For Books’ Sake talks to: Claudia Rankine

29th Jul 2015

For Books' Sake talks to: Claudia Rankine
Image: Creative Commons
Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric is an eloquent, yet sprawling piece of literature, exploring race relations and the racialised body, on a domestic and global scale. Our Features Editor, Nikki Hall spoke to Rankine, Jamaican-born, New York-bred poet and professor, discussing the black female body, Rachel Dolezal, Serena Williams, and the policing of race.


Nikki Hall: As alluded in the organic nature of Citizen – that the racial discrimination is just history repeating itself, over and over again – do you ever think that America will become post-racial?

Claudia Rankine: Well, I don’t think that being post-racial should be the destination. I mean, I think we will always, ALWAYS, be raced. The question is at what point, will whiteness recognise its own prejudice. Because right now, part of the problem is that the white imagination does not understand the ways in which historical, systemic racism determines what they think and how they act. So when will that happen? We will never not be black. So the idea that wanting to get to a post-racial moment is the desire but I do not think so. I want to be seen for who I am. And I want to understand the history I came out of. Do I want to be projected on as a criminal by an imagination that has no recognition that it’s doing that? No. So that’s a change I’m waiting for.

NH: Perhaps by changing the negative signifier of what blackness means? However this would probably take many generations?

CR: Despite the change in laws, despite centuries passing, white American imagination has held on to its racist beliefs. Maybe because the culture has supported that. So it’s in the advertisements, so people believe they’re not racist and then they say racist things and the question is why, often people would say “oh the race is a generational thing, racists will die out”.

NH : Exactly, and as long as the media projects this. It is the same thing that happens in Scandinavian countries – everything, their perceptions of race has always been from Hollywood. Even though they haven’t had any contact with cultures, or experienced what America is really like or producing.

CR: And what they’re producing are black people are drug addicts, criminals, deserved to be shot and the authorities deserve to be in the street, unattended.

NH: What are thoughts on The Wire?

CR: It portrayed a segment of the society that is a product of the racist. The disenfranchisement of those black men on The Wire has to do with education, and I think that was part of The Wire’s message, that it wasn’t unconnected that the drug crime wasn’t unconnected from the educational system, the media, all of that. That when you have a society that refuses to educate, that ghettoises certain people then they have no option and they have no belief in their own possibility. And they have no way to enter into mainstream culture. Is that all blacks in the United States know?

NH: Although black people – particularly black women – are the most successful in the entertainment industry, is that a spectacle or a facade to what is truly going on underneath? The multi layering of multimedia used in Citizen are in contrast to the mundane mediations of – autobiographical blacks moving in certain upper class circles, and still having to deal with slips of the tongue.

CR: Well, what I wanted, I mean, one of the things I wanted to show in Citizen is that I’m not talking about communities like The Wire, I’m talking about communities that are populated by people who are educated, people who are supposed to know better. People are partaking in quote on quote “the good life” and who feel themselves aware, sympathetic, good intentioned. And yet, still hold these racist disbeliefs and they way it comes out. It comes out through language. And then you get the “I’m sorry”, ” I didn’t intend that”, “That’s not what I mean” – “I say it but that’s not what I mean”. But it’s still arriving in the body, that’s what it means, because you say what you mean.


[pull] NH: As a black person moving in those circles, there’s always a silence. Is the silence partaking in black oppression?

CR: One of the ways that black people are silenced is that you criminalise expression. You say that black women are angry, and if they speak up they are out of control – like Serena Williams, like Michelle Obama. You’re not allowed to express disdain or distress, if you do, then the problem is not in source of the white gaze or the white mouth that might be soliciting, the problem is inherent in you. And that’s a mechanism of silencing people. and i think one of things that, I myself, has had to be ok with is speaking up and not caring. What that means in terms of servility, if you say something to me and it’s unacceptable, I’m going to say it’s unacceptable and you can then say that I’m classless whatever because that’s your language for silencing me.

NH: Silencing can also be found in the manipulation of the N-word, however taking it back into our culture does support a certain performance of blackness.

