The National Book Award finalist on chronicling everyday racism, the violence inherent in language, and the continuum from Rodney King to Michael Brown.
Image by John Lucas
Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” In Claudia Rankine’s National Book Award-shortlisted Citizen: An American Lyric, Hurston’s words are applied like a telescope—to insidious, accumulative instances of racial aggression. A book-length poem, much of Citizen chronicles, in spare second-person prose, quiet flashes of racism, like the well-educated woman who “didn’t know black women could get cancer”; the therapist who screams, “Get away from my house!” not realizing the person at the door is her patient; or the colleague who says, “[H]is dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” Seized from the everyday and thrust, unadorned, against the page, these moments transcend individual experience, conveying the particular racism of twenty-first-century America, as well as the tunnel of history from which it emerges. “The past is a life sentence,” Rankine writes, “a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.”
In Citizen, Rankine also meticulously analyzes the experiences of public figures like Serena Williams, who, in maneuvering her rage against “the so-called wrongness of her body’s positioning at the service line,” epitomizes the way in which the black body is caught between a state of invisibility and hyper-visibility. Writing in The New Yorker, the poet and critic Dan Chiasson described Citizen as “an especially vital book for this moment in time.” In this magazine, Tin House editor Rob Spillman called Citizen required reading for “politicians who gerrymander, politicians who restrict voter’s rights, politicians who use coded racist language.” As with Rankine’s 2004 work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Citizen pierces our sociopolitical structure with emotional exactitude, and in turn, demonstrates the inseparability of the two.
Rankine was born in Jamaica, and, at seven, moved to the Bronx, New York, where she attended Catholic schools. At Williams College, under the guidance of the poet Louise Glück, Rankine was shaped by writers such as Adrienne Rich and Robert Hass, whose work, she says, helped her to “understand the ways in which [the] mind has to negotiate the reality of a thing.” Currently, she is a professor of English and creative writing at Pomona College.
I met Rankine in New York in mid-October while she was in town for the Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets, for which she serves as a chancellor. Her demeanor was placid, but it was clear that she was unrelentingly observing the crowds rippling past our sidewalk café table. She laughed easily, spoke slowly, and paused often, as if striving, in real time, to close the gap language produces between intention and comprehension.
—Meara Sharma for Guernica
Guernica: When did you start deliberately making note of the everyday moments of racial aggression that comprise much of Citizen?
Claudia Rankine: I always took note of them, because I think if you’re in the black or brown body, you’re negotiating them all the time. It’s like women taking note of sexism. It’s a kind of incoherency that you are constantly negotiating. But in terms of writing them down, I started working on the book three or four years ago. It was a different project, in which I wanted to show how black people’s health was connected to their day-to-day life. I was really interested in the fact that blacks have high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes at a higher percentage than the rest of the population. That didn’t stay very aggressively in the book, but that’s how it started. I began to document these moments as support for this other thing I was thinking about, and then the moments themselves began to take over.
Guernica: In the book, you reference John Henryism, a recently coined physiological condition resulting from prolonged exposure to racial aggression and discrimination. It’s interesting that you were initially conceiving of these moments as evidence for the prevalence of real illness.
Claudia Rankine: Yes, I was at Yale and I said to the poet Elizabeth Alexander, “I’m interested in the ways in which black health seems precarious in the United States.” She introduced me to the term “John Henryism.” And then I went back and researched it and understood that, woah, this thing I am thinking about is actually a condition that’s named.
Guernica: Do you think it’s useful to have a name for that?
Claudia Rankine: I think having a term for a condition that is prevalent is useful, because then people understand it as something not particular to them. It allows you not to ask the question, “What’s wrong with me?” and begin to ask the question, “What’s wrong with this place that I’m in?” For instance, if you’re a black guy and you got pulled over, and you didn’t know that any other black men were being pulled over, you would constantly in the back of your head be thinking, “What did I do?” rather than, “I didn’t do anything, these are just the conditions I live under.” I think the idea that the systemic problems in a society lead to illness is important to know. We shouldn’t be separating out how we live with where we live, and what ails us with the environment we’re in.
You’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue.
Guernica: I understand you did quite a lot of interviews with people in your community, friends, and strangers as research for the book. Tell me about that process.
Claudia Rankine: One of the things I wanted the book to do was speak to intimate moments. I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, “Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?” I wasn’t interested in scandal, or outrageous moments. I was interested in the surprise of the intimate, or the surprise of the ordinary. So you’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue. I wanted those kinds of moments. And initially people would say, “I don’t think I have any.” Their initial reaction was to render invisible those moments weaved into a kind of everydayness. And then I’d tell them something that happened to me, and that would trigger something. It was interesting to watch how the emotion of telling these stories built up in the tellers. They often got very upset. You could feel the anger being released. You could feel the irritation, the disgust, happening as the event was retold. So clearly they weren’t cool with it.
