[Blackstudies-l] Claudia Rankine's Painful Conversations with Whiteness

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Tue Dec 8 13:37:25 EST 2020

Real Talk: On Claudia Rankine’s Painful Conversations with WhitenessShya
Scanlon Considers a Trilogy Sixteen Years in the Making
By Shya Scanlon <https://lithub.com/author/shyascanlon/>
December 8, 2020

Three quarters of the way through *Just Us: An American Conversation*
<https://bookshop.org/a/132/9781644450215>, Claudia Rankine considers three
different understandings of the word “conversation.” The first, from a
Latinx artist (unnamed) discussing her reluctance to play oppression
Olympics with people of other races or ethnicities, is that conversation
describes a “reciprocation of understanding.” Rankine balks at the
impatience implied by a demand to be understood, but nonetheless
acknowledges that at least this definition is immanently achievable.

Another definition, offered by a philosopher friend (who, though also
unnamed, may be the activist Lori Gruen), seems decidedly less so. This
model, “entangled empathy,” suggests that the interlocutor recognizes
herself in a “complicated set of relations.” If this philosopher friend is
indeed Gruen, this concept was born of an interest in improving the
relationship between humans and other animals, and is about attending to
another’s sense of well-being. Indeed, knowing how to recognize well-being
in the other, let alone actively pursuing it, is certainly be a higher bar.

The third definition comes from Samuel Beckett, who described his play *Waiting
for Godot* as a way of finding “a form that accommodates the mess.” Rankine
doesn’t choose between these definitions before moving on in her
reflections, which is in keeping with the mode of her trilogy: a project
less interested in providing answers than in asking questions. To follow
her lead, then, a reader might ask what, if her work is a conversation, is
that conversation really about?

*Just Us* is the final installment of a trilogy that also includes the
best-selling, multiple prize-winning *Citizen: An American Lyric
<https://bookshop.org/a/132/9781555976903>, *published in 2014, but began
over fifteen years ago with 2004’s *Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
<https://bookshop.org/a/132/9781555974077>.* A reader coming from *Citizen*
 or *Just Us* might be surprised at the subject of that first book—or at
least, what the subject *is not*. This was a decade before Black Lives
Matter put race relations back on our culture’s center stage, when America
was still in shock over 9/11 and focused on the War on Terror. People were
coming to terms with death, both literal and metaphorical (e.g. that of
innocence), and a sense of mourning pervades this first volume, in which
Rankine examines both personal and public grief. And yet, unlike in the
following two, which explicitly center racism, here racism plays a
decidedly smaller role. One consequence is that when she does raise the
topic it takes on a strangely resigned, matter-of-fact quality, like a
voice pointing out atrocity it knows will be ignored. Here is Rankine
describing how, for all the attention being paid to how Bush won the 2000
election (decided by the Supreme Court), she still knows him for another
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All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who
can’t remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a Black
man to his death in his home state of Texas.

In this way racism percolates up throughout the text, and because of the
nature of her subject matter, it takes fairly gruesome form: a Black man
being dragged to death, a Black man being “sodomized with a broken
broomstick while in police custody.” These episodes do not cohere into a
theme, and are instead left as part of the general fabric of the author’s
experience. The form that would come to characterize Rankine’s trilogy,
however, is in evidence from page one: a hybrid of image, poetry, memoir,
reflection and philosophical musing that manages to be at once thoughtful,
soulful and accessible to even lay-readers of poetry. More specifically,
she devised a way of *reporting on* the interactions she has with friends
and family that feels raw and vulnerable but not exploitative. When she
visits a friend who is suffering acute depression, her language is
somewhere in between sympathy and an almost detached curiosity:

He had to take a medical leave from his job as a speechwriter. He could
barely get out of bed. That’s what he said so he might have meant he wasn’t
getting out of bed. He said he felt like an old man dying, the old man
dying. The leaves on the trees outside his window rattled within him.

By the time *Citizen* was published a decade later, the United States had
shifted its attention. We’d elected a Black president, and we’d been thrust
forcefully into open debate about the value of Black life by the murder of
Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his murderer. Rankine’s
relationships are given a similar treatment in this volume, where
encounters with friends are presented and analyzed, worried over and
reckoned with. But as her subject veers toward racism, these interactions
become more charged. Particularly when the friends are white:

After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this
yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your
friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her Black


You are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood of Santa Monica.
This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho.

