Q&A with Author Claudia Rankine SOA’93

Last summer, after protests decrying anti-Black police violence rose up in all 50 states, first-year Lit Hum students got a new reading assignment: Claudia Rankine SOA’93’s Citizen: An American Lyric. In our feature “The Core Curriculum’s Second Century,” Rankine discusses her work in the sidebar “Citizen Gets a Close Read”; the full Q&A is below. Her October 2020 virtual AlumniTALK with Lit Hum students, faculty and alumni can be found here.

How was Citizen created?

The first piece written for Citizen was on [Hurricane] Katrina. When I did that piece, which started as a Situation video, I didn’t know there was going to be a book. I was interested in the notion that people kept saying to me, as [the aftermath of] Katrina was going on, “How could this happen? How could this happen in the United States?” And I thought, white people believe these moments are not possible and Black people understand them as inevitable. Why is that? What is the difference? And so I decided to begin a project where I would connect the micro-aggressions to the macro-aggressions. So that if a white person is able to say, “You only got your job because you’re Black,” that is actually the same moment as abandoning a whole community of Black people in New Orleans. But it was Katrina that began the book, without me knowing I was beginning the book, as a way to answer the question, “How could this happen in the U.S.?”

Was it always your intention that Citizen be a living work, regularly updated?

Weeks after Citizen was published [in 2014], Michael Brown was murdered. The memorial list [of Black people murdered by police] was in the book, and it already suggested that more names would be added. When his death occurred the book was going into another printing and I asked, “Couldn’t Michael Brown’s name be added?” Once that happened, every time we did another printing some more Black people had been murdered by police, and so then we would add in their names. It actually began as a kind of memorial; it wasn’t about the book, the names just kept adding up. [The current printing includes the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.] So that’s how it happened — it wasn’t an artistic intention, it was a real-life memorializing of these deaths.

How do you feel about having your work used to educate — in this case, being added to the College syllabus? Did you have an idea or a hope for what Citizen could do for its readers?

As an artist, when you’re making work, you don’t think about it entering the culture in any significant way. Maybe some people do, but I don’t. My concern in the making of a book is that it does the thing that I’m trying to make it do; that’s where all my energy is going. With this book, it was how to make something that is so consistently present and yet fleeting and invisible, concrete? So that people could actually see these moments, hold one of the sections, the prose poems, and think about the ramifications of it. It was a question of creating through prose a transparency that held moments that would be recognized by all, either as the aggressor or the receiver of the aggression. I wasn’t thinking it would end up in the Core Curriculum, but I do take for granted in the act of writing these books that they will need close reading. And that to me is pedagogy. In that sense it is an act of pedagogy that one expects from the reader, in the sense that you’re expecting a close reading. And that it should end up in an institution where that is valued, perhaps does make sense.

How do you see Citizen fitting in with today’s College students? Because it is getting that close reading, in a space where close reading is being taught.

Exactly; that is a positive for me. Of course, I also teach, and I believe in the beauty of language and literature, and the importance of literature to the lives of all of us, or else we wouldn’t be in these institutions; I wouldn’t have spent almost my entire life with a book in my hand. I have the greatest regard for literature and for the culture — I do think the culture is what makes us. I see the book as literature; I hope that the reason it is now part of the Core is that it is an example of great literature. It’s unfortunate that it is also reflecting what is happening in our current moment, because that comes with a lot of death for Black people; I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I thought the book was there as a way to inform people of this moment. I feel like I can pick up [poet] Paul Celan or I can pick up Woolf or I can pick up Faulkner any day, any year, and find something useful in it, relative to its writing or to its content, to its structure. And I hope that is also the case for Citizen, that it is a book that meets the demands of all of those categories: the beauty of the language, the content, the structure.

What is your perspective on the conversations about race that have come up since George Floyd’s killing? Is it enough? What else is needed?

Nothing is enough. There is no “enough.” We’re talking about 400 years of white supremacy being foundational to the writing and living in this country. The commitments of that have been shaping all of us in many ways. I don’t think any book, any moment, can serve to catapult us out of this — it’s going to take real, sustained work, the same diligence that brought us to a moment where white people with multiple degrees still believe they’re better than other people because they’re white, smarter because they’re white, more valuable than other people because they’re white. It will be a difficult thing to even out that orientation and create equity inside that kind of imaginative aggrandizement. Can you imagine? That anyone is going to walk away from the center and share what has been given to you as a race? The fight will be long, and it will be bloody, as it has been. And the institutions will be slow to change.