Guernica: You reference Zora Neale Hurston’s line, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” repeatedly in the book. It resonates with the quality of these moments. You could imagine them occurring quite subtly—as you say, weaved into the everyday. But when pulled out of context, and placed next to one another, they’re incredibly affecting.
Claudia Rankine: They really stand as they were told to me. I chose language and decided not to include certain details, but more or less these are the stories that either I experienced or I was told.
And I wanted a feeling of accumulation. I really wanted the moments to add up because they do add up. I wanted to come up with a strategy that would allow these moments to accumulate in the reader’s body in a way that they do accumulate in the body. And the idea that when one reacts, one is not reacting to any one of those moments. You’re reacting to the accumulation of the moments. I wanted the book, as much as the book could do this, to communicate that feeling. The feeling of saturation. Of being full up. I wanted it to be simulacra.
Guernica: Were you thinking about other books while writing Citizen?
Claudia Rankine: A year or two ago I read Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. That’s a book that gave me a kind of language to think about ideas like “the non-relation in the relation,” which is a rephrasing of Berlant, for example. When I read phrases like that in Berlant’s work, it gives me a vocabulary to understand incoherency. I feel this moment, I see the moment, and how do I account for it inside my day-to-day reckoning of the world? In Cruel Optimism, Berlant talks about things that we’re invested in, despite the fact that they are not good for us and place us in a non-sovereign relationship to our own lives. And I thought, on a certain level, that thing that I am invested in that is hurting me would be this country [laughs].
I also read White Girls by Hilton Als. The ways in which he looks closely at race, intimacy, and the emotional range of an individual when they come up against another individual, in terms of desire, love, dependence. Toward the end of working on Citizen, White Girls was interesting and useful for me to think about relative to encounters.
Guernica: You’ve mentioned intimacy a few times. The poems in Citizen have a close-to-the-bone quality, but they’re also deeply political. How would you articulate the relationship you have between politics and intimacy?
Claudia Rankine: The friends I have, and the people whom I admire, are people who have an understanding of the conditions under which we live, and have a humanist sense of the world. If that’s lacking in my understanding of a person’s negotiation of the world, I can’t be close with that person. I’m not comfortable, for myself and for others [laughs]. And yet, one has these people whom you trust, have faith in, whom you believe see what you see, and then you come up against a moment where you feel suddenly tossed out. So I was really interested in those moments. Because we are invested in being together. In having friends. In joining our lives. And yet these are the people who also fail you. And when they fail you in these ways, it signals a larger understanding about who you are as a black person in the world. It’s not just a little failure for me. Its something exposed.
Intimacy is important in my work because I don’t understand existence without intimacy. All of us are dependent on other people—and in ways we don’t know. You cross the street and assume that person isn’t crazy, they don’t want to mow me down with their car. I don’t know that person but I am already in a relationship with them. I am asking them to abide by the traffic laws. If they decided not to, I’d be dead. Even in those anonymous ways, we’re in relationships.
Guernica: How do you personally work through those moments of being failed by people close to you?
Claudia Rankine: I mean, I sometimes don’t move through them. My tendency is to want to say to the person, “Do you understand why I feel this way?” I usually do say that. And sometimes it doesn’t go well. By this I mean we hit an impasse again. Not that I need to hear exactly what I want to hear, but I need to know I am heard. Those moments make for a better friendship. But I can’t let it go. For good or bad.
Guernica: Talk to me about your decision to set many of these poems in the second person.
Claudia Rankine: There were a number of things going on. Because some of the situations were mine and some belonged to other people, I didn’t want to own them in the first person, because I didn’t own them, factually.
But that was the least of it. The real issue was, the second person for me disallowed the reader from knowing immediately how to position themselves. I didn’t want to race the individuals. Obviously [the reader] will assume—“She’s black, he must be white,” etc.—but I wanted those assumptions to be made. Because you know, amid this post-racial thing, sometimes I’ll have a student who says, “I don’t really think about race. I don’t see race.” And then I’ll ask, “Well, how do you read this?” And they say, “Oh, that’s a black person, that’s a white person.” So clearly, you’re race-ing these people in order to understand this dynamic. I wanted that positioning to happen for readers.
I also found it funny to think about blackness as the second person. That was just sort of funny. Not the first person, but the second person, the other person [laughs].
