An Interview with Claudia Rankine
By Elease Willis, Pomona '22
Claudia Rankine is an acclaimed poet, essayist, and playwright, as well as the recipient of a 2016 MacArthur Grant with which she established The Racial Imaginary Institute, a think tank for artists who wish to reflect on race as an imagined construct. She was the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College from 2005 to 2015 and currently is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. Her writing pushes traditional boundaries, as seen in 2015 when her renowned work Citizen: An American Lyric became the first book to be a finalist in two categories (poetry and criticism) in the National Book Critics Circles Award. Her most recent work, Just Us: An American Conversation, is a collection of essays, poems, and images that together ask the question of how we can communicate with one another under everyday white supremacy.
What struck me most about your most recently published work, Just Us, was the number of questions. You questioned whiteness, perceptions of Blackness, friendships, blondeness, and even yourself. What questions are on your heart and in your mind right now?
Given that we're waiting for Biden and Harris to be certified as president and vice president elect, I wonder about the transition. And I also wonder whether or not there’ll be violence in an attempt to make that transition. And how they will govern. You know, I believe it can't but be better than what we've had. So, I am hopeful and looking forward. But there are so many questions out there regarding issues of equity and policing and coronavirus. I would say those are the questions that are tantamount in my mind at the moment.
Just Us contains more intimate conversations with friends and family, but also conversations with strangers, than your previous works. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was a certain lack of distance between the reader and you because of these internal questions, and because these internal questions were put within the context of your personal relationships. How did you choose which conversations to include?
When I had the conversations, I didn't actually know they would be included in the book. With the exception of the conversations with the white men on the plane, all the others occurred in the normal course of my life. When something was said that seemed ordinary and questionable in the moment and yet I was still thinking about it a few days later—and if I was able to understand how the previous moment in the conversation butterflied out into systemic racism and notions of the centrality of whiteness—those two things were the criteria for including the conversation in the book. For example, if I began to think, "What other events have happened similar to this?" and "How does it have a long history?"
Like I say to my white friend, "We have similar lives." But is that true, you know? And why, actually, is it not true systemically? When I started answering those questions, then the conversation ended up in the book. I could have had a conversation with anybody. Something might have happened that seemed racist, but if I didn't really see the pathway to opening it out to systemic racism, then I wouldn't include that. There's a way in which the book has a kind of pedagogy to it, you know? It's like showing myself why the small moments matter.
In Just Us, there's a tenor of humor that sometimes appears in the book. I believe you stated in another interview that you look to comedians like Eddie Murphy and Wanda Sykes as people who are able to sit with the good and the bad without shrinking away from that totality. Are there other art forms that you value in the way that they inherently allow an artist to contend with questions, desires, assumptions, concerns, etc. related to race?
Yeah, like Arthur Jafa's work. I don't know if you've seen Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016). And Steve McQueen's work. Filmmakers who build out from a historical moment and create a larger canvas for us to see what is happening, why it happened, how it's happening, what surrounds it, what the weather is like, how cold it is, how wet it is, whether it's raining or not. That's the kind of aesthetic that engages me over somebody, let's say, who just wants to tell a story. And so I'm really interested in open texts that don't really travel from A to B or X to Z, but rather are interested in the depth of a thing, how it drops down. What it touches. Proximity is all for me and how two moments activate each other. So, what does it mean to have one essay come up against another essay? What did they do to each other? What does it mean to have an image in conversation with a sentence, what do they do to each other? Those are the kinds of things that inform my own practice. And, as you said, comedians do that well. They bring the absurd up against the intimate, up against the ordinary, and up against the extraordinary. That's what sort of creates the laughter, the recognition of the reality inside its absurdity.
Is there any art that you've interacted with lately that has checked those boxes for you?
Since COVID, I haven't really been out and about, but as I said, Arthur Jafa's work. I'm always looking at his work. I just collaborated on a piece called November. I had the privilege of working with the filmmaker, Phillip Youmans. You can view it on theshed.org. It does what I mean; it has all kinds of stories built to make one story. So, even though it's still a piece I'm involved with, through our collaborative experience, it opened out to the kinds of practice that I like being involved with and that I admire.
I'm sure that admiration is what, in part at least, inspired you to establish The Racial Imaginary Institute?
