Poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine has critiqued racial relations for years, and this current moment of civil rights upheaval is no different.
Her new book, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” explores dialogues with friends and employs the help of psychologists and rigorous fact-checkers to examine whiteness and white supremacy. The Seattle Times conducted a phone interview with Rankine to discuss her new book and the Black Lives Matter movement before the prolific writer speaks virtually at a Seattle Arts & Lectures event Sept. 25.
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: How has your day been? Your week? The last few months?
A: Fine. I’m home. I’m not traveling so that’s good. It’s crazy. Scary. Frightening on a lot of levels that have to do both with both the virus and the government.
Q: What has your creativity been like during lockdown?
A: Well, it’s great to have time and no focus. That’s been the equation. I mean, my focus is scattered. Because there’s just so much going on. There is the rising death toll. Every time you leave your house, the risk of everybody else coming and going. And then there’s been the death, the protests, the Amy Coopers, all in a very short period of time. We’ve had a lot in the last six months. It’s been a lot.
Q: Right now, we are currently in the wake of a resurgence of Black Lives Matter. That’s at least how I put it. Does this time feel any different than before? What have the pressures been of being a Black creative at this time? I’m sure a lot is being asked of you, like this interview, for example.
A: I think, you know, how I see it is that Black Lives Matter came into formation with the death of Trayvon Martin, as a kind of response to that. In the time since then, the grassroots work that has been done with organizations like Black Lives Matter, and showing up for racial justice, and “say her name.” What we saw in the protests was the first time that all of that work went public. So it’s not a resurgence, it’s been a kind of constant work, that, suddenly, the organization over the years became utilized in a very public place.
We have this amazing moment where a kind of new cross-race, cross-class generation is coming together against the forces of evil. And that’s probably the most generating and hopeful expression the last six months.
Q: I think it’s a constant work for a lot of Black creatives and revolutionaries. Something that I’ve been thinking about is that your book “Citizen” came out five years ago, but every day that goes by, it feels more and more relevant. Did you have an idea of how timeless the piece would be? I feel like part of me wishes it were less relevant now.
A: I think one of the things about my work, whether it’s “Citizen” or “Lonely” or “Just Us,” is that it responds to a moment. And the moment it’s responding to is a long moment. People sometimes say to me, are you worried that the work is gonna go out of date? The kind of systemic racism that was put in place in this country in 1619 has stayed steady for a long time. So, it’s not that I’m thinking the work needs to do anything, or be anywhere, but I’m also aware that the issues that I’m addressing are long-standing ones.
Q: Something that I’ve noticed about this moment is people, particularly white people, are scared to be wrong and seen as racist or offensive. But “Citizen” is all about the intimacies of conversation and figuring out how to communicate with one another.
A: I think we should all get over that fear, because we are often wrong. I mean, I don’t understand why people think they are right. Conversations and communication are about building something with another person, and in that building, wrong turns happen. People think being wrong is the problem rather than being defensive about what they’re wrong about. Being wrong is not the problem. If you say, “I think this thing” and someone says, “Well actually, it’s this thing,” and if you keep saying, “Don’t yell at me, don’t tell me that,” then it’s a problem. If you just say, “I didn’t think about it that way,” then it’s not a problem.
Q: It’s the way we respond less than the things we say.
A: Right. I think Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” speaks to that. We know that white supremacy is a foundational orientation in this culture. And so it’s hard for people not to be socialized toward it. Consequently, white people have a kind of blindness around certain things that have to do with people of color. But if one is willing to accept that and move forward, with an openness toward what else there is, then the fear shouldn’t exactly exist.
Q: In “Just Us,” you say, “response is my strategy.” What has it been like to see all the different types of responses in the wake of George Floyd’s death — from protests, to poetry, to personal essays?
A: I think it’s all good. There isn’t one way to respond. It’s sort of amazing that you don’t have to choose between [James] Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy or [Lyndon B.] Johnson, all of them were important to the time.
