance to create empathy around, or even allow us to create narrative before someone else creates narrative for us.
Naimon: I feel like you’re playing with that in both books.
Rankine: Well I’m really interested in surveillance and the ways in which surveillance now is turning back — you know, if you talk about “speak to power,” turning back on the power that put it in place. And so the police cars with their cameras are documenting their aggressions. The cell phones are allowing us to see things we would have had to have taken in a kind of he-said, she-said moment. Hearsay, I guess is the word I’m looking for, a hearsay moment. So that to me is very exciting. You know, when I’m places now and something looks funny, the first thing I think is, “Take out your cell phone.” You know, get the video on. And I think more and more people are in that mode.
I spend a lot of time in airports and getting from one place to another. And the other day I had this horrible thing where the flight was cancelled and cancelled, so I was in the airport for like five hours. But I’m sitting in my seat, watching people go back and forth and I was thinking it’s really interesting to see how happy people are, because they’re talking to people on their phones all the time, who they love, out in public. And so they’re laughing and walking, but it’s all in this phantom way, which is so bizarre, but it’s also endearing to see people in these private moments in these public places. I started actually photographing it, because people would laugh in the way that they would laugh at their beloved on their couch, except they’re walking from Gate 10 to Gate 15. It’s really fascinating, the ways in which our bodies are being opened up, because technology’s allowing us to connect phantomly, you know, with this invisible other.
Naimon: That’s really well put. I would love to hear about your experience going to Ferguson recently, because, while that was initially unfolding, the protests after Michael Brown was killed, I noticed how much more I was engaged because of technology, because there were people on the streets who were filming in real time. And Twitter was creating a narrative before any of the news could deliver it to me, assimilated. It created all sorts of fascinating discussions, the technology did.
Naimon: I would love to hear about your experience of actually going there.
Rankine: Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is fascinating in many ways, because the way in which, for example, the police pulled out the video of him stealing the cigars and roughing up the shop owner — the way they inserted that into the moment where they identified the police officer, as if to say, “We can reframe this.” You have this other image of the unarmed man being shot, but we will give you a look at another way to look at this, which isn’t the place or time of the shooting. And so I love the insertion of that video at that moment. Then we have these other videos, the phone videos of people with the body lying in the street and the police just standing there and the audio of people saying, “But he just had his hands up, why did they shoot him with his hands up?” So then we had that. And then now, we have this information that in the police car, there is blood, so clearly there’s a struggle. And I love that now this new information is not documented visual information. That, you know, all of the documented information is clearly not working in order for justice, or we have to have this new, invisible information being put in place. So it’s that question of what is seen and not seen. This case is really interesting, because if we go back to, you know, the LA riots, and the trigger in that was injustice despite what was seen. The body was being kicked, it was filmed, and yet, it didn’t matter. So here I think they’re trying to get us away from the visuals, because the visuals don’t work to support the narrative, so they’re creating these other narratives. I’m not being articulate in terms of “and therefore I think,” but these are all of the things that I’m thinking about around Ferguson.
Going there was interesting for me because I felt as if the scene of Ferguson was taken over by people like me, people who were there to see. And so it was an odd moment to be on that street with so many foreigners inside this public housing complex. There was the memorial to Michael Brown. I was standing there, and two men came up to me. One of them said, “He looks just like me,” and I didn’t say anything, because I thought he was talking to himself, actually. Then he said it again, he said, “He looks just like me,” and so at that point, I turned to look at him and he did look like him. He was a teenage boy. Then I was a little … [Recording cuts off for several seconds.] … the identification with a dead body. So then I wanted to, in an odd way, distract him from it. But he was right, I mean, he could be next. It’s that kind of atmosphere for the black male body in this country. Then the other odd thing that happened was, after they left, I was snapping a picture of the memorial, because I was going to write a piece on it and I wanted documentation, and a woman came up with her toddler and she pulled the toddler’s hands up in the air in the surrender position, and said, “You can take his picture if you want.” Again, I felt like, “No, I don’t want to, and I don’t want you to identify that child with Michael Brown.” So I didn’t take his picture, but again, it was odd to me that in the space of ten minutes, I had these two versions of the black [recording cuts off], where one is a teenage boy being inserted inside the memorial, basically.
Naimon: Which loops back to the idea of the body storing memory, as a place of memory and imagination. I feel like Citizen does something remarkable in this regard, perhaps related to what happened with technology and Ferguson for nonblacks being able to see something maybe that they haven’t seen before around things that happen often in these communities, but also the militarization of the police force, and this failing narrative of trying to give a false closure to the scenario. It almost feels like Citizen is doing the same thing in the second person, in giving an access point to people who wouldn’t automatically make that identification at the Michael Brown memorial, to be able to go in and know what it would feel like to make that identification.