CR: One of things about the N-word is, it’s become a point of scandal that is less interesting than its subject. Let’s talk about the N-word and not talk about the N-word! Let’s not talk about Michael Brown’s body in the street or let’s not talk about the fact that Dylann Roof just shot nine people. Because even this week (recently) I saw something about how Obama mentioning the N-word. (laughter) The man was talking about a massacre of nine people and all you can talk about the fact that he had mentioned the N-word. I think it’s become one of those points of scandal, that is a distraction from the realities that are actually affecting lives, and extinguishing lives.

NH: Double consciousness, and you do mention in Citizen about  The conflict between being hyper visible and invisible simultaneously. How do you feel about that?
CR: The hyper-visibility has to do with that way the media deals with black athletes and black celebrity so there everywhere. So it makes it look like there is a level playing field but one as we see in the case of Serena it doesn’t immunise them from the same kind of racism that you and I encounter on a day to day level. I also think that when you think about white privilege, what you’re really thinking about is both white mobility and white ownership of space. And so when whiteness enters a space and sees blackness the fact that blackness is within the space makes blackness hyper-visible because they feel that they own the space. And if it’s not, if the blackness cannot be made invisible by turning it into staff or turning it into some mechanism that is in the role of service or property then it seems hyper-visible and then its not just another body, it becomes this huge body inside their space. Even though, clearly the space is just space.  But that perception that we own the space so if you step in, you take over that space, in their imagination, which is why they need to shoot you or get you out of the space, because you’re taking it over.

NH: Which is exactly what Dylann Roof said.

CR: Exactly, what Dylann Roof said.

NH: Do you think Roof’s comment subconsciously explain a shift to black and white equality?

CR: First of all, it’s not black. It’s brown bodies, it’s the hispanics that are evening out the numbers. So black and brown bodies will overtake whiteness. But I don;t think we have to bring a logic to a logic, you know, this is just the power dynamic inherent in whiteness that “we automatically own this space” and so anxiety around having  the space taken away from them has nothing to do with reality. It’s been that way forever, that’s part of white supremacist thinking. So to say that numbers say this and the numbers say that means nothing.

NH: Even though you are an America, being born in Jamaica, you are still part of the British Empire and has that influenced bringing the race discussion to London and to Algeria. Because I feel that an African American born in America could not have written Citizen for some reason. I mean, when you talk about Mark Duggan and conversations I’ve been in, in London you know art-filled houses in Hampstead when you’re talking about race. I don’t think an African – American could have had that insight – or am I wrong?

CR: I would beg to differ. Only because I think that we are at a point where we are such global citizens. I think the ability to understand that these dynamics are postcolonial dynamics and not actually really locked down nationally.That all of these countries are engaged in a relationship to balck bodies that began with ownership of those bodies and that the level of racism in the United States might seem greater only because of the militarised nature of their culture, where the police pulling out tanks in the face of protest. And willing to use those tanks, at that level of armour against their own citizens which that I think is unique.

NH: But the history is slightly different.

CR: It’s different but it still comes from the same place. I really think that because we are global citizens now, it’s easier to understand how a dynamic in France or a dynamic in Britain, in London,  or in the United States might actually move similarly, relative to the white imagination. Relative to hegemonic culture, whoever’s in power, relative to who’s not in power, the histoy what got us heremight play out less violently here and that might have to do with the role of guns.

NH: It probably all boils down to gun control.

CR: Yes, in a sense. I think even Americans were surprised when the protests in Ferguson was answered by tanks in the street. I don’t think we realise that these small towns police forces owned that material, that equipment. You know, they weren’t the only ones that own that equipment across the country! The local police!

NH: It’s the policing of black bodies.

CR: Yeah. You wouldn’t pull out that equipment in Springfield, Mass. You know, in some white community. That would not be allowed. That would not be tolerated. They would take those armed vehicles away from those people.

NH: Did you follow the riots? I was out in the riots and was barracaded in New Cross – was studying at Goldsmiths at the time – but I did not feel any racial tension. What are your thoughts on this?

CR: I do think that even though the postcolonial history is similar in some ways, the United States has a very vehement and explosive relationship to blackness, even more so. And nothing seems to alter it. Laws don’t seem to alter it. A black president doesn’t seem to alter it. Even the people that voted for the black president, when they feel their own position being threatened, are capable of the same thoughts of a Dylann. They might not pick up a gun, reload it five times and shoot nine people but if they feel  threatened in the same way those thoughts are very available to them. I mean, we did not make him so, he is a product of the country, and so every thought available to him is available to everyone.

