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Writer Claudia Rankine On White Blindness, The Black Body, and the Freedom to Live

Claudia Rankine. | Photo: John Lucas.

Click here to read an excerpt from award-winning writer Claudia Rankine's book "Citizen: An American Lyric," where she ruminates on tennis phenom Serena Williams, YouTube artist Hennessy Youngman, and African American identity.

On the American "stage" -- within mainstream media and in public discourse -- the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week's headlines -- a bungled arrest or denial of dignity -- that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.

While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, "Citizen: An American Lyric."

Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations -- New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin -- are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don't move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely "behind us" is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.

"Citizen" -- Rankine's keenly alert and incisive collection of poetry, prose and imagery -- was named a poetry finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and was the winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. The text is now finding another life as a stage production at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

"Citizen" carefully catalogs the ways in which casual racism permeates our day-to-day interactions -- both spoken and unspoken; those "Did that really happen?" moments. These are slights, dismissals and elisions that are deeply ingrained. They are reflexive gestures -- judgments -- enacted upon another: the door that is not held open, the seat that is not occupied, the fumbled or "mistaken" identity. Each slip, each cut, is an obliteration.

While "Citizen" articulates this paradox -- this notion of people of color rendered at once invisible and hyper-visible -- Rankine's goal was not to enumerate pain, but to expose and address "white blindness." If we don't -- or refuse to -- see it, we can't engage in a dialogue to disassemble it. Untended, these quiet, repeated microaggressions, denials of full personhood, continue to be the contaminated roots from which these larger conflagrations grow.

Ultimately, Rankine's book requires that we dig deeper to understand what it means to be a 21st century "citizen." We must acknowledge what it takes to build stronger, inclusive and thus more meaningful alliances across racial and cultural lines. What is our collective responsibility? What is it that will help us to move beyond that quasi-magical-thinking wish of "moving on" and rather how to move us all collectively and meaningfully forward.

Rankine is the author of four other books including "Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric," a meditation on death and currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She recently departed from Pomona College in Claremont to join the faculty at USC and will begin teaching writing workshops and poetics in the English department beginning Fall 2016.

Artbound recently caught up with Claudia Rankine in a wide-ranging discussion on the stage adaptation of "Citizen," the microaggressions of daily life, and "racial silencing."

Lynell George: We now have a word for these small moments, the slights -- microaggressions -- but when you were first encountering these acts in your early years, how did you categorize them? What did you do with them when they landed?

Claudia Rankine: I think the way that I metabolize microaggressions as I was growing up -- and I include my 20s and 30s and 40s in my growing up -- is that I just listened. I took it in. It wasn't a situation in which I didn't hear what was being said. It wasn't a situation where I was under any kind of misunderstanding around the intent or the source of the statements that were coming at me. I understood them as an assault and I felt them as an assault, but I didn't respond to them. And that's part of what drove me to want to write about them.

It's the sense that there was another thing in play, and even when we know what's happening, we don't feel empowered to call it out. And I think we are brought up to be good and have good manners. To not make other people uncomfortable and to understand that by putting our own comfort in the forefront we might create a situation that is uncomfortable. But the consequence is that you carry a lot of stress in your body and all of a sudden your digestive system is given the role of metabolizing it. So I think that I had to grow into the recognition that it was actually okay to feel that my own comfort was worth the attention.

LG: You're right, there has been this impulse to be polite -- or mask it. As a survival tactic, it seems we have developed these ways to hide our anger, frustration even when we were/are telling people off.

CR: But even that way, that kind of throwing shade with congeniality, I think that even that should be given up, I think that it is okay for us to embrace our anger. There is this great line by Thomas Jefferson where he refers to blacks, where he says, "Their griefs are transient." So just that idea. What allows the white imagination to even articulate something like that is that sense that they don't even have to bear the brunt of the stress that is caused by their actions. So I'm interested in the full recognition of someone's emotional state and having the freedom to live while black. To live fully as a human being without having to recuperate goodness relative to white stereotypes about blackness. That's the rhetoric.

LG: It's even embedded in the language of pop culture where black women in particular are viewed as exceptional in their ability to shoulder whatever is thrown their way -- "She can handle all of this -- anything because she's 'fierce.' To me the power of "Citizen" is that it shifts the power -- in italicizing and naming these off-hand moments -- the speaker is no longer the victim. There is power in turning the moment around and on its head. Did you feel a power shift as you were writing this?

CR: I don't know if I felt it as a shift in power. For me the interest was not in exhibiting black pain. We know it exists. I'm black. I wasn't interested in exhibiting black pain and performing that. It was not at all at the center of the writing. I was more interested in sort of the white liberal imagination insisting they don't understand why things happen: they don't understand how Katrina could have happened. They don't understand how these killings are happening and yet they are the same ones who forget to open the door if you happen to be a black woman. And they are the same ones who refuse to sit next to you if you happen to be a black man. So I am much more interested in looking at that. Looking at white liberalism and the gap in its own recognition of the ways in which it is implicated in the continuance of white supremacist thinking.

