Claudia Rankine is the author of five books of poetry, including Nothing in Nature Is Private (1994), The End of the Alphabet (1998), PLOT (2001), and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004). Her most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), documents antiblack racial aggression through a relentless catalog of second-person intimate and public encounters, and was the winner of: the Forward Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (it was also a finalist in the criticism category, making it the first book in the award’s history to be a double nominee), the NAACP Image Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the LA Times Book Award. Rankine’s play, Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, was a 2011 Distinguished Development Selection in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. With John Lucas, she co-produces the film series, “Situation.”
In addition to making her own creative work, Rankine has formatively influenced the cultural landscape of American poetry. She has co-edited several important anthologies, including American Women Poets in the Twenty-First Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (2002) and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2015). In 2013, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale.
I met Rankine in Marfa, Texas, where a stunning red-orange landscape sprawled and a giant blimp hovered. “It’s a camera to catch people crossing the border,” Rankine told me when were out on a morning walk, and we reflected on the surveillance that structured this seemingly open space. A few minutes later, she asked me if I remembered how to skip. I did, I found out, skipping a bit down the dusty road, then turning back to laugh with the poet. Rankine’s keen eye and careful language seemed to catch it all: the logics of the landscape, the levity of the chest sent skyward when both feet have left the ground—the beautiful and difficult contradictions.
Our interview took place on a sunny summer afternoon, at a picnic table in the backyard of a book-filled Lannan Literary Foundation house where Rankine was staying during her two-week residency.
Schwartz: Let’s start at an opening. The epigraph in Citizen reads: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
Rankine: That epigraph is from Chris Marker’s film Sans soleil. It’s worth seeing. Marker is a huge influence for me in terms of formal approaches to telling stories that don’t necessarily have resolved narratives—stories that actually reside within the feeling of a thing. He begins Sans soleil with a picture of two blond children in a landscape. The landscape gets eviscerated by the eruption of a volcano. “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” The happiness refers to the kids, and the black to the lava. Though the line isn’t literally about race, it speaks to events, natural or otherwise, that make difficult attempts to live a life.
I was interested in positing the word happiness in Citizen because the book is about people with full lives, who are also negotiating day-to-day assaults within that life. The epigraph had to do with wanting to have two things stand at once, which is what I felt Marker achieved. Sans soleil communicates: This life exists with realities that complicate one’s attempt to exist.
Schwartz: Implicit in what “complicates one’s attempt to exist” is latent possibility: if not this, what else might be? This calls up for me the scene in Citizen where “you” are at a drugstore, and just as “you” are about to pay, someone cuts in front of “you” in line. The vignette reads:
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 statement “You must be in a hurry” offers a different kind of future to that encounter, but what might have been is cut off in the insistent not-seeing. For me as a reader, that moment of insistent not-seeing is where the race of the characters is constructed. There, I see a white man cutting the black or brown “you” in line. But what other futures might we imagine in the space of that offering?
Rankine: As you say, the moment of not-seeing is a site of racialized construction. When the woman says, “You must be in a hurry,” that becomes, for me, the offering of an alternative future to that encounter. When the man says, “No, I really didn’t see you,” his insistence on the erasure of the other then becomes the primary narrative.
It’s a tricky question because, if you understand racism as systemic, it’s hard to see this culture outside of its determined structures. Let’s look at that piece in particular. What if the person had said, “I’m not in a hurry. I didn’t see you. But I understand that I live in a country where white people don’t necessarily register black people as people. I recognize this to be my problem, not yours”?
For me, it’s more about coming to a recognition of the structure that determines the ways we apprehend each other. One might think about capitalism in the same way: “I would like that thing, but I don’t need that thing. I’ve been raised in a system where the purchasing of things is the controlling narrative.” That recognition could actually alter the way in which we respond to our desires.
Schwartz: If the person in the drugstore had said, “I didn’t see you; but I understand that to be my problem, not yours,” it would have set out a different kind of public conversation?