By putting her own experience as an upper middle-class professor at an East
Coast Ivy League university (Yale) on display, she further dismantles the
assumption that anti-Black racism only exists within low classes or
conservative circles. Yet her goal is not to chastise these people. She
shows that friendship alone is not sufficient illumination to expose the
ways in which our historical selves—those parts of us inheriting
generations of racist power imbalance—are very much present and sometimes
even in command of our private selves.
Whiteness is not able to admit the lie at its root: it’s a fiction that
only exists as a function of what it excludes.

One minute a well-meaning liberal white person is waiting for a good friend
to show up, a good friend who’s late, and who’s Black, and the next minute
she is calling that friend a “nappy-headed ho” and being completely unable
to explain the outburst, as though someone else has reached into her white
mouth and made it emit hurtful sounds. Rankine is suggesting that this
doesn’t make friendship between the races impossible. It just often makes
that friendship painful. And this ugliness is some of what being an
American citizen means.

Nor are the higher echelons of the academic and literary worlds any
insulation against such behavior. And long before *Citizen* was published,
Rankine had become highly vocal in her insistence that the academy take
stock of its unexamined intolerance. In 2011, Claudia Rankine began her
talk at a writing conference with a recitation of poem called “The Change,”
by the white male poet Tony Hoagland. The poem, from Hoagland’s 2003
volume *What
Narcissism Means To Me*, describes a televised tennis match between a white
woman and a Black woman in which:

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

Undeniably a prejudiced perspective. Compared to the relatively brief
description of the white woman, we have not just an American Black woman,
but a “big black girl” with “Zulu” jewelry and an “outrageous name.” One of
the questions raised by this is, of course, whether the narrator of this
poem is the poet himself. Those familiar with Hoagland’s work might know it
to be frequently confessional in nature. Is it in this case a fictional
persona? And how would it change the way the poem is read?

After reciting the poem, Rankine struggled to understand why Hoagland
thought his poem was okay, to understand why he might not understand it to
be hurtful. She recalls having first read the poem, after which she closed
the book, looked out the window:

And though my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just
have to say it—what the fuck?

Was this meant to be a portrait of white thought? How broadly did he think
it applied? And because the author was a former colleague, Rankine was able
to reach out to him directly, which she did. In her talk, she recalls that
conversation, in which Hoagland informs her that the poem was “for white
people,” and that, moreover, Rankine is naïve about racism.

In the final gesture of this very public exchange, Rankine said that she
wanted to embrace her naivety in human possibility. This was roughly three
years before *Citizen* was published—a book in which several painful
conversations with white people are recounted. Since it isn’t mentioned in
that book, it makes one wonder how many more the book could have contained,
how many insults and injuries were left, for one reason or another, on the
cutting room floor.

Still, attitudes have been changing quickly. One might fairly ask whether
white people are becoming more attuned to what is needed of them as work by
writers like Ibram X. Kendi and Ijeoma Oluo push the conversation about
race further into the mainstream. One can easily become disappointed by
such a line of inquiry. In August of 2019, the *Utne Reader* republished an
essay on inclusiveness in poetry by the straight white male poet Bob Hicok.
Hicok makes an attempt to welcome and celebrate the increasingly diverse
landscape of American poetics—but his report is not unequivocal. He mourns
the loss of his own place in the hierarchy, in the geography of the poetry
scene. His essay turns on the question: what are we willing to sacrifice?
He remarks on a lessening of interest in his own work, just as he sees a
growing interest in the work of “a broader swath of Americans than ever
before.” The quandary, in his eyes, thus becomes: how do I support this
movement that inherently takes something away from me?

In a response to Hicok’s essay, Chinese American poet Timothy Yu points out
that beyond whatever you may make of Hicok’s moral agenda, he simply gets
the basic facts wrong. Hicok writes that the most discussed books of the
previous couple years had been by people of color (a list which, given the
dates, is likely meant to include *Citizen*), and goes on to cite as
evidence that the top awards have not been received by white men. The first
observation is of course subjective—who is doing the talking that he’s
talking about?—but the latter claim is simply wrong. Most literary awards
are still won by white people, and of that group, most are men.
If whiteness is a “force,” what kind of force is it, and from where does it
draw power?

