Claudia Rankine: “I Think We Need to Be Frightened”
Highlights from Her Talk at BAM's Eat, Drink, and Be Literary
Claudia Rankine took the stage at BAM on Tuesday night as part of the venue’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series (presented in partnership with the National Book Foundation)—one of my very favorite arts programs in New York. Even before she spoke, during the eating and drinking portion, the atmosphere felt charged, buzzy and expectant—much more so than it had been the previous week with Ben Lerner. Don’t get me wrong—Lerner was wonderful, and I maintain that he is essential to the future of literature, but in retrospect, his event seems polite, academic, and perhaps a bit distant from the current concerns of many of the audience members. In contrast, the crowd on Tuesday night—who had all just gotten the news that James Comey had been fired—looked to Rankine as a prophet or a seer, some kind of utterly un-hokey guru. We interrupted many of her answers with clapping. There were shouts of “hear, hear!” The questions asked of Ben Lerner were about craft, about genre, about process. The questions asked of Claudia Rankine were more desperate. The questions were: what will happen to us? How do we live in this world? She didn’t have all the answers, of course. But she had a few.
Below, a few highlights from her conversation with Lorin Stein and the ensuing audience Q&A, edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
On the real horror of the current moment:
I think right after the election there was a kind of malaise. Everybody was devastated. There was that phrase, it was something like, I’m as well as I can be, given the situation. So everybody was saying that. And then we started walking it back, you know. Well, at least it’s out in the open. Well, maybe he’ll be impeached. Well . . . So, the horror, which is always the problem with these things, is that we begin to assimilate, and readjust to the unacceptable. And I’m not excluding myself from this. We are now sort of back to business as usual. And that is what is frightening about this. I mean, is it true that Planned Parenthood is defunded? Is that true? You know, all of these things are coming, and you’re like, is that, is that right? So I’m a little bit worried about what we have the capacity to accept. And live with. And at what point we’ll lose the curiosity around what this administration is up to. While lives will be affected day in and day out. I mean, the new health care bill, what does that say exactly? It’s a disheartening time.
There’s a phrase called “moral injury.” Does anybody know that phrase, moral injury? It’s a phrase they use for the military, and it’s when a soldier goes into war, goes into battle—and the things that they’re forced to do, the things that they’re forced to see, don’t line up with who they are as human beings. And so they experience a break in themselves. That’s what’s called the moral injury: their moral idea of how they are in the world has been broken, and they’ve become broken because of it. I almost wish that we didn’t have the capacity to stave that off, as citizens. That it didn’t have to be that we went to a war zone to get there. That we could understand as human beings that certain things should not be acceptable. That they don’t line up with us as human beings. Not as women, or white people, or black people, or Asian people, or Hispanics, or whatever—as human beings. And that when we are confronted with that, at that moment, does he have a birth certificate for example, at that moment, not this moment, that moment, that we would have understood that that was a moral injury.
On the new play she’s written, and trying to talk about whiteness to white people:
The play came about because after Citizen, I was often in a situation like this—never like this. Not [with] dinner. But with many people in a room. And we would have these Q&As. I realized that people are not in the habit of talking about race. Especially not mixed-race company. For example, I was somewhere and this white gentleman got up and he said, “Ms. Rankine, that was a wonderful reading, I’m so moved by your work, I think you’re so right about the injustice, with the police and everything else—what can I do for you?” And I said to him, well, nothing. You can do nothing for me, I don’t need you to do anything for me. I do need you to understand that all of this stuff is killing you, too. To quote Fred Moten. However softly. You stupid motherfucker, is what Fred Moten said, in the quote. But I didn’t say that part. I just said, look, this stuff should just be unacceptable for you. It should be unacceptable for you. And that man said to me, and I quote, he said: “Well, I can take it, but if you’re going to answer questions like that, you’re gonna shut down everybody else in this audience.” I was like, wait, I thought we were friends! I thought you liked my work! It turned on a dime.