Rankine: Exactly. The “you” would no longer be in a position of having to reinstate her humanity.
Schwartz: I’ve been thinking about the vital force of public vocabularies of protest and response, especially around the Black Lives Matter movement. What is the role of language in the kinds of public conversations we need to be having?
Rankine: In any kind of conversation, language determines what’s possible. What gets said allows or disallows the next moment. During protests, for example, you have white people saying, “How can I help you?” And when I hear this, I think, “Why isn’t it about a national failure? Why isn’t it simply unacceptable injustice for you as well as for me? Why don’t you want to help yourself as a citizen, a participant in this democracy?”
If we’re after a kind of co-feeling around these moments of injustice, what’s the appropriate language? There needs to exist between us the space to reframe the language in ways that allow both of us to stand, to be present inside whatever is being articulated. I don’t believe in censoring people, but I think that if we begin to feel like we have fixed positions relative to an “other,” that’s when our communication stalls.
Schwartz: You spoke about these intimate encounters being staged in language, but of course, these are also scenes that you as the poet have actively staged. What’s the role of making visible these moments that might not otherwise register as “the Event” in the way macroaggressions like murder do?
Rankine: I wanted to use language to make visible communicated assaults because they actually are registering in the body. The person who’s dealt the assault might not necessarily understand the impact of what’s been said. The person who receives the assault often spends too much time trying to get beyond the bad feeling. If they could respond in real time to what was said—calling the language out in the moment that it happened—then I think they could move forward inside the moment.
The culture has created all of this other language to shut down the interrogation of language. If you reject something offensive that is said to you, you’re called crazy. Or you’re too sensitive. Or you’re told you’re misunderstanding. So you have to move through the language that has been put in place to shut you down. Literally, those responses have been put in place to silence you—as a woman, as a person of color—and, consequently, privilege the original utterance. Often you are responding not only to the thing that was said, but also to the language that has been put in place to shut you down.
Another rhetorical strategy is to dismiss by way of pretending to agree. I’ve gotten this kind of response to Citizen, for example. Recently, somebody said to me, “Well, I know the officer was racist, but don’t you think Michael Brown brought his death on himself?” “I know the officer was racist” was meant to shut me down. I said to them, “Well, the real question to ask yourself is: If Michael Brown had been white, and done everything Brown did, would he be dead?” That is the question to ask yourself. Don’t ask me! [Laughing.]
Schwartz: The way you’re talking about naming microaggressions as a social fact in order to displace some of this burden that otherwise becomes internalized evokes for me the idea of a diagnosis. At best, a diagnosis says: There is something wrong. This is not an interior pathology. It’s something that needs to be treated in a broader way. Do ideas of public health come into Citizen?
Rankine: When the book was just an idea, I thought I was going to write about public health. I thought I was writing a book about why things like diabetes and high blood pressure disproportionately affect black communities. I was thinking: What are the stresses that bring these things on? For me, these stresses were connected to the negotiation of racism in a culture that is historically structured against the well-being of African Americans.
Schwartz: In a way, Citizen retains a focus on public health in the sense that it asks us to think about how the unequal apportioning of the public sphere accrues in the body. There’s also the way that the text itself accumulates in the body of the reader. I feel exhausted after reading Citizen, and I think so much of that has to do with the active engagement demanded by the second person. “You” are implicated. “You” constantly have to work to discern and to forge your position in and relation to the text. How were you thinking about the second person as a tool for structuring the reader’s interaction with the text?
Rankine: I’m always thinking about how to keep the text open, so that other things can happen besides what I intend. The choice of the second-person pronoun came because I did not want to localize the experiences of the text in a particular body. The reader would have walked away thinking, “Oh god, I feel bad for that person.” The use of the second person meant that the reader needed to position themselves each time relative to the dynamic of the anecdote, rather than be positioned sympathetically or not toward particular individuals.