Guernica: Were you thinking specifically that if you were to set these poems in the “I,” a white reader would be able to read this as a kind of memoir?
Claudia Rankine: Exactly. I felt that the first person would have deactivated the scene. Because I think of the described dynamics as a fluid negotiation. I don’t think these specific interactions can happen to the black or brown body without the white body. And there are ways in which, if you say, “Oh, this happened to me,” then the white body can say, “Well, it happened to her and it has nothing to do with me.” But if it says “you,” that you is an apparent part of the encounter.
Guernica: You reference Judith Butler’s notion that we, as people, suffer from the condition of being addressable, and language navigates this, for better or for worse. How does this idea connect to your inclination toward language?
Claudia Rankine: Each of these failures for me is a failure of communication, via a mode of communication that can be violent or meant to behave violently. Butler provides a way of thinking about how language becomes an instrument of violence. And why we feel it as such. And how our availability, our showing up, our presence, leaves us open to that violence. I think it’s a question of language, as it arrives from one body to another. It becomes the thing in between the two bodies.
One of the things that I think about is: How do you make moments that float, transparent? Moments that could just float away. How do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning? Why not make a body accountable for its language?
Guernica: This connects to a line in Citizen that I’ve been thinking about: “Words work as release—well-oiled doors opening and / closing between intention, gesture.” Do words work for you in that capacity?
Claudia Rankine: I think so. I think words are the thing that either triumphs for you, in your desire to communicate something, or fails. I love language because when it succeeds, for me, it doesn’t just tell me something. It enacts something. It creates something. And it goes both ways. Sometimes it’s violent. Sometimes it hurts you. And sometimes it saves you.
Poetry has no investment in anything besides openness. It’s not arguing a point. It’s creating an environment.
Guernica: Is there something about language’s closeness to failure that is appealing, as a writer?
Claudia Rankine: Yes. I love revising things, because you see how you can get the language to get closer to intention. You know there are three ways to say X thing, but one will say it better than the other two. And in saying it better, it gets you closer to something. When you achieve it fully, you create something that’s transparent—that people can move into and through their own experiences. As a writer, I don’t want people spending time thinking, “What does she mean?” I want, in a way, my text to go away. So that the words on the page become a door to one’s own internal investigation. It’s just a passage. If the work does its job, it just opens.
Guernica: This idea of transparency and clarity is interesting with regards to genre. In a way, you could imagine this book being presented as a series of journalistic essays. Why does poetry permit the kind of transparency you’re talking about?
Claudia Rankine: Because I think poetry has no investment in anything besides openness. It’s not arguing a point. It’s creating an environment. Whereas if you were writing an op-ed piece or an essay, somebody would be asking, “What’s your point?” With poetry you can stay in a moment for as long as you want. Poetry is about metaphor, about a thing standing in for something else. It’s the thing that opens out to something else. What that something else is changes for readers. So what’s on the page—it falls away.
Guernica: I know you’ve been working on a project connected to Ferguson. Can you tell me about the experience you had there?
Claudia Rankine: I happened to be in St. Louis a week after the Ferguson protests started. So I went to the neighborhood, just to look around, talk to people, try to understand what they were feeling. I knew what I was feeling. I knew there was a simmering rage but also desired to understand what it meant to be living in the midst of that moment.
It was a very hot day, and there were a lot of people standing around, waiting for something to happen. Things were happening at night, the police force was coming out at night, but during the day they were just sitting in their cars, watching out the windows. And so there was a kind of odd, steamy, hot August waiting happening.
Really, I just kind of looked at the memorial and stood. And then I found myself being approached by people. A man stood next to me, and saw a picture of Michael Brown at the memorial, and said, “He looks like me.” I didn’t want to say yes, because I didn’t want to align him with a person who had passed away. So I said nothing. And then he said it again, he said, “He looks like me.” So at that point I looked at him and looked at the photo, and he did look like Michael Brown. And I began to think, I wish there was a way to stop him from identifying with somebody who is dead. But the real understanding was that he too could be dead, at any point. He just stood there. He was a teenager. He was still in his pajamas.
And then there was a woman who came up to me with a toddler. I had taken out my iPhone to take a picture of the memorial, so the woman grabbed the toddler’s hands and put them up in the air and said to me, “Take his picture.” But again, I didn’t want to take a picture of a toddler, with his hands up in the air, surrendering to the police that was going to shoot him anyway. So I didn’t take the picture. I just put the phone in my bag and then bent down and talked to the child.
