Poet Claudia Rankine

A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Rankine discusses poetry as a way of responding to racism and inequality.

Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, including the groundbreaking text, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric—an experimental project, acclaimed for its unique, multigenre blend of poetry, essay, lyric and TV imagery. In the long-awaited follow-up, Citizen, she addresses moments of everyday racism through vignettes based on real stories. Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica and earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia. She's edited numerous anthologies and taught at the University of Houston, Barnard College and Pomona College, where she's an English professor. In 2013, she was elected to the distinguished position of chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Acclaimed poet, Claudia Rankine’s latest book is a book-length poem in fact. It grapples with race and identity written in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. It’s titled “Citizen: An American Lyric” and it’s being compared to the works of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes in its complex and detailed depiction of what it means to be an American. Claudia Rankine, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Claudia Rankine: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: I want to go right back to the cover. Jonathan, can you put the cover of this book? It is an arresting, provocative, unsettling cover. Tell me about this image and why you chose it as the cover image.

Rankine: The image is a piece by David Hemmings, the renowned visual artist, conceptual artist. He did that piece in 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten. And it seemed to me to embody the problems of representation around the injustice and the Black body that to have just a single image that said, okay, injustice, Black body, meet. It was this image, so that’s why we wanted to use the Hemmings piece.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that even prior to then, but certainly since then, hoodies are worn by everybody, not even just Black boys, Black men, and yet it still has such a strong symbolic message?

Rankine: Well, I think that’s the problem. Blackness holds on to its history that stems from racism in this country and no matter how much time passes, it can’t pull away. So even the hoodie which is worn by everyone is still located in the Black body as a criminal garment.

Tavis: Before I go inside, Claudia, this is the second text that you’ve written that has as a subtitle, “An American Lyric”. So this one is “Citizen: An American Lyric”. Tell me why you are so drawn and why you want to reconnect us to this phrase, “An American Lyric”?

Rankine: The lyric normally is thought of as a kind of internal song and I want to marry the position of blackness to the American song. You know, it’s not about American life and then Black life. It’s Black life as American life. And “American Lyric” for me keeps that marriage singular.

Tavis: Given that so much of what we are experiencing today–Bryan Stevenson just made this point literally a few moments ago in our conversation with him and here you come now echoing his comment–that so much of what we are experiencing today with regard to the contestation of the humanity of Black people, Black boys in particular, has its linkages all the way back to segregation and Jim Crow and Jane Crow and, prior to that, slavery and what you’ve just basically laid out.

Yet that is a story that so many Americans who don’t look like you and me are tired of hearing. So if you’re telling me–you see where I’m going with this. If you’re telling me that what we’re dealing with today is not disconnected from what happened yesterday, but American don’t want to hear about what happened yesterday, then how do you…

Rankine: How do you continue? You show that racism is as much a part of whiteness as it is a Black life.

Tavis: Yeah, race is all of our problem.

Rankine: It’s all of our problem. So that when you have somebody like the officer in St. Louis, Darren Wilson, saying I saw this kid and what I saw was a demon, what I saw was Hulk Hogan, how that made me feel was like a five-year-old, that’s the supremacist thinking controlling him. His own imagination is being controlled by racism.

So, you know, I’m sure the man thinks that I’m not a racist. I’m just trying to do my job. But here it is. Whiteness as determined by racism. So I think that we need to start looking at white subjectivity, liberal subjectivity, this position of this is not me, this is not my problem.

Because who’s on those juries? White people, nine of them, who think that this kind of behavior, killing unarmed Black men, is okay. Where does that come from, with the whole country standing behind saying no, it’s not okay?

Tavis: See, now you’re raising another question that I again wrestle with all the time. I think you and I both will acknowledge and I think maybe the viewer will acknowledge if they’re being honest that we just as human beings, period, have a hard time dealing with being introspective.

We have a hard time dealing with the internal, so we always want to deal with the external. We will change the color of our hair, our clothes, our makeup, our shoes. We’ll change all this–put another way, we’ll deal with the hardware, but not the software. So the external is easy, the internal is hard. Was it Socrates who once said that the unexamined life is not worth living? But that’s a painful process.