This book was about representing experiences honestly. It was really not a time for fantasy. I already knew that the pushback was going to be, “You’re making this up.” What I didn’t anticipate—partly because everything in the book is based on actual stories—was how broadly the anecdotes documented in the text resonated as true. Many readers recognize the validity of the interaction because they have had similar interactions. I think that’s partly why the accumulation happens: there isn’t a fight against the material. There isn’t that sense of “Is this believable?” because belief already exists in experience. You know it to be true.
Schwartz: Citizen is not a linear narrative. A reader could enter the text at many points. How did you think about putting Citizen together as a book?
Rankine: The challenge of organizing Citizen as a book was to create the experience of the accumulation of a constant assault and to allow the assault to happen at any point in the text. I knew I wanted to string together a series of microaggressions to replicate the feeling of accumulation—and also to prepare the reader for the macroaggressions, those moments when people are actually killed or abandoned. In a sense, I wanted to show that anyone who was involved in the earlier microaggressions could also have ended up as a victim in the later macroaggressions. So there is a trajectory. And this also goes for the people who commit the microaggressions. Why are people being killed? It’s not because suddenly somebody is racist. It’s because every day, all the time, everyone is playing out their beliefs.
Schwartz: Did the idea of accumulation inform your curation of the visual texts as well?
Rankine: I understood the accumulation of recognized experiences to be an exhaustive process. That’s why the pieces within the collection aren’t individually titled—I wanted the pieces to fold into each other. At the same time, I also wanted spaces where the reader could move away from the text and into a different form of negotiation with the material. After reading the piece about two girls in a racist encounter, to rest in the beautiful photograph of suburban life and discover that you’re on Jim Crow Road is both to find and not to find respite. One begins to understand: there is no escape inside a world built on white supremacy.
Schwartz: There are several images—like the photograph of Jim Crow Road—that have a traditional documentary aesthetic. Then there are others that are visually much stranger. How, for example, does Wangechi Mutu’s “Sleeping Heads” work in Citizen?
Rankine: I love Wangechi Mutu’s work because, for me, it’s about affect. It really exists in the realm of intimacy, aggression, and desire. It’s about the ways in which bodies are layered, and that’s why collage is a powerful dynamic in her work.
I read that she sometimes gets her images from porn magazines, which makes a lot of sense to me. Her collages are sites where bodies are coming together—maybe violently, maybe not. They’re in relation to each other in ways that are both disturbing and intimate.
It felt necessary to include Mutu in Citizen. For me, her work embodies the violent intimacy of microaggressions. Why is racism so intimate? Because even without another body touching you, you’re being touched—through glances, through language. The language and the look have the ability to transgress the space between us.
Schwartz: The way that different bodies differently occupy social space is powerfully rendered in the vignette that takes place on a train. In that piece, “you” are attempting to renegotiate this inequality by putting “your” body in the seat that has been left empty next to a black man on a full train. Yet this is not a space “you” can fill because “the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.” You’ve spoken about this scene as staging the impossibility of rectifying these macroaggressions through interpersonal interaction. You insist that the reader not walk away with the impression that these micro-actions can be some kind of structural fix-all. Could you speak a little more to the relationship between macroaggressions and microaggressions as they play out in Citizen?
Rankine: In Citizen, I didn’t want to buy into the fantasy that any single action can resolve institutional racism. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the ways in which people attempt to redress racism. In the poem about the empty seat next to the black man, always present was the question: are you doing something just because it makes you feel better? And does the thing that makes you feel better also make the other person feel better? And, feelings aside, does this actually address systemic racism?
In the case of the poem, the woman sitting doesn’t change the dynamic structurally—the other woman who has chosen to stand rather than to sit in the one empty seat next to the black man remains standing—but still, for the seated woman, the act of sitting next to the black man makes her feel better. Also present is the reality that it might or might not make him feel better to have her sit next to him. Her decision to sit next to the black man is not a solution in the systemic sense, but does that matter? As a writer, I would rather err on the side of creating a feeling of solidarity—even if it’s not wanted. Maybe that feeling of solidarity is one that I need more than he needs. But, nonetheless, the sitting stages solidarity.