So I thought, after having encounters like that, that it would be interesting to stage a discussion. Like what does that mean, how does it go, how does it keep going? What does it mean if you think that maybe whiteness is irredeemable? If you think whiteness is irredeemable, and you’re talking to white people, what’s the next thing that gets said? For example. That question, is whiteness irredeemable, is from Linda Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness, in which she talks about, if you accept the idea that whiteness and white supremacy are like this [interlocks fingers], that you cannot untangle them, that this country was founded on white supremacy, on the 1790 immigration act that said, the only people who could have self-governance and own property were free, Anglo-Saxon, white, men. That’s it. And then of course you have the formation of the KKK after the civil war. So you have a country that’s founded on white supremacy, and white terrorism has brutalized the Native American community, the black community, and others throughout this history. So if you understand that white people are constructed to be racists, because if you have white dominance, if you’re told that you have white dominance—and for me, white dominance is better than the idea of white privilege, because privilege assumes that you want this thing. But white dominance is really what white people have grown up to believe. That others are inferior to them. So if you have that, then how do you move forward, as a white person, and as a person talking to somebody when you understand that the racism is just part of who this person is? How do you move forward? And those are the questions that Linda Alcoff takes up, in The Future of Whiteness. So anyway, I wanted to figure out, how do you stage this kind of conversation? Where do you stage conversations? In plays.
On the creation of Citizen:
The first piece in Citizen was written after Katrina. That was the very first thing written in this book. Why did I write that? I wrote it because I thought, what the fuck? What are we doing? What are we doing? Those people. What are we doing. With Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the moment that kicked [that book] off was when James Byrd was killed in Jasper, Texas. When those three white men attached him to the back of the car and drove him along that road until his limbs and head detached from his body. Up until that moment, I was living a life where I was writing poetry books that nobody understood. In a sense, because they were about do I have a child, do I not have a child, and they had to do with my own thoughts about this and that, and they were involved with like, Virginia Woolf. And then James Byrd was killed. And I thought, oh. There is no past to our past. It’s right here. It’s right here. And we apparently don’t care. We don’t care. Then I’m in London and I hear Bush say, “oh . . . um . . . yeah, I kind of remember that, yeah. I’m sure those guys are going to go to prison, I don’t know.” He was the governor of Texas. And the fact that he—that it did not sear him, when it happened, that’s when that book [began]. That moment hit me with its sadness. . . In a sense [the book] was about moral injury. It was about how do we live and assimilate this stuff? And then still call this a good life.
With Citizen, it wasn’t just that Katrina happened. . . For whatever reason, [my husband and I] taped CNN the days leading up to Katrina, and the days following Katrina. We taped them all. You can come to our house, we can play them back for you. If you have, you know, five days. And so then we had it all taped. And then I played the tape back, and what I heard were people like Barbara Bush saying, “oh, this is working very well for them. They were so poor anyway.” And then you have Wolf Blitzer saying, “oh they’re so poor, and they’re so black.” I’m quoting these people. I am not making this up. So at that point I think what I thought I was making was a reflection, like a mirroring, of these things. That’s why this book is so much about he said/she said. I was just stunned that these things were coming out of people’s mouths. So that’s what I thought I was making. A chronicle of language. It was almost like an archival project. It did teach me a lot . . . The ability to listen and look and name it and address it and call it out and be in dialogue with it, was what I thought I was making.
On whether there were any literary models for Citizen:
No, no. Because I think if it was there, then you wouldn’t do it. If you thought you were looking at it, then you wouldn’t do it. Which is not to say there aren’t writers out there that I emulate. I mean, I love Renata Adler, for example. I’ve always admired the chattiness of her prose, and the way in which she’s both in the world and in the room at the same time. Joan Didion is somebody else who—I don’t feel like I share an understanding of the world [with her], I think that Joan Didion has great privilege. I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking and it’s like, “oh and then I asked my friend to fly me to”—and I’m like, huh? Excuse me? But there is that sense of the self and our political structure and the people we know all being one thing, inside the work, and so I spend a lot of time studying her work.