LG: I was thinking as I was moving through the book, I could mirror many of these conversations/interactions, but what also becomes clear in "Citizen" is the pervasiveness of this dismissal. It's another erasure when someone responds, "Well, let me give you an example when that happens to me." The subtext is: "Well it might not mean what you think..." It's minimizing and dismissive.

"Citizen: An American Lyric" book cover.

CR: Well, I think there is such anxiety in the white imagination around feeling guilt, implicated -- whatever. The refusal is in the looking. And whiteness is not used to looking at itself as invested in certain norms in order to keep a certain positioning. That's part of the culture. You can't blame individuals because inasmuch as there is systemic racism there is systemic white privilege and the white privileging. In other words, you're not even white, you're just "normal" -- and you're just a "normal" human being -- and [so] how you think or feel is actually where the level playing-field begins. So I think white people tend to believe that: Oh if I say, 'I don't think about race' that must be true, because, I'm normal. I'm the norm. And yet they are making decisions based on race all the time.

LG: You mentioned earlier that these incidents themselves made you decide that you wanted to embark on this journey, the writing. What was the seed? How did it begin to take shape?

CR: Different parts of the book happened in different ways, so the incidents that accumulate in the opening were probably the last thing, not the first. And that was probably my moment of anthropology. I mean, I literally called up my friends and asked: Can you tell me a moment when race interrupted something you expected to be without incident? Was there some interaction with a colleague or a friend, when you were just doing something very ordinary, when suddenly the moment of scandal happened -- because race was brought into that moment? So once I began to collect those, they just kind of stockpiled.

The others -- the situation-text scripts, those came out of actual events. Katrina happened and then I worked on a piece. So it was more like that for those pieces. Those were years in the making. And then the more lyric pieces, I just write those when I write them.

LG: There is a beautiful exploration of the symbolism of Serena Williams on the tennis court -- and both how she floats in both the tennis world and the American imagination.

CR: I have always been interested in Serena Williams and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in terms of the ways in which racism plays itself out in sports. Especially as a black woman watching this other amazing black woman be treated again and again and again with almost 18th century thinking and rhetoric and the insistence on that was -- and is -- remarkable. In fact, did you see the piece this morning on Serena? It's a piece I wrote for the New York Times. It was a really great chance to sit down and organize all of the information I had collected over the years as a fan, basically. I had been watching these things happen and I thought: What happens when you just put them down one after another after another after another after another? So the organization of the essay, replicated the organization of the book in terms of what happens when these moments build. Some of them might not have to do with racism, but it doesn't matter because there is so much precedence, that it might as well have to do with racism... I think even I was surprised at just how consistently she was assaulted on the court over the years. You know the incidents, but when you begin to see them one after the other and then the other and the other it really is stunning.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.
Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.   

LG: Yes, and there is the moment in the book where you react for her. You are appalled by all that she has shouldered. She has had to internalize so much and rise above it and win...

CR: If anything that I have learned from Serena Williams is that the way to deal with what is put in front of you is to deal with what is put in front of you and not to be silenced in the face [by] assault by fantasies of good behavior for black people. I think that has silenced us in the past, because one doesn't want to play into expectations of rageful black bodies -- as if something is not causing the rage, as if we are just out there raging away without anyone assaulting us.

LG: Right and by now, you've heard about the Black women's book group being kicked off the Napa Wine Train... I mean really?

CR: Yes, everyone can laugh -- but not you...

LG: Even our joy is restricted. You can't be angry, you can't laugh. It's such a small space we're expected to occupy emotionally...

CR: Exactly.

LG: The book of course has garnered wide attention, won many important prizes, and yet we are in this moment of such a degraded dialogue around race and such soul-crushing race-related violence. It seems for those reaching for your book, that we collectively want to find ways to close that gap and yet this has been such a long stretch of retrograde thought and action around the subject of race.

CR: I think it's heartening because people are saying: Well, I see that this is a problem too. And it's not a state that we actually want. I think many Americans, and many white Americans, are distressed with what's going on and the difference is that whiteness is not used to interrogating whiteness.

I think it's complicated. I think with many white policeman, there are some who are just really mean and racist and who want the death of black people, and then there are others who have no idea how our [country's] white supremacist beginnings continue to control their own imagination. They are reacting sincerely to fears that are not located in the body in front of them, but rather in their heads. And I don't doubt that they would pass lie detector tests if you asked them "Were you afraid of that guy?" But does that mean that the guy did anything to make them fearful?

I think that the interest in the book, is more than an interest in the book, and is an interest in that dynamic. We can see that there is a problem. How, perhaps, we are implicated in that problem is not as easy to see.