Schwartz: That vignette ends: “And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you’ll tell them we are traveling as a family.” The phrase “traveling as a family” is striking. Does this idea of family relate to citizenship as you’re envisioning it?
Rankine: I used “family” because I couldn’t think of another way to point to solidarity. This ad hoc coalition of family is only necessary because the greater structure of citizenship has failed us. The black man sitting down does not fall into the protected category of citizen, so family offered another model for envisioning social connection.
Schwartz: And still, the language of family has been constitutive of certain conceptions of the public sphere. The phrase “Founding Fathers,” for example, demonstrates the way that the white heteronormative model of family is in fact the basis for citizenship. But “family” here seems to be doing something else.
Rankine: Well, nationalism moves strangers into a realm of kinship based on recognition. It’s saying that maybe kinship is citizenry. Police will approach white men and call them “son,” which means, “I will protect you as one of my own.” They’re not going to kill their son.
I saw a sign in one of the Black Lives Matter protests that said, “Black skin is not a weapon.” I think that’s the problem: whiteness in its constructions of dominance and kinship sees blackness as alien to family, an obstruction to their sense of life.
In a way, I don’t even like going down this road because positioning family as a place of safety is a little bit too romantic and sentimental. But it’s also true that one of the reasons that white policemen don’t shoot white men is because they don’t shoot reflections of themselves. This logic, however, doesn’t seem to work with black policemen and black men. But I think that has to do with incorporating the racism in the culture as part of one’s position.
Schwartz: Why Citizen as a title, as a rubric?
Rankine: As Langton Hughes said, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” I think for a long time there was that sense that racism belonged to the South. Racism belonged to white supremacists. Racism belonged to white men. There was also the belief that people were racist against black Americans because of how certain blacks behave, how certain blacks dress, how certain blacks speak. But it’s clear to black Americans that it’s not a class issue. It’s not about where you live, how you dress, or how much education you have. It’s about being black; and no amount of attaining status, attaining wealth, attaining power alters something that is systemic to the culture.
Citizenship was never something that black people truly held in the ways we understand the term—inalienable rights and all that. That’s why Citizen becomes the title. The kind of aggressions that the book interrogates were, in fact, always a part of what it meant to be a citizen for black Americans.
Schwartz: I want to ask you about the role of class in Citizen. A friend calls “you” by the housekeeper’s name and “you” feel the pain of “being confused with another after being so close to this other.” This is just one microaggression situated in the middle- or upper-class milieu that extends throughout the collection.
Rankine: The fiction is that racism belongs to ignorant and uneducated people, and I wanted Citizen to interrogate the pervasiveness of racism despite education or class. The narrative of liberal America has always been that racism is in the South, in Appalachia—and not the blue states, not in their homes.
Schwartz: It’s stunning how in this example—“being confused for another after being so close to this other”—you linguistically take the burden of otherness off the person who’s being confused. By the end of the sentence it’s the white friend who has been othered. The language is doing so much work here.
Rankine: It took me a long time to figure out that linguistic construction. Originally, that statement was something like, “Being confused with a servant.” And a couple of people said to me: “Is that right? Is that really the issue?” I quickly realized it wasn’t a class issue. Rather, in the moment of being confused with anybody else, you understand that, for the person misnaming you, you belong in the category of black people. Any other black person suddenly becomes you and you are them. This reductiveness occasions the loss of intimacy, which then makes the white person an “other.”
Schwartz: If you had said, “Being confused with a servant,” it would also make the servant’s body “the problem.” And that’s not the problem.
Schwartz: Throughout Citizen you notably do not replicate these all-too-familiar spectacular scenes that render the black body as problem. I’m thinking in particular of the well-known lynching photograph. In your text, that photograph is cropped so that we don’t see the lynched body. Instead, we see only the white mob—including several people turned to look at the camera. Looking at the photograph in this way, I’m confronted by whiteness as a coalition of gazes. Could you speak to your inclusion of this photograph?