On finding your voice and where she’d like to grow:
I think one grows into trusting one’s own voice. I think as a younger writer you—or at least I, I grew up with [deep voice] turning and turning and the widening gyre/ the falcon cannot hear the falconer. And so you sit down to the page and you’re like [deep voice] the center cannot hold.
. . .
The place I would love to go, in my way, is the world of Beckett. That sense that you could take a phrase . . . and have it travel for an hour, and to be able to live inside of that. I think Diane Wiest right now is in a Beckett play, Happy Days, that I recommend you all go and see, because she’s amazing. So that’s something I would [like to do]. . . to start working sonically. I have a friend who’s a fantastic poet, Tracie Morris, and she does sound work, and she’ll take a single sentence, and that sentence will be the entire poem. But it will shift, depending—there’s one poem that she did, “My Great Grand Aunt Meets a Bush Supporter.” It’s sonically shifting all the time. That skill, which I think brings you closer to music—I don’t really have that skill. Not in that way, and I feel Beckett does that.
On Get Out:
Do I love Get Out? Yes, I love Get Out. It’s a great film. But it’s also problematic in certain ways. You know, I am somebody who is married to a white man, who has a mixed race child. So there is no getting out. You’re in. And our children are in. And we have to negotiate. We are in the room together all the time. All the time. This is not about creating false groups that are segregated. It would be so hypocritical of me to say that. Because that’s who’s in my bed, that’s my child—[she] is as much my husband’s child as she is my child.
I taught a class last semester at Yale called Constructions of Whiteness, and we had four women, all of them presenting as black women, all of them with white mothers. At the beginning of the semester, they had to come in and talk to me about my paper topics, and they were all going to write about their moms. None of them did. Because what does it mean to be in a world where your mother will always be valued more than you are? And yet, you love your mother, truly, madly, deeply. Because that woman would kill for you. So they couldn’t take it on, they all—all four of them—changed their topics. They had no problem with white male rage, the problems with white patriarchy, all of that—like, the white dad, who cares? But the one-and-one identification with this mother who has a pathway in the world that they will never have [was too much]. So those are the kinds of things that I think Get Out doesn’t even approach. But in terms of appropriation, and all that kind of stuff, I think it’s brilliant.
On this administration’s end game and the future of America:
As to their end game, I wish it was as easy as saying that I think it’s about creating a structure that economically benefits them. If that were just the case, then we would be back in the Bush administration. The problem, I think, with this administration is that what we have heard and seen, it’s not about economics—it’s about the primacy of whiteness, and not just whiteness. It’s so close, so close to what we say in Nazi Germany in many ways. Well, when you have an attack on the queer community, the kinds of things that we’ve heard from Pence. The man is not Vice President for a minute, and he’s concerned with bathrooms. When you hear the kind of racist rhetoric that catapulted Trump into power, and you know that those rallies are continuing. Then it’s not just about getting elected. It’s about something else. And that is what should terrify us. It should terrify us.
I was teaching at Barnard [in the 80s]. When Giuliani came into office, we felt what happened on the streets, we saw it happen, we saw those streets get—all of that stuff was happening, someone was given carte blanche to do that. It was never in the papers, there was no press conference, and yet we saw, we felt, the trajectory to this New York, the one we’re in right now, where it’s for some people and not for others. So I think we need to be frightened. We need to be frightened by this administration, we need to understand that they mean what they say. We need to understand that dropping ‘white’ from ‘white nationalist’ doesn’t make you not a white nationalist. We can’t be like oh, oh, okay.
I have to give a convocation talk at Wesleyan, and so I’m working on The Talk—that’s what it’s called. I’m thinking, what do you say to these twenty-year-olds, these twenty-one-year-olds? What occurs to me is that it’s not about how powerful we are, it’s about how powerless we are. And in the face of the lack of power, what do we do then? What do we do then? That’s really the question. Are we willing to fail and fail in order to continue to say no to this? Because that’s what we should be doing. We shouldn’t actually be in this room right now. Because stuff is going down.
LISTEN: Paul Holdengraber caught up with the ever-itinerant Claudia Rankine this past summer to talk about casual stalking and the art of rereading…