If Hicok has noticed a down-tick in interest in his work, one can be happy
it led him to a reckoning with his privilege. It also might be time for him
to take a hard look at the quality of his recent output. Publishing is not
a zero-sum game. And so for Ross Gay or Jericho Brown or Morgan Parker or
Claudia Rankine to be published does nothing to suggest that it takes those
spots on the shelf away from a white male writer like Bob Hicok. If there
are more books put out in a given period of time that people want to read,
more books will be read.

Rankine seems to suggest that the problem may be one of imagination. In
*Citizen*, after a list of Black people whose names have appeared in the
news for having been murdered at the hands of white people, she writes:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black people are dying

But the question remains: why? What do white people imagine? And just what
is whiteness, after all? In both *Citizen *and* Just Us,* Rankine circles
around these questions, at one point in the latter lighting on the line: “A
force within the whiteness is forcing the whiteness.”

If whiteness is a “force,” what kind of force is it, and from where does it
draw power? The idea of white power, or white people, as a force of nature
comes up in the work of many great Black authors. In Richard Wright’s *Native
Son*, we encounter the following sentence after the protagonist, Bigger,
has killed a white woman named Mary: “To Bigger and his kind white people
were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a
stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching
suddenly at one’s feet in the dark.”

This natural force comes to mind when reading all the weather-related
imagery in Rankine’s *Citizen*. At one point she speaks to a novelist with
“the face of the English sky,” a face that’s “always shifting.” She writes
about Trayvon Martin being “completed by sky” and says that the “sky is his
silence.” What is the sky, or what is in it? Who owns it? People look up to
it, they’re always looking up, to see the sunrise, to get rain on their
faces, to see the sunset, to see the clouds or like Bigger and his friend
to see sky writing and fantasize about being a pilot—yet another door
closed to them. The freedom of the sky taunts them by being out of reach,
exclusive, and they remain always beneath it, overwhelmed and powerless.

In *Between the World and Me*, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at length about this
idea of whiteness. It begins very early on in the book, where Coates sites
the presumption made by Americans that race is a “feature of the natural
world,” these same Americans, ostensibly good-hearted or at least not
sociopathic, “deploring” racial atrocities of the past the same way they
might deplore a natural disaster—so terrible what happened! It’s hard not
to think of Hurricane Katrina here, since that particular natural disaster
has an unmistakably racial dimension, both in the immediate impact and in
the aftermath of displacement and the hostility voiced by people in
neighboring states whose communities were “forced” to absorb large numbers
of Black families.

I remember watching news of the flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans, the
footage taken from helicopters, news helicopters, government
helicopters—President Bush took heat for his response, for both arriving
late and for just flying around overhead in Marine One—and this footage
inevitably showed people on their rooftops, water submerging their entire
first floor. These people, mostly Black, waved their arms, calling for
help, some standing, some with signs, others just sat there as though
dazed, looking up at the passing cameras in the clear blue sky.
They want to acknowledge that racism and injustice is real without having
to make any changes themselves.

Flight comes up frequently throughout the text in *Just Us*, in part, as
she points out, because her business class tickets provide ample
opportunity to interact with white people. Early on in the volume she
introduces the challenge she made for herself: to ask white people what
they think about their privilege. After a few false starts (she finds it
difficult to broach the subject), she does manage to have conversations
with white people willing to “go there,” and they are reliably frustrating.
One man, learning that she works at Yale, explains that his son hadn’t made
it in during early-application. “It’s tough when you can’t play the
diversity card,” he adds. Another man, who claims to have been “working on
diversity inside his company,” nonetheless expresses that most hyped and
debunked of white liberal myths about race, “I don’t see color.”

To which Rankine responds, “Ain’t I a Black woman?”

As befitting an inquiry into the nature and meaning of American pain, *Just
Us* is shot through with questions, sometimes in long sequences that bend
the interrogative mode near to breaking. This passage also serves to
introduce other metaphors for conversation:

Are conversations desire projected? Is conversing a dance? The
back-and-forth, a chance? To take? Or be taken? To be taken away? Taken out?