Now I only raise that because, Claudia, that, if writ large, as human beings, we have a hard time being introspective, turning the spotlight on ourselves, how then do you do that when you’re talking about, to my mind at least, the most intractable issue in this country which is racism?

What you’ve just said a moment ago is a powerful thing about what has to happen if we’re going to come to terms with how our country, our democracy, quite frankly, is being threatened by this nonsense. And yet you’re asking people not just to be introspective, but to be introspective about the most difficult issue that we face as Americans. Does that make sense?

Rankine: Yes, it makes total sense. The book, “Citizen”, begins with daily encounters, little moments, places where language reveals how racism determines how we interact. And that’s why I felt we need to start in the most quotidian, daily way. Because as you say, it’s difficult for people to change what’s inside, so maybe start with language. Start with being accountable to language.

You know, James Baldwin said that not everything that’s faced can be changed, but nothing can change until it’s faced. So let’s just start being accountable to ourselves and understanding what’s driving us and what’s causing the impasse when one person is faced with another person of different color, different race.

Tavis: So now I want to have you help me juxtapose these two things. That is, this notion that there seems to be on the part of many fellow citizens an awakening, given what’s happened to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner–let’s be honest about this.

These are not just Black folk protesting. A whole lot of white folk in this country have been awakened by and have been pricked, had their consciences pricked, by what they see happening to African Americans. So there is this, again, to my mind at least, an awakening on the part of some fellow citizens who don’t look like us.

I’m trying to juxtapose that, though, with the hopelessness that many fellow citizens feel borne out in this report, this new poll that I, again, referenced a moment ago with Bryan Stevenson, Bloomberg new poll out suggesting that 53%, a slight majority of Americans, now believe that race relations have worsened under Barack Obama.

This was a moment that we were celebrating a few years ago. A whole bunch of white folk elected Barack Obama and now the majority of our citizenry thinks that we have lost ground on race relations in this era. So how do you square those two things? That there’s an awakening on the one hand, but a hopelessness on the other hand?

Rankine: I think the hopelessness comes from exhaustion. You know, that feeling of, in terms of the indictments, you wait and wait and you hope it will go another way. But part of you, an equal part of you, knows it’s not going to happen. So then you get into this cycle of hopelessness.

But I think that the fact that people are out on the streets, that’s not hopelessness. That’s a belief that it’s time to stand up. It’s time to say no. It’s time to be angry. I think, in a way, what the past few years has done is quiet us down. And I think whites, Blacks, Asian, everybody now is thinking, oh, no, no, no. We can’t just let this go. We have to actually stand up. We have to go out.

Tavis: I’m struck by your use of the term anger because, obviously, it takes me inside your text. I thought only Black men could be angry, but I hear you suggesting that what we’re seeing in the streets is anger.

Rankine: I think it is anger. I think it’s be angry, be angry, and that’s okay. I think Black women should be angry, even though that’s a stereotype. We all should be angry. Mothers losing their sons, it’s time to be angry. It’s time to say enough is enough.

Tavis: Let me close on this note. What is it that you hope the primary takeaway will be for those persons, again, who will read this book who don’t happen to look like us about what they ought to consider with respect to the journey that Black folk have to navigate every day regarding race on this stage?

Rankine: I think people who don’t look like us should think about the way in which they’re implicated in our difficulty in the small ways, in the daily ways, in the doors that close when they were held open for the blonde lady who passed through, but then the Black lady comes and the door is moving back. You know, just the small gestures.

Once you begin to correct on the small level, I think the other things will take care of themselves. Because that means you begin to see the person, the African American person, the Asian person, the brown person, the Latino person, as a person, and that’s all we’re asking.

Tavis: It’s all we’re asking and I think we can all start small. The book is called “Citizen: An American Lyric”, by Claudia Rankine. I highly recommend it, as I did with Bryan’s book a few moments ago. Two good pieces to add to your collection and now would be a good time to do that. Claudia, good to have you on this program.

Rankine: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Congratulations on the text.

Rankine: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 12, 2014 at 6:42 pm