Writing Whiteness: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine
Born in Jamaica in 1963, Claudia Rankine moved to the United States as a child. A poet, playwright, essayist, her work spans several decades, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) and the play The White Card (2019).
Her latest book Just Us appeared in September 2020. Across chapters which include poetry, essays, and visual art, Just Us recounts conversations with friends and strangers and stages encounters with archival material, contemporary media, and voices of other writers and artists. Throughout, Rankine maps out whiteness in the contemporary moment, seeking to counter its claim to universality by making tangible its history, its texture, and its violence.
Rankine’s work has long engaged the ways that violent histories of slavery, segregation, and racism continue to shape the present. Yet, Just Us is released at a moment of particular intensity, after months characterised by racist violence, by waves of global protest, by the shock of the pandemic, and by growing anxieties about the upcoming US election.
In her poem ‘Weather’, featured on the June cover of the New York Times, Rankine writes powerfully of the ‘now’ as a time of both strangeness and repetition: of I can’t breathe, of the pandemic, and the ‘violence of again’. Here, as in Just Us and her earlier work, the present is built on the sediment of what has gone before, on the history of slavery. The current violence is new, but it carries the pain of repetition.
While it registers the exhaustion of the present, Just Us is also characterised by its desire to find possibilities for hope. It moves, sometimes uneasily, between a commitment to documenting the violent conditions of the world as it is and the conditionals, the possibilities, the what ifs, of what it might be. Registering contemporary anxieties about the political role of writing – and the writer – the book implicitly critiques the anaemic nature of some liberal humanist celebrations of ‘empathy’ as a political solution, yet nonetheless maps out an alternative politics of intimacy and ‘conversation’ as possible sites for change. As in Rankine’s previous work, it explores whether something transformative and resistant might emerge through creative form: through the open-endedness of new conversations and intimacies, through ‘swerving’ out of established pathways, through the mobilisation of past voices and archives of resistance.
We speak in early September, and while the urgency of the moment is clear, our conversation is punctuated by laughter, and characterised by Rankine’s openness and generosity.
Maya Caspari for Wasafiri: The subtitle of Just Us is ‘An American Conversation’. What is the significance of ‘conversation’ for you?
Claudia Rankine: Just Us is a line of inquiry into how conversations happen, how they go off the rails, how they work. The question was really: what is a conversation? We’re having an interview, but in the course of even this conversation we will build something between us. And, in the course of building that, which histories are we bringing with us? What are the ingrained prejudices we both bring to the table? The book was an attempt to pick apart that structure in the building of intimacy, knowing that a history that derives from slavery stays with us in all kinds of ways.
I went to a psychiatrist specifically for my work on this book so we could talk about what my motivations were in saying some of the things that I said and what might have motivated my interlocutor. Then I employed a fact checker. Then a friend who is a lawyer read through the book.
The book is really a kind of multi-genre conversation with the reader. I hope it will occasion a kind of associative journey so the reader can interrogate what is known and not known to them, so that they can go off, look things up and consider why they are the way they are.
I can see continuities between Just Us and your previous work. Has anything changed in terms of your motivation for writing?
When I was working on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, I was interested in people’s emotional landscapes: how we sit inside dynamics that have a history of racism pushing them forward. In Citizen, I position myself in a more observant position, almost like a photographer. In Just Us I am an interlocutor and, as such, it’s really a book about those encounters: what is said, how they are negotiated and how we are entangled. Entanglement is crucial to those interactions; it’s not possible to stand outside.
In Citizen, I think I made a mistake using the word ‘body’—I should have just said person. Because the body when it’s a body is dead. In Just Us, it was a conscious decision not to use that phrasing because [in Citizen] I think I was conflating the endpoint with the living point—the ‘black body’ as an object rather than the subject of the person. You can’t separate the body from the person. In Just Us, the conversations are voice-driven. It’s an attempt in many ways to move beyond the white gaze, its reduction of black people to black bodies, to enter into [the] atmosphere of thoughts and inquiry and emotion and expectations and disappointments through language. Racism comes by seeing a person and locating them purely by the colour of their skin. Just Us really resides in what I would call the liminal space of conscious and unconscious desire for connection inside those encounters.
[It’s] less about the emotional landscape (which the lyric form holds really well) and more about a line of inquiry. I’m more interested here in pulling the whole dynamic apart, asking: what’s driving the encounter? What’s the history that’s pushing on both of us?