Exactly, because I'm really interested in the construction of race as an imaginary entity—but also as something that is incredibly real in this society and can be weaponized toward the killing of Black people in this country. I really wanted to work with other people who are looking at this issue from their lenses and to create a place where we could gather that work and have it become a kind of archival reference space for those who are interested in seeing different approaches to thinking about the racial imaginary.
So on the one hand, there is this, like you said, racial imaginary that still is very palpable and concrete. And then there's also this imagination of a different world—for example, in the chapter titled “daughter” in Just Us, where you're imagining a world that already has a place for your daughter in it. How do you manage the simultaneous weight of these different types of imaginaries?
I think as Americans, we've always done that. We've held the immediate reality and the possible reality at the same time. That has allowed us to move forward, despite entrenched anti-Blackness in this country. So, you know, we have a nationalist in the White House, we have a rise of white supremacist groups in this country, in 2020. But we also now have a vice president elect who is both a woman and a woman of color. That's the kind of incongruity that has allowed for change in this country. And that allows for change in the imagination.
What differences and similarities are there in how you experienced writing Just Us and the play that you wrote preceding it, The White Card?
Both of them are about diagnosing what happens in conversations between a Black woman like myself and the white people I encounter. The play, however, was based more on the research of conversations others have had and were shaped with those stories in mind, whereas Just Us really needed me as its subject in order to create an interiority that I could be accountable to, that I could question, and that I could bring intention and motivation and curiosity to in an honest way. The White Card is more of a creative enterprise. Saidiya Hartman has this phrase—“critical fabulation,” I think the term is, the idea that you're both imagining something and bringing all you know to it. Just Us functions a little bit differently in that I was trying to be as transparent about my own emotional life and my own interactions as I could be. So I wasn't trying to make things up. I was trying to make things as clear and as knowable as I could.
Regarding the fact-checks that you had in Just Us, where did those fit in the process? Did you write the essays and then go back and fact-check? Or did the fact-checking occur after each essay?
After each essay. The process of the book, the very first essay on white men on planes, that occurred because I was working on a piece for the New York Times. It originally occurred in the New York Times. And when you write something for papers, you know, it has to be fact-checked. So, I would have the conversation. And then I took the conversation to a psychiatrist that I hired for the project. I didn't know her before the project; I hired her for the project. We would discuss the conversation that I had written out. Why did I say what I said, why was I thinking the things that I did, and why did I feel the way I felt? What felt manageable? What did not feel manageable? All of that. Why did the therapist think they said the things that they said? I deliberately had a white psychiatrist because I really wanted to think about it from not only a Black perspective but also a white perspective.
Once I spoke to the therapist about the piece—and I would take the piece to her almost immediately after writing it—I then fact-checked. I hired a fact-checker and I fact-checked. Together, we figured out how different statements were relying on different facts, or different sociological studies, or different understandings of a thing. Or, you know, maybe it was a sentence that was in conversation with an image. And so all of those got built in in that round. Once I had done that, I then took the essay and brought it back to the person with whom I'd had the original conversation, if they were still available to me. I asked them if this was the conversation they had, and whether they would like to write a response. At that point, some people said, "Yes, this was the conversation we had, I don't need to write a response." Other people said, "Sure. I'm happy to write a response, because even though this was the conversation we had, I didn't really mean what I said. So I'll explain it to you." When those responses came in, I did not change them. They just got added on to the essay. That was the process that the essays went through. Every one of the pieces went through that same process.
Do you think that the different forms you've engaged in—poetry, play, essay—receive different responses because of their form, even though the topics and questions with which those works engage overlap?
I think so. I think people understand I'm in a long conversation with these issues. Each work makes possible the next work, you know. I couldn't have done The White Card if I hadn't done Citizen. I might not have done Citizen if I hadn't done Don't Let Me Be Lonely. And Just Us is a way of bringing in the emotional life of a person to the kind of descriptive mode of Citizen. So, they're all interdependent in terms of my process. I write one, I think about it, I go back in a different way, I think about it—it makes possible different considerations going forward. Each of them kind of generated the next.
In terms of responses, I think people bring different things to each genre. To see a play is to see something embodied, and that's why I like writing for the theater. Which is very different from living on the page, and reading on the page. And then in each book, how the pronoun functions— whether it's "you" or "I"—offers identification with the speaker in different ways. I like the idea that the reader or the audience member has to bring different facilities to take in the work depending on its job.