Claudia Rankine's Quest for Racial Dialogue
The Atlantic|October 2020
Claudia Rankine's Quest for Racial Dialogue
Is her focus on the personal out of step with the racial politics of our moment?
By Ismail Muhammad

When Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric arrived in the fall of 2014, shortly before a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to charge Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s murder, critics hailed it as a work very much of its moment. The book-length poem— the only such work to be a best seller on the New York Times nonfiction list—was in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was then gathering momentum. How, Rankine asked, can Black citizens claim the expressive “I” of lyric poetry when a systemically racist state looks upon a Black person and sees, at best, a walking symbol of its greatest fears and, at worst, nothing at all? The book’s cover, a picture of David Hammons’s 1993 sculpture In the Hood, depicted a hood shorn from its sweatshirt—an image that evoked the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Rankine’s catalog of quotidian insults, snubs, and misperceptions dovetailed with the emergence of microaggression as a term for the everyday psychic stress inflicted on marginalized people.

In fact, Rankine was ahead of her time. Citizen was the result of a decade she had spent probing W. E. B. Du Bois’s century-old question: How does it feel to be a problem? In answering that question, she deployed the same kaleidoscopic aesthetic on display in her earlier books, most notably 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine’s experimental poetics drew from first-person reportage, visual art, photography, television, and various literary genres, modeling fragmented Black personhood under the daily pressure of white supremacy. Meanwhile, starting in 2011, she had been inviting writers to reflect on how assumptions and beliefs about race circumscribe people’s imaginations and support racial hierarchies. The project, which she collaborated on with the writer Beth Loffreda, culminated in the 2015 anthology The Racial Imaginary. If Citizen seemed uncannily well timed, that was because our politics had finally caught up with Rankine.

A lot has happened since 2014, for both the nation and Rankine. In 2016, she joined Yale’s African American– studies and English departments and was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. The fellowship helped fund an “interdisciplinary cultural laboratory,” which she christened the Racial Imaginary Institute, where scholars, artists, and activists have been expanding on the work of the anthology. Rankine also began exploring the ways in which whiteness conceals itself behind the facade of an unraced universal identity. Her new work, Just Us: An American Conversation, extends those investigations.

Yet this time, Rankine might seem less obviously in step with a newly zealous discourse on race. Employing her signature collagelike approach, she avoids polemics, instead earnestly speculating about the possibility of interracial understanding. She sets out to stage uncomfortable conversations with white people—strangers, friends, family—about how (or whether) they perceive their whiteness. She wants to discover what new forms of social interaction might arise from such a disruption. She interrogates herself, too. Perhaps, she suggests, concerted attempts to engage with, rather than harangue, one another will help us recognize the historical and social binds that entangle us. Maybe there is a way to speak convincingly of a “we,” of a community that cuts across race without ignoring the differences that constitute the “I.” In contracting around the question of interpersonal intimacy, rather than structural change, Just Us puts Rankine in an unfamiliar position: Has the radical tone of our racial politics since this spring’s uprisings outpaced her?

RANKINE’S INTENT is not simply to expose or chastise whiteness. She has something more nuanced in mind: using conversation as a way to invite white people to consider how contingent their lives are upon the racial order—every bit as contingent as Black people’s are. “I was always aware that my value in our culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost,” she says. The same is true for white people, of course, however unaware of that reality they may be. As she puts it, “To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.”

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October 2020