What is being threatened? What is being defended? What is being taken away?
Is everything being taken away? What is it?

What is offended? Offensive? Is it simply because I am? Or, because you
are? Am I in your way? That you step in my way? Do I know you? Can I know
you? In your ways? Anyways?

At one point Rankine seems to poke fun at this tendency by asking, “How far
away can I get from confrontation by using the language of inquiry?” But
she doesn’t use questions to escape, nor for purely rhetorical purposes.
Rather, they appear as flags planted in the ground of her understanding as
she pulls herself through murky terrain, as though to say (to herself, her
interlocutor and the reader), *This is where I’ve come. I’ve made it *this
* far.* *Now: onward.*

And yet there’s a certain sadness to this inconclusiveness—if one can ever
call poetry conclusive—because it’s due at least in part to the inability
of white people to fully account for their own thoughts and actions. It’s
this fundamental denial that Rankine believes must be overcome, but that
ironically in fact defines whiteness. White people want their privilege,
and if they have to surrender it, they even want to call the shots on how
it is surrendered (i.e. with as little discomfort as possible.) They want
to acknowledge that racism and injustice is real without having to make any
changes themselves, and without accepting personal accountability.
“Because,” as Rankine writes, “white can’t know what white knows.”

Whiteness is not able to admit the lie at its root: it’s a fiction that
only exists as a function of what it excludes. As James Baldwin said, “I’m
only Black because you think you’re white.” To acknowledge this would be to
admit that one’s inherited privilege is baseless, unwarranted, the very
real consequences of that lie. That it is stolen and must be returned. But
it is more than this. If it were simply a matter of returning stolen goods,
the Bob Hicoks and Tony Hoaglands might be right in their self-centered,
white-centered attempt to understand their place in “the change.”

The deeper conclusion however is more problematic: that one was never
judged fairly to begin with. That one’s worth was always already inflated.
Yes, it is tough to get into Yale. But to suggest that “non-whites” have it
easier is to indulge the original lie. Since white talent is exaggerated,
taking away the exaggeration simply means you’re viewed honestly,
inevitably left with your son’s average ability. Your mediocre poems.
Knowing whiteness means knowing that this “great natural force” was never
really all that great.

It’s this brutal honesty that Rankine’s conversation is ultimately about.
But for that honesty to be achieved, all voices must be allowed room to
breathe. And so what in *Don’t Let Me Be Lonely* appeared as solitary
missives, and in *Citizen* developed into more focused reportage, in *Just
Us* finds its final form as reciprocal exchange. Here not only are
conversations reported on and examined, but Rankine’s interlocutors are
given real estate on the page to explain their own actions, voice their
opinions. This is how a friend whose behavior Rankine first understands as
intolerant is shown to be full of feeling and aspiration. How the man who
believes his son deserves Yale can be seen coming to a deeper understanding
of the inequality to which he was unaccountably blind.

Following Beckett’s line of thought about conversations as accommodation,
Rankine muses in *Just Us*:

Perhaps words are like rooms; they have to make room for people. Dude, I am
here. We are here.

This echoes a comparison made by Paul Celan that Rankine considers at the
end of *Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. *Celan compares the poem to the handshake.
Fundamental to both gestures is the statement of presence. Both say, “I am
here.” In the acknowledgements to that first volume of her now-complete
trilogy, Rankine thanks fifteen people for “turning this work into a
conversation.” Did she know where it would lead? Certainly not. But the
conversation they helped her start is a poem, is a handshake, is an
accommodation, is a dance. And though the trilogy has come to an end, if
anything is going to truly change we must keep dancing.
[image: Shya Scanlon] <https://lithub.com/author/shyascanlon/>
Shya Scanlon <https://lithub.com/author/shyascanlon/>Shya Scanlon is the
author of *Forecast* and *Guild of Saint Cooper.* Follow him on Twitter



Citizen <https://lithub.com/tag/citizen/>Claudia Rankine
<https://lithub.com/tag/claudia-rankine/>Don't Let Me Be Lonely
<https://lithub.com/tag/dont-let-me-be-lonely/>Just Us
<https://lithub.com/tag/just-us/>race <https://lithub.com/tag/race/>racism
<https://lithub.com/tag/racism/>Shya Scanlon

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