Poet Claudia Rankine on the violent deaths of black men

She calls herself an archivist, a collector of stories. Poet and playwright Claudia Rankine is especially fascinated with stories about the interactions — both intimate and large scale — between the races. In her latest book of poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Rankine intersperses small vignettes about everyday injustices with longer prose poems about the violent deaths of black men after confrontations with police.

“I wanted to begin to understand how we get to these major moments, the murders of black men. These kind of moments in 2014 when 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 aggressions.”

The small stories were collected from friends and colleagues — both white and black — and show how even the simplest of interactions can be fraught with deep racial tension.

In line at the drugstore 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.

Born in Jamaica and raised in Kingston and New York City, Rankine attended Williams College, Columbia University and for the past decade has taught at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She is married to the photographer and filmmaker John Lucas, who is white. Rankine seems comfortable in her black and white communities. But she says it has become her mission to document the wide gulf which still seems to exist between the two.

Watch “Stop and Frisk,” a video by Claudia Rankine and her husband John Lucas based on her poem by the same name.

She and Lucas collaborate on what she calls “situation videos”. She writes the poetry; her husband makes a short film to accompany the text. One, called “Stop-and-Frisk,” shows two African American boys (who happen to be students at Pomona) as they shop for clothing. Police sirens can be heard in the background as Rankine reads:

I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. 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.

Rankine says the piece was initially a response to police policies in New York City, but she quickly realized that this “policing of the black body” was something that was happening all across the country. This video is a meditation on the fact that “the outdoor space is dangerous for the black male body to move about in,” says Rankine.

Several of the poems in “Citizen” deal with the violent deaths of black men that have dominated the headlines over the last several years: James Craig Anderson, Mark Duggan and Trayvon Martin. Rankine went to Ferguson, MO in August shortly after the death of Michael Brown where she listened to people who lived in his neighborhood, collecting material for future poems. So far, she’s only been able to write a simple haiku in response.

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

She says she thought that would be the beginning of something and that she would keep going. But that hasn’t happened. Perhaps, she muses, it was because she spent the last several months waiting, hoping for some justice. But when the grand jury announced it wouldn’t bring charges against the police officer who shot Brown, she realized things haven’t changed. “There’s this perpetual aspirational hope of recognition of injustice that keeps not happening. It 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.”

Tune in to tonight’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour to the full profile of Poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. You can watch on our Ustream channel at 6 p.m. EST or check your local listings.

Below is the full text of Rankine’s prose poem, which she reads in the video above:

A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize. Yes, and you want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.