Using poetry to uncover the moments that lead to racism

December 4, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Poet and playwright Claudia Rankine says that the small moments that carve gaps of misunderstanding between Americans lead to big, national moments of misunderstanding, like events in Ferguson and New York. Rankine explores these disruptions and how they lead to conflict in her new book, “Citizen.”

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: personal reflections on the recent upheaval involving black men and white police officers in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and beyond.

They come from poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. Her book “Citizen” was a finalist for the National Book Award.

CLAUDIA RANKINE, Poet: I’m Claudia Rankine, a poet, playwright. I also teach at Pomona College.

I see myself as a citizen, walking around, collecting stories, and using those stories to reflect our lives through poetry, through essays, creating these hybrid texts and plays that reflect back to us who we are.

In my most recent book, “Citizen,” I wanted to try to track the moments that disrupt interactions, especially between people of different races. The book contains two kinds of aggressions, what is commonly known as microaggressions, the small moments that I referred to.

But then I wanted to begin to understand how we get these major moments, the murders of black men, these kind of moments in 2014 where you think, how did that happen?

And I wanted to track it back and say, well, if people in their daily lives begin by believing and saying these small things, they will add up to major, major aggressions against people just because of the color of their skin. And so the book tracks the small to the large.

“It’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised. Oh my God, I didn’t see you. You must be in a hurry, you offer. No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.”

The occasions of police violence is something that this book turns on, police violence against black men, because I feel like, in 50 years, people are going to look back on us, or in 100 years, and say, what were we thinking? How could we let this happen? How could an entire country warehouse black men, shoot them constantly, and no one object?

I feel like it’s my personal mission to keep those stories as present as I am possibly able to keep them present.

“Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half-hour. You pull your love back into the seat because, though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.”

For a few years now, I have been working with my husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, on situation videos. One of the situation videos entitled “Stop and Frisk,” we did here in Claremont using Pomona students, because we wanted to look at what it meant for young black men to just be walking and trying to engage in their dailyness, and having the police and the threat of the police hovering.

“Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew. And you are not the guy, and still you fit the description, because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

I went to Ferguson a week after Michael Brown was shot six times, twice in the head. And when I went to his neighborhood, people came up to me and would say things like, “Would you like to take a picture of my toddler with his hands in the air?”

And one young man said to me: “I look just like him. That could be me.”

And both — both things just sort of disturbed me, the sense of the inevitability of black bodies inside a dead body. Since I have been to Ferguson and thinking about it, the only thing I have done actually is written a small haiku.

It goes, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.”

And I thought that was going to be the beginning of something and that I would keep going. But I haven’t been able to write any more. And I think I just need to keep thinking about it.

As much as I would like to think that Ferguson would be a game-changing moment, it’s hard for me to put faith in that. This kind of perpetual, aspirational hope of recognition of injustice that keeps not happening builds up in the self. And it’s fascinating to me that I keep having the hope and keep knowing it’s not going to happen.