I find the idea of ‘pulling apart’ conversations, like a kind of dissection, fascinating, especially in relation to whiteness. Are you putting whiteness under the lens, precisely because it has not been objectified in this way before?
Historically, white people have been referred to as the people. As Toni Morrison says: everybody else is hyphenated. So, what happens when history shifts the angle of its lens to look at whiteness itself, as a race that was constructed and had investments in terms of the subjugation of other people, starting with Native Americans and continuing with African Americans?
Your recent books have been subtitled ‘An American Lyric’ or, with Just Us, ‘An American Conversation’, yet these ideas clearly resonate beyond the ‘American’ context. Could you comment on how you see the translatability of these conversations around whiteness?
I use ‘American’ to say these are the dynamics I feel I can speak to because they’re the ones that I’m subject to. But in my travels I have certainly been aware of the ways that whiteness remains privileged in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the essay in Just Us on the [Japanese/Haitian/American] tennis player Naomi Osaka, it was really interesting to see how she’s being portrayed as more and more white now she’s that a Japanese citizen.
[At the same time] in the US, people like to say ‘people of colour’ and it becomes an umbrella statement without acknowledging that latinx, asians, blacks have very different and complicated histories. We’re so used to thinking about black/white identity as a kind of easy equation in the way you might refer to German/Jew during World War II. But in the US we have so many people who started out as immigrants who are now able to fit under the Caucasian umbrella of whiteness, as well as those of us who have been kept out of that. Latinx people are in an interesting and shifting zone. They can sometimes assimilate because of their skin colour; at the same time, the Census Bureau has tried to keep them separate from blackness.
It’s interesting how many of the conversations in Just Us take place in liminal, in-between spaces: the planes, the ‘passage’…
The idea of liminality is really important. I use it to literally talk about spaces that are neither here nor there. Once they are here or there, people are slotted into the roles they hold in society. But within liminal spaces, they can have new conversations and explore something without being accountable, either before or after. I wanted to use that. I also like the idea that liminal spaces are like an unconscious space where things can be lived potentially: you can go into the space and try to look at something without having to come to a conclusion or solution.
How does this idea of the productivity of the liminal space relate to the potential of creative work? Your description of liminality reminds me of how you depicted conversation just now, as a kind of negotiation between the world as it is – the histories we bring to the table – and what might change through new encounters, the what ifs….?
As an artist the idea of what if [is key]: what if we could form a new space? I think that that’s what culture does: it allows writers, artists, playwrights, essayists – whatever genre one lives in – to improvise and create. The key ask of the new book is: what happens when we look at something anew? When we think about the other pathways we could take? I think my training as a writer, and as someone who works in the art world and as a culture maker, gives me a kind of freedom to lift the material out of its concrete and specific time and put it into conversation with yesterday, tomorrow and today.
What does it mean to swerve inside these conversations? How do you get out of the way of harm, or get out of the way of yourself, or get out of the way of fragility and continue on?
Your description of opening up new ‘pathways’ also makes me think of how you use a range of representational modes in your books, creating juxtapositions and also drawing on the voices of other writers and artists. It’s as though there are multiple different ways of reading the book at each moment. Can you speak more about the voices you chose to include?
All my work is built on a desire to include the voices that have impacted on my own thinking. I have always been committed to showing how my positioning has been built from my reading. Baldwin says: ‘we carry our history with us’. Those lines stay with me as I’m working and try to discover how today’s utterances carry yesterday’s history. This applies to form too. Part of what’s exciting is exploring how you tie the content to the form and how you get the form to perform what you want the content to communicate. It’s like doing a maths problem. Putting the form together and structuring it is as exciting as doing the writing because if one doesn’t work the other doesn’t either.
That engagement with the politics of form and the materiality of language evokes the work of writers such as Kamau Brathwaite, the late Caribbean poet, who you mention elsewhere: a voice that moves the sediment of history through experimentation on the page…
I’m really interested in how language moves through time and sometimes this relates to the materiality of the word itself as object. Yes, like Kamau Brathwaite and also Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes. I want to explore what happens when a word just hits us and you’re not even sure it has. In the essay ‘boys will be boys’ in Just Us, where [I describe seeing a man who] calls his wife stupid, I wasn’t paying attention to him but the sound of the word itself. It’s not ‘what’s happening?’ but ‘what’s that word doing?’