Those two interactions—they exhausted me. Because they just had a sense of inevitability. It almost felt Greek. Predetermined, and hopeless. And then you had all these police cars with white policemen and policewomen, just sitting inside the cars, looking out at you. It was like you were in a theater, and they were this encased audience. It made me think of Antigone. And so that’s what I’m working on—a rewriting of Antigone, as a way of discussing what it means to decide to engage. The dead body’s in the street. What do you do now?
Guernica: In the weeks after the Ferguson protests began, there was a lot of talk about how Ferguson symbolized the “end of post-racialism.” Why do you think there’s a fixation on the term “post-racial”—and an impulse to legitimize the term by positioning ourselves in relation to it?
Claudia Rankine: Because I don’t think people want to look at problems. They want a continuous narrative, an optimistic narrative. A narrative that says there’s a present and a future—and what was in the past no longer exists. In the future, we’ve forgotten it. It’s disappointing to find out that the past is the present is the future. Nobody wants that. And yet, that’s what it is. Maybe it’s a kind of surrealist move, to use language like “post-racial”—thinking that if you create the language for it, it will happen. I wish it worked that way. But that’s not our reality.
I was having a conversation with the poet Tracie Morris, who was saying, “You just can’t take that stuff on.” And I said, “I wish I could not take it on.” You know, the news can make me cry. It upsets me. It’s not a choice in taking it on or not taking it on.
Guernica: I’m curious to hear a bit more about how you came to poetry.
Claudia Rankine: I went to Williams College, and I studied with the poet Louise Glück, who was a great teacher for me. Many of her collections are book-length projects. She became a model for working a subject over the course of a book, rather than in a single poem.
I then went to Columbia and worked with poets like Henri Cole and Dan Halpern. But before that, I went out to Berkeley and studied with Robert Hass. I was fascinated with the way in which he allows you to sit in the mind of the speaker, and understand the ways in which that mind has to negotiate the reality of a thing.
It’s the same line, from Rodney King to Michael Brown. It’s a continuum.
Guernica: When did you feel as though this was your life’s work?
Claudia Rankine: I think when I decided to go to graduate school. You make that decision and you’re committing to figuring out how to make your life based on that profession. Poetry is probably the last gift economy. Part of the negotiation is to understand that you’re going to do something you really want to do, so you’re going to take whatever life comes with that.
Guernica: I was recently talking with a group of friends about the moments in our lives that have awakened something politically in us. One person spoke about how when she was in the first grade, she had a teacher who’d often yell at a black boy in her class. One day the teacher, who was black, shouted at this student: “People like you—they’ll put you in jail. And then they’ll kill you.” It was a moment where the weight of race became clear to her. Can you think of an experience that politicized you, shaped your understanding of the world, in this way?
Claudia Rankine: I know when Rodney King’s jury came back and said that despite the video, the police had done nothing wrong, that was a moment for me. I literally burst into tears. I had this weird feeling walking around the streets of New York, that I didn’t know who these people were. All of a sudden I felt like an alien. I felt like, holy shit, I am walking around, and all of these people, white people, are okay with my black body being beaten and kicked, even when they’re seeing the violence actually happen and don’t have to rely on hearsay. That the black body is perceived as dangerous, even when it’s on the ground, in a fetal position, with men surrounding it, kicking it. I don’t think I understood or felt as vulnerable ever before. Because I think I always sort of believed in the justice system before that, even though I knew the history. I still felt that when you’re not leaving it up to hearsay, when you have documentation, people will step up. And it didn’t happen. That was really a crisis moment for me. You just feel like, okay, you need to start paying attention. It’s the same line, from Rodney King to Michael Brown. It’s a continuum.
Guernica: Do you feel as though Michael Brown is different in any way?
Claudia Rankine: Well, what’s different is people like Rachel Maddow express outrage. And people on Facebook express outrage, and that’s given play, immediately. Did you see the video John Oliver did on Ferguson? One of the things that was fantastic about that was he made all the connections that I was making. And he’s a white, British guy. And so for the first time you felt you didn’t have to do all the work. There was somebody else with huge access doing all the work, nicely produced, in the form of comedy. That’s something different. It’s not just happening in your living room, or on the phone with your friends. You’re seeing it happen on the news.
Guernica: I wanted to ask you about one other section in Citizen that lingered with me: “Though a share of all remembering, a measure of all / memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a / truce— / a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.” I found that so sad, as well as graceful, and I wanted to ask what you were reckoning with while writing it.
Claudia Rankine: Thank you. I think it goes back to this idea of connection, community, and citizenship. You want to belong, you want to be here. In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together. The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person. There’s a letting go that comes with it. I don’t know about forgiving, but it’s an “I’m still here.” And it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go. It’s because I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being. Let’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently.
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