Poet Claudia Rankine speaks about confronting racism head on in her writing

Claudia Rankine speaks at a luncheon at which she was presented the Visionary Leadership Award.
Yale faculty member and poet Claudia Rankine speaks at a luncheon at which she was presented the Visionary Leadership Award by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on March 8. (Photo credit: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

While being honored March 8 by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas with its eighth Visionary Leadership Award, poet Claudia Rankine described an encounter that she said is not all that uncommon for her. A white man approached to her to tell her how much he appreciated her award-winning 2014 poetry collection “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which describes everyday acts of racism experienced by black Americans. He then asked her: “What can I do for you?”

Nothing,” answered Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale. The man angrily ended the conversation.

The problem with the question, explained Rankine at the awards luncheon at Omni New Haven Hotel, is that it assumed that she was the one with a problem, “as if [when] a white person is not in the room, I can experience racism by myself.”

Her new play, “The White Card,” she said, grew out of that problem. The play, produced by the American Repertory Theatre at ArtsEmerson, features a dinner-party conversation between a wealthy white Manhattan couple and an up-and-coming black female artist whose work they would like to collect. The play, Rankine has said, explores the question, “Can American society progress if whiteness stays invisible?”

At both the awards luncheon and a Grace Hopper College tea later that same day, where she spoke as a Poynter Fellow, Rankine shared stories about some of the everyday incidents of racism that led her to write “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award, among numerous other honors.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas Visionary Leadership Award honors “a leader whose trailblazing work is impacting the world.” At this year’s ceremony, Rankine, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship shortly after joining the Yale faculty in 2016, took part in a conversation with P. Carl, director and co-founder of HowlRound and Distinguished Artist in Residence in Emerson College, who is the dramaturg for “The White Card.”

Rankine described “Citizen” as a book about “what it means to be an American … who gets to participate and who falls out.” Based on stories she has collected from friends, it details “day-to-day microaggressions” experienced by black people in spaces “dominated by whiteness,” she said.

Rankine described how she began recording the racism she observed in national television coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and, later, following police shootings of unarmed black men across the nation.

We are in a culture of police brutality against black people,” she said, “If not true, the police wouldn’t get off. The understanding is that black people are not human beings. We can tolerate black kids getting killed and still go out and have our lunch. Imagine if they were blonde girls being shot; we would shut that shit down.”

In some of her writings, Rankine explores white complicity in racism, both personal and institutional. She noted that mass incarceration of black people and segregation are “operating tools” in cities across America, a nation with a legacy of 400 years of institutional racism.

Anti-black racism is part of the American experience; it’s ingrained in our thinking,” Rankine said.

Of her new play, Rankine said she had to write it in such a way that “white people wouldn’t walk out of the room,” noting that since white people make up a large part of the theater-going audience, the play wouldn’t last without their patronage.

Rankine used some of her MacArthur grant to establish The Racial Imaginary Institute, which explores white dominance and the ways in which Americans “are complicit in white supremacy” through art, films, and writing, Rankine said.

The poet was greeted with a standing ovation after being presented with the Visionary Leadership Award. She is the eighth woman to receive the honor.

In a discussion moderated by head of college Julia Adams at Grace Hopper College, Rankine described for an audience of students and other guests the craft of writing and her personal process. She recalled how her 2004 book “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric” was, in part, a response to the killing of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was murdered by three white supremacists in Texas in 1998. Rankine said she was on sabbatical in London at the time, and during a trip to Paris began jotting down prose on paper napkins while visiting cafes. “Maybe because I was in London, away from friends I could talk to, I felt like I was writing [these poems] to America,” she said of the collection, noting that it was her first use of “An American Lyric” as a subtitle. For “Citizen,” Rankine said, that same subtitle refers to her own collection’s lyricism and musicality in the manner of such American “voices” as Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, while presenting the “lyrics” in a different way — “the song where the white man is racist or devalues blacks,” she explained.

Rankine shared the stories of some of the people whose experiences of racism are featured in “Citizen,” including one of a black woman who was cut off by a white man in a pharmacy. When the clerk points out that the woman was next in line, the man responded, “Oh, I didn’t see you.” Hoping he was well-intentioned, the woman answered, “You must be in a hurry.” The man matter-of-factly countered, “No, I didn’t see you.”

Why did she say, ‘You must be in a hurry?’ Because I can think of things I could say to someone,” Rankine quipped. “Then it occurred to me that she was giving him a way out: She was saying ‘You must be in hurry; tell me you are in a hurry and all is forgiven.’” The man, however, “spoke his truth,” continued Rankine: “People like you, I don’t see you.”

Citizen: An American Lyric” has been chosen as New Haven’s selection for the National Endowment for the Arts’ annual program “The Big Read.” Asked how she felt upon learning of this news, Rankine answered: “The appropriate response is delight. As a writer, you write, you write; as an artist, you work, you work. You’re thinking, ‘Maybe it will land.’ The fact that ‘Citizen’ has landed with people is both a surprise and a delight because it means I get to have conversations with people I probably would never have met otherwise. … If you are an artist or writer, you are just delighted when people want to enter into whatever world you created.”

New Haven’s Big Read is offered as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and will include free related events on the New Haven Green, the details of which will be announced in April.


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