How is history married to the materiality of the word? We know the impact of the ‘n’ word but what about all the other words which are directed at black men and women? In the essay ‘Violent’ in Just Us, I discuss how a teacher used the word ‘violent’ to describe a black 4-year-old child. What kind of long-term aggression is held inside that word? It links directly to the criminalisation of black men and women later in life. Its use allows society to accept the policing, killing and racial profiling of black people. That’s when it starts.
Just Us seems to mediate between the hopelessness and exhaustion of the now, and moments of hope. It asks, ‘what if nothing changes?’. Asking ‘what if’ might also mean confronting the possibility that things don’t go in the direction hoped…
That is the fear of American life right now. We’re in a very grave time. There’s a lot of grieving that needs to happen. We’re closing in on 200,000 deaths from the virus. You also have the repeated killings of black people by the police, sanctioned violence and the militarisation of security against protesters. So, it’s a really bleak moment. And the ‘what if’ could go in the direction of ‘nothing changes’.
But I don’t think you can avoid moments of hope. To be alive is to be hopeful. I really do believe that. Nobody wants to die. Nobody, at least nobody I understand as being human, wants to have people treated in the way that they are treated. So, I think hope is to want…the ‘what if’ to go in the direction of: ‘can we get to something that works better than this?’
Is to write to be hopeful?
I think so. To explore, to have curiosity [about] who the other is, of what the encounter could perform is the activity of somebody still invested in being here.
At points in Just Us, there’s a suggestion that there might be hope in a politics of intimacy and careful reading—how we relate to those immediately around us. I’m thinking of the moment where you cite contemporary poet Erica Hunt, who describes love as a kind of ‘close reading’…
I love Hunt as a poet and when I came across those words I thought, oh that’s right—that is really what love is. What you expect from intimacy is the ability for somebody to understand you both generally and specifically. Maybe not to know you but to know and understand what you’re asking for. And so, this idea of love being a close reading spoke very much to the idea of what conversations do. They’re asking for a kind of close listening to the other. And a reading of what they’re saying in order to build something between the two of you.
The form of Just Us is an attempt at close reading the conversations it is based on.
That makes me think of how, in your earlier work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) you cite Paul Celan who writes, ‘a poem is like a handshake’. Though not used explicitly, something else that comes to mind in that book and Just Us is Frantz Fanon’s question in his 1952 Black Skin, White Masks: ‘why not simply touch the other?’. Interestingly, he is interrogating the redemptive promise of touch, but also staging it as a possibility, as a question.
One of the things that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely lives with is the idea of the other: what does it mean to be here, to be here with another? The word ‘here’ returns in Just Us. The encounter – what it means for one person to be in relation to another – is critical. We have lost this through segregationist policies in the US—the notion that some people will be here and others there; that people over here may have certain things and those over there will not. Why not simply touch each other?—that is at the heart of conversation. A conversation is an attempt to touch someone, to hear the other and create a relation to them.
But isn’t there a risk that touch – and conversation – can also be violent? As you say, we don’t come to conversation from the same histories or equal places…
To be open to language is to also be open to aggression and entanglement and it goes back to the idea of being touched by the other. What is the quality of that touch? Will it end a life or will it open out into a kind of community? How are we seeing the other? If this means another kind of ‘othering’ then the touch can be violent. But if you’re encountering another that you understand as a reflection of yourself then the touch is the handshake that Celan refers to.
Finally, then, your work has engaged many of the topics we’ve touched on here – whiteness, racism, the politics of resistance and hope – for many years. How do you see the current moment?
I’m almost 60 and this is probably the bleakest moment of my lifetime. Donald Trump is trying to dismantle democracy. The idea that the coming presidential election could determine the future of this country for years to come is on everybody’s mind. It’s incredibly stressful. It’s terrifying and then we have quarantine on top of it…
At the same time, I think the digital has enabled the moment [of protest] in the best of ways. Before, we knew this was happening: that people were being gunned down based on the colour of their skin. But now with cell phones, the ability to upload whatever you see at your own discretion means that we can shift the discussion and create new kinds of conversations. The control is not only top down. Before he died, Martin Luther King gave a graduation speech in which he talked about how we couldn’t let technology outpace our own ability to change society. I think today with organisations like Black Lives Matter, we’ve seen how technology can serve the activity of protest.
Maya Caspari is a researcher and writer from London. She is working on a book on the politics of touch in contemporary world literature, focusing on writers including Claudia Rankine.
This interview is published as part of the online coverage for our latest issue, Wasafiri 103 – featuring a special section, Writing Whiteness – which you can purchase here.
Photo Credit: John Lucas