LG: This seems like a good moment to slip over to the play and the challenge of staging these complex voicings of -- shadings -- of interior thought. Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director at the Fountain Theatre was the person who approached you. What was your initial thought?

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.
Tony Maggio and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

CR: Actually, I had always thought the book should be a play. It came out of voices so it made sense to me that it could find a life on the stage. So when Stephen approached me I was excited by it. I had some anxieties about the investment or the positioning of the material in the book. Partly some of the things that I'd mentioned before. I was less interested in the staging of black pain and more interested in the staging of white implication in those dynamics. So that, I think, was an issue. But I was very excited that he wanted to adapt the play and I loved the adaptation that he did. He stayed very true to the text. It was more a masterful arranging and editing of the material. So the language is all the language of the text. In that way I appreciated the sensitivity that he brought into the material in terms of editing it.

LG: At what point were you able to see a script?

CR: I went to a reading early on. Initially, [I] was a little worried about the material being pushed over into melodrama because for me the problem is that what is insidious about this day-to-day racism is how ordinary it is. And the way in which, for the black or brown body, is something that is survivable even as it is not survivable. For example, in Sandra Bland's case, the interaction with the policeman was survivable, but who knows at what point in her own psyche she is: how stressed the woman is, she's making a major move. Yet another assault might be the one that's the hardest to take, if in fact she did take her own life. So that's the thing if you portray them as these heightened moments of scandal and interact with them as scandal rather than as the day-to-day quotidian interactions of Americans...

LG: They see it as "apart from" rather than "part of" the fiber/weave of day-to-day life.

CR: Exactly.

Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.
Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Lisa Pescia, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio and Simone Missick perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger

LG: Part of the actors' preparation, I'd heard, was that they were encouraged to share incidents that had occurred in their own lives as a way to begin to interact with the material -- did that inform/shape the text/script as well?

CR: The actors as an ensemble work incredibly well together and I think that the director, Shirley Jo's direction, helped to create that bond inasmuch it created a field of empathy on the stage, because you're also able to say: "Oh, my God yes, that also happened to you?" and "I can see now how I perhaps did that or said this." So I think that that is fantastic in the way she was able to bring the actors to the material but to find the material in themselves and bring that forward into the portrayal of the role.

LG: Also in terms of the production's timing, the show was opening right around the anniversary of Ezell Ford's 2011 police-involved shooting and the 50th anniversary of the Watts rebellion, so these audiences arrived with all of this as a backdrop here in Los Angeles. Where there any audience discussions that you were able to sit in on where these news events and their emotional impact came up?

CR: I have only been to one talk-back and much of it had to do with people either coming to a recognition that, 'Whoa, these are events that have been in my own life.' Or 'Wow, I have been involved and implicated in these events without really understanding what the ramifications are.' And yes, because the play addresses the murders of many of these black men there is also a dialogue around what's happening in the culture so I guess, yes, the answer is yes! There is that. The play is only a small reflection of all of the multiple ways in which race continues -- race/racism -- continues to determine what's happening in our justice system, what's happening in our streets, what's happening in housing policies, what's happening in education, what's happening around office tables -- in every aspect of our being.

Leith Burke performs in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.

LG: And finally, how have your own conversations changed around the subject of race and racial silencing?

CR: I think the best thing about this -- this whole double consciousness, this sense that there was one conversation for African Americans, among them, and there was another conversation about African Americans among whites -- I think that distinction has gone out the window.

There's nothing that I would say to you that I wouldn't say to whomever. That for me is the real difference. That there is no longer a sense that with you I can speak the truth and with that person I need to just get out of the way. And that's happening more and more. I pick up the paper and I'm reading [New York Times columnist] Charles Blow and he is saying many things that I have never heard written in mainstream media.

LG: It's true. And it happens too in real time on his Twitter feed and it is a refreshing candidness that is inherent to the immediacy of social media. You can eavesdrop on conversations you would have never before been privy to. And too, that whole old conversation about "airing dirty laundry" and keeping secrets, that's changing. It has to.

CR: Right. That's great in terms of African American culture. I feel for the first time we are all actually on the same page. Whether or not we agree or disagree at least we understand that there is a created white culture, and that created white culture has a history of white supremacism influencing its many decisions. That seemed like a no-brainer. But I think for a lot of white people that was not something to be said -- or understood -- because whiteness was supposed to be normality -- and normality seemed to have no color. So everybody was supposed to strive to reach that. Then suddenly, finally, we have this recognition that we shouldn't want to strive for something that has at its core the annihilation of black and brown bodies.

"Citizen: An American Lyric" adapted by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney will be up at the Fountain Theatre through October 11.


 

Top image: Claudia Rankine. | Photo: John Lucas.

 

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