Rankine: That 1930 photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana has always interested me because of the white supremacist gesture of the mustachioed man in the foreground. His pointing to the bodies claimed ownership of the lynching, and by removing Shipp and Smith, I was able to turn the gaze back onto what was truly offensive. For me, the scandal exists in white ownership of the lynching. We understand the dead bodies to be problematic, but what gets left behind are the ways in which the white people are implicated and complicit in the savagery. Scandal is easy; but if you take away what is obviously scandalous, you’ll find scandal somewhere else. Consequently, after cropping Shipp’s and Smith’s bodies out of the photograph, what is found is systemic racism embodied in the faces of the white mob.
Schwartz: Then part of the ways that racism is conditioned and practiced daily has to do with entrenching these social sightlines. So when these macroaggressions do occur, we—on a social level—already know where to look, where to find “the problem.” And often it’s the black body. How does tennis function as a site where social vision is trained? I’m thinking of the Serena Williams piece in Citizen and your other writing on Williams, but also of Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” and your open letters to each other in 2011.
Rankine: I have been following Serena Williams for a long time. She says what’s on her mind, and that’s rare for people in a public forum. We see her receiving assaults, responding to the assaults, and negotiating the ways commentators try to make the assaults invisible. So on the level of metaphor, the mechanism of tennis as something that is dealt back and forth was perfect for talking about racist interactions. And not only were these scenarios being played out, they were also being documented. Because microaggressions are always being rendered invisible, I wanted a site that was researchable. You could go to YouTube and look it up, and decide for yourself what was happening.
In Citizen, the Serena Williams essay was a moment not just to record the aggressions, but also to look at the reaction and response. Black anger has been pathologized as if it exists without assault, as if there is not an accumulation of assaults. The Serena essay was a way to contextualize that anger.
Schwartz: We spoke about your interest in affect, but what is your relationship to the documentary in Citizen? What you’re doing is clearly a departure from documentary conventions and the ways they’ve historically been mobilized to make a kind of singular truth-claim that is often tethered to racist formations. At the same time, there’s a way that Citizen itself reads like a document. As you said, you felt bound to a truth that resides and is verifiable outside the text.
Rankine: I wanted to put Citizen in the tradition of Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary work—work that’s based on actual events in the world—in her case, “Gauley Bridge.” Unlike Rukeyser in that work, I was less interested in the facts of the event, and more interested in the way these historical events have eroded our ability to identify each other as citizens. In terms of form, I think that speaks to why Citizen lives within poetry and nonfiction. I was as much interested in documenting as I was in documenting something that you can’t document. If poetry resides in the realm of affect—within the realm of intimacy and feeling—that can’t be documented, really; but that’s found in the moments that can be documented. I’m referring to the undocumented inside the documented. That’s where poetry and nonfiction meet for me.
This desire is also true in terms of my use of the image. I used documentary images—like the photograph of Jim Crow Road and the photograph of Caroline Wozniacki—but then the question was: what complements that? Wangechi Mutu would complement a documentary photograph because she’s actually taking images from photographs. Glenn Ligon would complement a text because he’s using text. So, what could live together inside the spaces that exist but cannot be documented, as well as those spaces that exist and can? Those issues were at the forefront of my thinking. There were other artists I could have used, but I didn’t use them because they were too painterly. In other words, they didn’t work with the documentary aspect of the book.
In Citizen, I think the cover image and its juxtaposition with the word citizen establishes a similar dynamic. How can we get the word citizen to recuperate the image? Or how can we get the image to recuperate the concept of “citizen”? As you’re reading and looking at the same time, the mind has to keep these things together in one realm. Every sentence for me is like that. I’m always asking the individual words to perform multiple tasks so each word is at once communicating something and historically dragging something forward.
Schwartz: How does your thinking about feelings—which, as you say, can’t be documented, but are structured by and emerge from within things that can—inform your choice of language? You’ve spoken about wanting “a transparent language.” Could you say more about what this means, how it plays out?