And so what’s lovely about this moment is we have these responses tenfold because we don’t have centralized leaders in the way that we had in the civil rights movement. Because of the platforms that have developed, responses are much more democratized now.
When you think about the way Black Lives Matter works, we know the women, the organizers who developed it, but each city has people doing things that are equally important. So the books, the memoirs, the voices, everything from even to Robin DiAngelo to Claudia Rankine. However many people live in this country, is how many responses we have to metabolizing our current situation around anti-Black racism.
Q: “Just Us” has an incredible amount of fact-checking shown publicly, and I say publicly because you cite your sources in a way that I don’t see in a lot of prose or poetry. Why did you choose to do this?
A: Because there is history, it’s a real thing. There is science, it’s a real thing. And we have a government that is fast and loose around issues of bats, issues of science. And so I wanted to go back to the fundamentals and say there are things that actually exist. There is a history that actually happened. People put certain policies in place, people lost their lives at certain junctions. Mass incarceration is for real, redlining actually happens. This function included transparency.
Q: I think a lot of young Black writers and young Black readers are scared of saying the same thing over and over again. I’m just wondering if you have advice to Black creatives who feel like they’re repeating ourselves over and over again?
A: Well, some things are the same, and some things are different. And you’re never in exactly the same place again. And whoever is saying whatever they’re saying, they’re saying that from their point of view. One of the things I’ve tried to do is not pretend I’m not who I am. “Just Us” is about the life that I know, and it doesn’t try and pretend otherwise.
You have seen and done things that I have not seen and done. So there’s no real repetition in a way.
Q: I’m curious as to what your writing process was like as you were writing “Just Us,” and how the themes and ideas of “Just Us” came to fruition on the page.
A: In an odd way, I didn’t write that book, the book happened. I was living my life and I would have a conversation. And I had many conversations, but sometimes only one conversation in the course of a month would strike me in a way that made me want to look at it. And once that happened, I wrote out the conversation. I also hired a psychiatrist to go with me through the conversation to see why I might have felt and done things that I did, and what she thought about the other person, like why they might have done and said things.
And once I talked to her I rewrote the conversation, not changing the facts, but adding in a layer of interpretive material. Once I did that, I fact-checked. Once that was done, I would send the essay back to the person if I could. I said, “Is this the conversation we had? Is there anything you want to add?” Because it really is about the perspectives and positions we stand in when we’re trying to communicate with somebody else. And sometimes the person wrote back to me and said, “No, this is the conversation, you did a good job, goodbye. I have nothing more to add.”
And sometimes, as with the “Theater Going” piece, they send a very elaborate reading on their position.
Q: How do you feel “Just Us” is different from Citizens? Is it more action-oriented?
A: “Citizen” wasn’t about me. I mean, it was about experiences I have had, but it was consciously meant to be a collected chronicle of experiences people around me have gone through, including myself, but not limited to myself. And I didn’t want to overanalyze, I just wanted to present those experiences and create a kind of mirror back to society. Like, “Look, do you recognize any of this?” Whereas “Just Us” is a collection of very subjective interactions that I have gone through in my life.
Q: Finally, I know we talked about how everything is unique in its own way, but something that I’ve noticed: the media has been covering Black Lives Matter heavily. Is there an aspect of the revolution that hasn’t been covered in the media that you wish was?
A: I think not enough emphasis is being put on grief right now. We have a president who refuses to acknowledge how many people are dying from [coronavirus] and the people who are being killed by the police. So I think a lot of us are carrying a lot of grief and we’re not able, because of social distancing, to have contact with other people. So people aren’t even allowed funerals. There’s something chaotic and uncollected about the grief that’s out there right now. Beyond Black Lives Matter. Including Black Lives Matter. But also including the pandemic. So, in a way, that could never have too much coverage.
Claudia Rankine will discuss “Just Us” via a virtual SAL event at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25. Virtual passes, which include a physical copy of “Just Us,” start at $42, with discounted student/under-25 tickets available as well. Head to st.news/SAL-Rankine for more info and to buy tickets.