UPDATE: The 2016 class of MacArthur Foundation Fellowship honorees has been announced. Among them was poet Claudia Rankine. We were fortunate to have had her on The Frame last year and so today we re-visited that interview. What follows is the original post and transcript.
Poet Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen: An American Lyric” is a provocative meditation on race in America.
Through a series of vignettes, Rankine tells the stories of everyday racism that people of color face on a daily basis. The poems are largely based on actual incidents of passive bigotry and prejudice that Rankine and her friends have personally experienced.
"I think the life of all people of color is one where those stories are lived through and warehoused in the mind and in the body. So I don't think I was consciously, over the years, stacking them up until I started stacking them up," said Rankine on The Frame. "I began by asking friends to just share with me a moment when they were trying to get through some ordinary day and racism stepped in. Often people would say I don't remember, and then I would get a phone call a few days later saying there was this and there was this."
Rankine stopped by The Frame in August 2015 when the play adaptation of “Citizen: An American Lyric” was coming to the stage. She talked about collecting the stories in her book, how the shooting of black people by police has come to the fore in society thanks to cellphones, and the significance of the hooded sweatshirt in a post-Trayvon Martin era.
In addition to being a poet, you're also a journalist and a political commentator. Since your book pulls from real life, is poetry the best description of your work?
I do think poetry describes my work in the sense that, for me, poetry is the one place that feelings have total legitimacy. So whether I'm writing for newspapers or magazines or for myself, I'm always interested in affect — I'm interested in the emotional realm of whatever it is I'm looking at. I think poetry holds that. That's where feelings rock. (Laughs)
Some of the incidents in your book include somebody trying to use a cell phone in front of a house and being mistaken for an intruder. It's often being mistaken for somebody or confused for somebody. Somebody showing up for a therapy session and being mistaken for an intruder. These are incidents that happened to friends of yours on a regular basis?
Nothing in the book was made up. Not a single thing. Since we're talking about language I'm going to say it's not mistaken, I'm going to say projected on. So that black people walking around and the white imagination is in play and we walk into a projection of white fantasies of what black bodies are doing. And then have to bear the brunt of that.
There's a line in the play, "Because white men can't police their imagination, black men are dying."
That line was supposed to be the beginning of a piece that I thought would be a longer piece. Everything I wrote just came back to the same line, and so eventually I just said, this is it. It's as simple as that. Sometimes people will say to me, well, some of the police that are killing black men are black, but I still think those black men are working under a white structure, a white imagination that they, themselves, want to fit into.
You were writing this book at the time that Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. Toward the end of the play there's a crawl of names: Michael Brown, Eric Garner. But it would be easy for this production to update that crawl with names like Sandra Brown. In terms of the topicality and timeliness of the production, how does it strike you that you can constantly update and expand the deaths that you are reporting.
I think it speaks to the fact that the books is untimely, it speaks to a continuum that's been going on for hundreds of years. I actually think that cell phones are what has brought the information to the forefront of our gaze as a society. Up until now these things were happening and everyone was moving along passively with the belief that there must have been more to it. That it couldn't be that the police were just gunning down unarmed black men. There must be something more complicated going on. Then we started seeing the footage and hearing the dialogue and understanding, no, this is how it's working. It's no different from the 1800s or the 1900s or Jim Crow, it's just a continuum.
Your poetry and the play suggest conversations that should have happened, but didn't. At what point do you hope your book of poetry and to a greater extent the play engages audiences in conversation about how they should react to what they're witnessing and reading on stage?
That's a great question, because, for me, I think the book is about intimacy and it's about the kind of intimacy that shuts down because of the unsaid. And often people, when they approach these racist moments, they don't know what the next thing to say is, or one can't engage it because it feels like it will be too big, it will be too volatile, it will be a place where you can't come back from. I'm hoping that the book and the play allows people to recognize these moments as moments that we all own. That they're not moments of private shame, they're moments of an American history. We can enter them, discuss them and move forward. As long as we keep acting like they're not happening, they'll keep happening.