Rankine: The difficulty is how to write with clarity that offers people access to any given moment while holding them in the complexity inherent in any subject. So there’s a lot of jostling and weighing one word over another, in terms of what I can get from that individual word. And that’s the world of the poem. Individual words have to do a lot of work. Like the word here. I love that word. That’s a big word for Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In that book, the sense of what gets offered and who stays in the offering is very important. The word here does both of those things; it is both the presentation of something and the position of the self as one presents the self.
Schwartz: Would you say more about this idea of who stays in the offering?
Rankine: Don’t Le Me Be Lonely engages post-9/11 constructions of fear and death. A pervasive dynamic of fear prescribes that even as I say, “I’m here,” I mean that you’re over there and I’m over here. I wanted Lonely to insist that whenever I am present, I am also giving myself to you in the same manner. “Come over here with me.” So the word here was being asked to do a lot in that book in terms of all of this thinking around loneliness and community.
Schwartz: What has the lyric done for you? Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen share the subtitle, An American Lyric.
Rankine: For me, the lyric is a place where feeling gets examined. It’s traditionally grounded in the apprehensions and emotions of a subject. By coupling lyric with American, one takes the gesture into the public realm.
Schwartz: Aside from the subtitle foregrounding concerns of both books, are you inviting Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen to be read together?
Rankine: In some ways, I see Citizen as amplifying sections of Lonely. Lonely addressed state violence against black men like Amadou Diallo, but that was a single avenue of investigation in Lonely. In Citizen, that avenue becomes the boulevard.
Schwartz: Have you always worked on the level of the book?
Schwartz: How does a project happen for you?
Rankine: For me, a project is an opportunity to interrogate a subject. When I really start writing, I get into a mode of circling. Before I can settle in any one position, my mind is already negotiating alternate positions. Each poem, image, or essay allows me to be in relation to a subject in a particular way.
Schwartz: Your books are physically notable. How do you think about the book as material object?
Rankine: Because Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is an interrogation of media, I was especially interested in the newspaper’s relationship to the object of the book. The font replicates newspaper font, as does the size of the columns. I wanted the book to be in conversation with the world of op-eds. Structurally, then, my interest in newspapers played out in the paper quality, the columns, the size of the book.
In Citizen, I was thinking about issues of class. If there is a single protagonist in that piece, it’s someone who goes to galleries, someone who is living a very middle- or upper-middle-class life in a world where attending tennis matches is a reality, visiting museums is a reality, going to dinner parties is a reality. I wanted Citizen to be the kind of book that could be on the coffee table with an art book, not just for its looks, but for the world that it was in—a world that includes the death of Trayvon Martin, as well as the tennis court, as well as highly valued pieces of art. This false dichotomy—the idea that the violence of racism doesn’t belong in the middle and upper classes—is part of our problem of perception. The question was how to have this dynamic influence the object of the book. I decided the book needed to be beautiful. Like Yeats, I needed to give birth to a terrible beauty.
Given that, probably what makes the book most physically notable and valued as an object is the quality of the images, which were reproduced not as a reference but as a replica. It wouldn’t have worked for me if they were done simply in black-and-white on inexpensive paper that couldn’t absorb the four-color process printing, which is responsible for both the book’s physical weight and the quality of the images.
Schwartz: This book really does seem to reconfigure the spaces it enters. I’ve seen you read from Citizen twice. Both of those readings felt like very generative conversational spaces that transformed the venues that housed them. I’ve also noticed people reaching out in public spaces, like subways, when they see someone reading it. How have you experienced the conversations around the book?
Rankine: The media attention brought in a lot of people who normally don’t read poetry. For me, this has meant that many conversations have extended beyond the expected topics relating to poetry. It has been stimulating to be in conversation with psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, law enforcement professionals, public policymakers, mothers, young black men, visual artists, and Black Lives Matter activists.