NH: When massacres happen in recent times, they were usually in schools. I wonder why at this moment in time there has been a large scale church massacre?

CR: In the black community, it’s often in churches. Or white supremacists predominantly attacked churches in the black community throughout the 20th and 21st century and they do that because the church is a safe place. The one place that blackness owns as a safe place. In ’63, that’s when the church was bombed and those 4 girls were killed. When Obama was elected a black church in Springfield was burnt down to the ground. So there is a kind of history that Dylann Roof was stepping into consciously. He researched that church because of its historical significance in the black liberation movement. So it wasn’t a random moment, he wanted that church because of its historical significance and he is able to do that kind of research, he is obviously able to understand how black churches have functioned in the black community up till now.

NH: It was particularly eerie that he sat with them, and that they welcomed him into the church. How do you feel about that?

CR: I’m not surprised it was a church. They were at church, they were in the environment where one is one’s best self. So you expect everyone to be their best selves. It was not like they were in a bar. I think given the location, he could depend on the generosity of the people’s around him.

NH: On art – Citizen closes with Turner’s The Slave Ship, were you conscious of using it as a representation of blackness being submerged and bleached by whiteness?

CR: If you want to take on the classification that is being to constructed for you. I don’t see myself determined by the white imagination. I see myself as in conversation with the constructions made by white imagination. But you and I are black women, with different histories and different lives and different ages and experiences, and all of that contributes to who we are. but we both also understand history in ways that can be in conversation with and in dialogue with. And we understand that that history might inform other people’s reading of us and our bodies but that’s not us.

NH: What are your thoughts on the black female body today?

CR: (On Rachel Dolezal) That situation, that has nothing to do with race! That has to with a woman who is traumatised. That racial thing is about trauma, that is about a woman who is traumatised within the dynamics of a family that had apparently sexual trauma. There was trauma, there was sibling rivalry between the black adopted children and the white biological children. To me that has nothing to do with race. Race  is just being used in this but the woman needs psychological help and I think one of things about race in the United States is because it’s such a volatile category, things that don’t belong in it get put it in and then that discussion trumps the actual reality of the thing itself. And in her case, people should talking about what it means for a woman to be traumatised to the point of wanting to escape into another culture, another identity. This is disassociation at its extreme and i think that’s the conversation people should be having relative to that woman.

CR: Because they’re using the situation to talk about other things, but they don’t need to be talked about through her traumatised body.

NH: Why did you chose Serena Williams as the female subject in Citizen?

CR: Because Serena to me is the example of what it means to work hard,to strive, to do everything that you’re think you’re supposed to do, and still you are subject to the most hateful, and unrelenting racism. The woman has won everything. There is nothing left for her to win, except break obscure tennis records. And yet, she has been attacked and attacked and attacked and you know, I went to the US Open a few years ago and she was playing in the final against Victoria Azarenka and the white Americans standing around me were cheering for the woman from Belarus. And I said to the people, standing near me I said, “you’re Americans, why aren’t you cheering for the American player?”

NH: What was the answer?

CR: “Oh, we just wanted to be competitve!” And then when it got close why aren’t you cheering for  American player and then they moved away because nobody wants to turn to me and say “we hate her because she’s black.” But it’s the reality.

NH: So what’s next for you?

CR: I am working on a play. But I don’t like launching into another writing project immediately after finishing one, because I think then you end up just writing the same thing again. So I love sort of, just doing something different and then coming back to it.

NH: Were you surprised at the success and embrace of Citizen?

CR:No I was surprised! I didn’t think when you’re working on something  you can never anticipate what the reaction is going to be, so I was just doing the book I was doing. I had no idea that it would have been embraced in the way that it has done. I am grateful. Partly because it means that the subject is being engaged.

Claudia Rankine is a Jamaican poet and playwright. At present, Rankine is the Henry G. Lee Professor of Poetry at Pomona College and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Rankine’s work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), an experimental project, has been acclaimed for its unique blend of poetry, essay, lyric and television imagery.

Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin, 2015, £9.99)  won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. It has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.  It is available to buy here.

Nikki Hall is a writer and the Features Editor of For Books’ Sake.