Rankine: That’s a nice way to frame it, because in other words, that is sort of what I was pushing towards and why I included the piece about the British writer. You know, that sense of: Whose story is it? Can you find access? Can you get in here? Because unless we all get in here, it’ll just keep looping.
Naimon: I found it heartening to read that the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” caught on during the Ferguson protests. I guess the Poetry Foundation website had some unprecedented number of downloads of this poem.
Rankine: I think it was the Academy of American Poetry, actually.
Naimon: Okay, yeah. That poem makes me think of the line that Hilton Als said about Citizen about the wrong note in the best song that is America. This idea: let America be America again, but yet, it never was that America for me and repeated in a cumulatively powerful way.
Rankine: I love Langston Hughes, because he, from the very beginning, has been in his art, writing towards the ordinary. He has lines like, “Life ain’t never been no crystal stair for me,” and things like that where you’re inside the world of working-class America. In fact, he was writing when the whole business of the Talented Tenth was being negotiated, in the sense that blacks had to present their best selves during the Harlem Renaissance, and Langston was like, “No, we present the life we live and that’s what I’m writing about and that’s who I am.” He and Zora Neale Hurston were two writers that documented lower-class, working-class folk and wrote in there, wrote towards that. So in some ways I think it makes sense that his work is what and where people would go now.
Naimon: Can you talk also a little bit about the last painting, the painting of the slave ship, that you chose to end Citizen with and then the magnification that happens? I keep going back to that last image.
Rankine: Well Turner wrote a — I should memorize it — wrote a little poem about the injustices of slavery. I wanted to end on that, because it all starts there. This notion that Africans, black Americans are property, are not human, is what has dogged us. Once that equation was put in place, it seems now it’s impossible to make it into a misequation, to make it void and null. I loved that Turner was painting about that particular incident. I think the ship owners threw the bodies overboard to lighten the ship when there was a storm coming. Then when they got back, they said that they lost the — I guess, it wasn’t about killing people, it was about throwing away property, and there was a case, that they hadn’t actually lost it, that they’d thrown it away. So I wanted the big picture, which is sort of beautiful, the colors, and it seems either dusk or dawn. Then the final image is the detail, where the fish are surrounding the drowning body and eating away at it, and that, to me, became the microaggressions of the earlier sections of the book. You know, the fish are circling.
Naimon: Which is perfect, because when you look at the big picture, you may not see that part.
Rankine: Exactly, exactly, and that’s also what’s lovely. Because when you look at the actual painting, you could look at that painting and not know that that’s what’s happening until the detail is pulled out of it.
Naimon: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Rankine: Well I have two projects. One is, well I don’t know if we’ll get it done, but I’m working with Casey Llewellyn on adapting Antigone to the Michael Brown death, because as I was thinking about his body in the street, I began to think, “Where have I seen a body in the street before?” Antigone. That question of: Do you get involved or do you not get involved? Do you take your miles and go to Ferguson if the indictment doesn’t happen? Do you put your body out there on the line for this? So it seemed like it was a natural fit for an adaptation, in which I could maybe think about injustice and involvement and activism. Because I’m not a natural activist, you know, I like to be at home, and I don’t really think about showing up in those ways. I began to think, “Maybe this would be a time when you would or should show up if that indictment doesn’t come.” I know that Cornel West was recently arrested. So that’s something I’m working on and I have been rereading Antigone. The other project that is sort of the next project is I’m working on a script on Baldwin. Baldwin, apparently, in the early 1960s, had a debate in Cambridge with William F. Buckley, Jr. in which they debated the question: Is the American dream at the cost of the American negro?
Rankine: And you can actually see it online. You can go online, the debate is up. And much of his response became The Fire Next Time, that text. It was right after he had finished Another Country. So we’re working on a script of that.
Naimon: Could you also share your website, if people want to see the situation videos or want to see some of the Tony Hoagland responses?
Rankine: Well they’re not actually Tony Hoagland responses, they’re responses to writing about race. The Racial Imaginary book will be out in January. If people want to see the videos, they can just go to claudiarankine.com and you’ll be on my website, and you have access to the essays and also to the videos.
Naimon: Okay, great. It was great having you on Between the Covers, Claudia.
Rankine: Thank you for having me.
Naimon: We’re talking today to poet Claudia Rankine about her latest book, Citizen: An American Lyric. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.