In fact, what has been invigorating about speaking with Black Lives Matter activists has been their constant vigilance and insistence around the mourning of murdered black people. White privilege is masterful at keeping invisible what remains sadly hypervisible in certain communities. For black people, institutionally condoned murders are present every day. If you have a son, given the stats, you’re going to be thinking: “What happens when he’s out on his own? What happens if he accidentally puts his hands in his pockets at a moment that is wrong according to the white gaze?” It has been exhilarating being in conversation with so many activists connected to Black Lives Matter.
Schwartz: You mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that you’ve been thinking about the role of black mothers in public mourning. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket. She demanded that the public witness the violence that had been done to her son. Michael Brown’s body was in the street for four hours. It was too public already, and his mother asked for private space to grieve her son. How are you thinking about these women’s stances together?
Rankine: I think there are at least two ways of being in relation to the dead. One is that the state abandons the black body in the street, consistent with white supremacists parading the lynched black body in public. The other response sees the dead body as a private occurrence. There’s a need to bury it. It’s a primarily personal need that does not engage with social or political discourse because the body exists in relation to its family, not in relation to the state. What was stunning about Emmett Till’s mother’s reaction when she insisted on an open casket was that she bypassed the personal and private grief in order to insist on public witnessing. She redefined the threat inherent in public lynching as a call for public mourning.
Michael Brown’s body left for four hours on West Florissant Avenue inadvertently insisted on the same manner of public grieving that Emmett Till’s mother called for. Michael Brown’s mother’s grief, however, was always personal—maybe because the decision to have his body remain in the street was never hers. Her desire was always to shield him from that position of a body to be witnessed. For her, he was simply her son, a son who had died.
Schwartz: Changing directions, from the vantage point of your role as a professor, what have you seen over the last several decades in terms of poetry?
Rankine: Creative writing is becoming more essential inside the academy. It has become more legitimate. A student’s critical assessment of canonical texts can now be coupled with their own creative writing. As somebody who teaches creative writing, I find it’s always a challenge to come up with approaches in the classroom that allow for the most engagement with the imagination. It’s difficult to get students to think about creating open texts, to tap into the full potential of the lyric. When the students are writing in a way that is overtly political, they think you know where they’re going. They have intention and commitment. But if they don’t open out from intention, they lose, for me, the surprise of exploring and interrogating a subject.
Schwartz: How did the element of surprise figure in your writing of Citizen?
Rankine: Surprise and discovery really are the same thing in the act of writing. The form of Citizen took shape as I worked on it. I didn’t know, for example, how the book would end. It was in the process of editing that I discovered the agility of the second-person pronoun.
Schwartz: In the essay about Serena Williams in Citizen, you write: “On the bridge between the sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. . . . This other kind of anger in time can prevent rather than sponsor the production of anything except loneliness.” What is this other kind of anger that you’re speaking to?
Rankine: The white imagination has posited the screaming black woman or the enraged black man, but I actually was thinking about the kind of anger that’s described within Citizen—the kind of anger that is always coupled with a regrettable sense of the passing moment. One is left with no tangible evidence of daily aggressions, except for the anger that builds within the self. This sort of anger is negotiated in the dark on one’s own, often in silence.
Schwartz: Questions of what constitutes evidence and witness are sharpened in Citizen.
Rankine: I think we’re uncomfortable being witnesses because the act of witness calls for involvement. The question of Citizen—and also of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—really was: what do we do with what we know? What does it mean to be accountable to the moment, to witness acts of aggressions inside those moments? One aspect of white privilege is the ability to be present without feeling responsibility for or accountable to those around you. We have to begin to understand silence as its own response, as its own mode of participation.
Schwartz: You invoke Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” What are some of those questions for you?
Rankine: While I was working on Citizen, so many people said, “How many times are you going to talk about race? What new could you possibly have to say about something that’s been going on for hundreds of years?” The implication was that I was race/racism-obsessed. We know that systemic racism has shaped the way that whites behave toward blacks. We know a lot of things. But where do we stand relative to what we know? I agree that we have answered the question about the need for equality between the races, but the answers legislatively and personally have not played out to enact that equality. This suggests to me that we need to ask more questions.