Claudia Rankine was born in 1963, in Jamaica, and immigrated to the United States as a child. She attended Williams College and received an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. Since early in her career, she has crossed the lines of genre, creating books as unified projects rather than loose collections, peeling back the surface of the moment to get at the complexities underneath. She is the author of five books—Nothing in Nature Is Private (1995), The End of the Alphabet (1998), Plot (2001), Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), and Citizen (2014)—and has collaborated on a series of videos with her husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, some of which infiltrate her writing in the form of transcriptions and images.
I met Rankine over three Fridays in July at her home in Claremont, California. It was a tumultuous period: our first conversation took place the week of the police shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in the suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the ambush killing of five police officers during a rally in Dallas, Texas; the third, the afternoon after Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. These public topics wove through our discussions, explicitly and implicitly, as they often do in Rankine’s work. Long a professor at Pomona College, Rankine was preparing to move across the country for a new job, at Yale University; in her dining room, the sideboard was covered with piles of books on race and whiteness, for a course she was developing.
Rankine has won numerous prizes, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Citizen, which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Just a few months after we spoke, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, which she plans to use to found the Racial Imaginary Institute. (The name comes from a book of essays she coedited last year.) In conversation, she is thoughtful and focused, speaking softly, with an edge of urgency. “How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” she wonders. It’s a question that occupies the heart of all her books. That the history to which she refers is both personal and collective is, of course, the point.
—David L. Ulin
You’ve spent the past two years on an extended speaking tour for Citizen. The book came out in 2014, during the protests in Ferguson. Recently, we’ve seen police shootings of African American men in Baton Rouge and suburban Saint Paul and five police officers killed during a rally in Dallas. What’s your sense of where we are?
If we go back to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was a feeling, at least for white people, that suddenly they were seeing into black lives and how these lives played out in encounters with the police and the justice system. People were shocked. Then we saw the lack of indictment. In a number of other deaths, we saw that videotaping doesn’t affect the course of justice, which we knew from the beating of Rodney King. Then we saw what happened in Baton Rouge, we saw what happened in Minnesota. Now you get to Dallas, and we have created somebody like a Timothy McVeigh, a veteran who is clearly triggered by what he’s been seeing in the news. In McVeigh’s case, it was Waco, Texas, and with Micah Johnson, it was the killings of African Americans, the videos of these deaths. He’s not interested in Black Lives Matter protests. He’s interested in retaliation.
Citizen addresses these issues directly. It is literature as an act of public engagement. And yet, poetry—all writing—begins as a private act between the writer and her material. What is the relationship, for you, between these two modes?
The relationship between public engagement and private thought are inseparable for me. I worked on Citizen on and off for almost ten years. I wrote the first piece in response to Hurricane Katrina. I was profoundly moved by the events in New Orleans as they unfolded. John and I taped the CNN coverage of the storm without any real sense of what we intended to do with the material. I didn’t think, obviously, that I was working on Citizen.
But for me, there is no push and pull. There’s no private world that doesn’t include the dynamics of my political and social world. When I am working privately, my process includes a sense of what is happening in the world. Today, for example, I feel incredibly drained. And probably you do, too.
You make work in private, but once it goes public, readers make it their own. They define the work—and, by extension, you—in terms of who they are, what they want or believe.
In the case of Citizen, I willingly moved toward that engagement. It felt like the first time I could actively be involved in a public discussion about race, in a discussion that, to me, is essential to our well-being as a country. It wasn’t simply about publicizing the book, it was about having a conversation. It was also an opportunity for me to learn what others really thought and felt. The responses were various. One man said he was moved by a reading I gave and wanted to do something to help me. I said I personally had a privileged life, which I do, and that I didn’t need his help. What I needed was for him—this was a white gentleman—to understand the urgency of the situation for him and to help himself in an America that was so racially divided. It wasn’t about him coming from his own position of privilege—of white privilege—to take black people on as a burden, but rather to understand that we are all part of the same broken structures. He said, I can take what you’re saying, but you’re going to shut down everybody else in this audience. And all of a sudden I was like, What? I thought you wanted to help me! To remove him from the role of “white savior” was to attack him in his own imagination. A white woman, a professor, told me that what I was calling racism was really bias against overweight black women. You might think they were just a defensive man and a crazy professor, but again and again I was coming up against what was being framed as understanding and realizing that it was not that.
And yet, both of those people would likely describe themselves as well-intentioned, even allies of yours.
They came and they engaged. I have a lot more patience and curiosity than I used to for following those arguments, for seeing where they will go. Often somebody will be interrupted by another member of the audience, who will jump in to shut that person down. This either comes out of an intent to protect me or else they’re just impatient with a line of thinking they don’t agree with. I don’t know. But one of the things I do know is that you’re not going to change anybody’s mind by shutting them down.