Claudia Rankine: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine: An American Lyric



well here we are yes indeed Farms after a long time I have to say indeed but this is a good thing it's Oprah let's say and she says that she used to okay so what if we began let's begin at the beginning which is it my curiosity I mean there's sort of a couple of things here it's like I'm always fascinating black people interested in America oh yeah you know this whole thing American lyric so that's pretty bold actually could you get as he said they wreck but you said American you wanted people to know could you could teach can you talk about that well I mean it's funny to me that you're saying you're interested in black people being interested in America when all of your work is grounded in the soil that we come from I was just recently looking at a piece in LA where you had a huge American flag that you had made with an extra star and the wind was these industrial fans was blowing against the the flag and wearing it out as a metaphor for what it means to have an object be worn out by the day – Danis of the wind blowing it seems like the best place to start thinking about Chicago but but I think I have that same interest that you have like what does it mean for somebody who started as an object in terms of the American imagination to sustain a life over centuries in an attempt to embody their own humaneness and so that's why for me it is an American lyric I mean I'm speaking from the position of a body that has been present long before this body arrived in the world and and has been standing up against that wind just speaking metaphor yeah I think you know I think it's natural for black people to want to own their own country but because it's been such a struggle to make a claim to that possibility it's always striking when when someone does very clearly and it's not you don't do it in a you know in a negative way you sort of just come out with you know this is my subject I am NOT just subjected and I think that's really cool you know to just come out billy bowl and go yeah I provide to speak of this and to be of it you know so I guess and then I thought well it sounds kind of obvious you know she's an American right even though our president might not be you know I should probably talk to her about but tell me something um my grandparents came from West Indies and you have some background in Jamaica I was born in Jamaica so what was a meeting you went to Williams at Williams for a little bit I was all like you know I had this like mountain range is very beautiful but it was almost like I I don't know maybe it's a winter time I don't know what it was you know you said kind of in my part did you like it oh you know I loved Williams I don't you guys know Williams College you know yeah I don't a diss on your alma mater but it was a wintertime I couldn't well which is interesting to me because Williams is incredibly sunny and cold and sunny and snowy but but maybe it has to do with the positioning you know I was there as a student and as a student I was held by many faculty members and and they remain beloved to me to this day so it's the place was not without the human beings but you know whatever capacity I was teaching trying to yeah but we talk about the book the book we could talk about that was my preamble that was what I had Williams check that off America check that off twice can we talk in my family like what we would do sometimes is uh and I discovered this as a child because and my kids here wherever he is Desmond where are you you see the busy you know my brother's name is Desmond Desmond is a big name desmond dekker desmo i was his grandmother yeah he doesn't accept paying attention but anyway the lyric the idea of the song we just they would just hang out my uncle's my my mom my aunts and they would just start talking and this song would develop you know and they would just throw ideas back and forth and it become like a little concert like a Saturday morning or maybe a Sunday morning and so this this song full language would would I know just come about and I must have been there all the time that I did I didn't realize it was there I just took it for granted until I was down to over 13 and I realized this doesn't happen in every household this is something that my family does that that I realized I saw other black families do you know where they just what you call informal rapping no no so how did you come to this the lyric well no I love poetry I love I and I need poems have functioned in my life like friends and they have articulated things that nothing else in the culture have articulated for me so for example there's a line in Rilke where he says it was the kind of distance only birds knew I mean where else would you find that it was the kind of distance only birds knew and I remember reading that line and then closing the book and thinking about it for a long time and it changed the way I look at the sky changes the way I think about distance it turned it changes the way I think about intimacy like what what is possible and what is not possible inside any any space so to me that kind of internal voice that is vigilant to the world around it and sings within it maybe functions differently than the kind of music you might be thinking of but I think in the end it's the same music it's the same it's whatever language that you hold as a song in you you know so yeah the lyric is important to me I mean if I could only take one thing it would probably it would probably be a poet you know it's thinking in singing for example you know one of the things that singers natural singers do is they can they hear and they can produce it and I think that poets you know some poets are great on the page but some of it when you actually do it it's there and your stuff has that you know what I mean you have those lines like with the Rilke line you have lines that when I was reading your book you know that happened to me on more than one page and that's I find that rare you know that you that that occurs that the music retains not just in the written thing but in the lived text you know I'm saying so I think that's what I meant as well I was just not doing a sort of autobiographical but it's something I find mostly uh I mean I find a lot of Irish poets you know like Beckett I find it and like that where that the musicality of the stuff translates out into the world maybe cuz she write plays and I know well you started out in drama say what you started in drama and I think you you know I you said recently that you were interested in a nation that thought it was greater than justice we all fit in this one room no no but but the fact that you put it in that in those words made me think about it in that way so so you share that as well I think we have all these connections is all I'm saying mm-hmm tell me something to ask you a Charlie Rose question no don't you like that guy is he still around okay woman do you want what does he do he cuz he'll do this citizen you'll go so what is your favorite part of citizen yeah the open person will do that Charlie but no no do you have a puppet it's even better it's a it's a nice writer question what was the hardest part of writing this thing I I you know just think read so easily and I know it's a trick it's got to be a trick writing is hard right I mean you know it is and so you can answer that any way you want you know I'm asking what's your favorite part I've asked you what's the hardest part but I don't you know I don't know if I have a favorite part because for me it's one motion the the microaggressions that came out of talking to people about the ways in which racism interrupted their their to have encounters with others and rerouted intimacy at any given moment that came out of conversations with people and with myself so that was one process the some of the situations came out of viewing actual events in the culture like Katrina or Saddam's headbutt but it all you know I was really interested in the way people often say when something happens how did that happen and I think well if you're gonna sit at home and think about black people as X or Y and then you're going to question how Dylan roof went into a school and gunned down a church and gunned down nine people that's a real disconnect in terms of what is possible within a culture that holds systemic racism so I wanted I wanted to create the wave that lead to you know led to these moments the hardest thing to write was the ending because I think when you leave you look you think you know you if one thing's about the sonnet and the closing couplet as making an attempt to lock things down in a kind of classic text way this was a book that had no closure because in as much as it reflects back on the society we live in I think we we don't understand the kind of violence that is possible and continues to be possible in this culture that we live in and so I didn't want to create a false ending and in in that it meant I couldn't one arm so I had to wait for it and it took it took years to write the Ender and it just and then in that kind of magical kind of way even though I don't know what that word magic means but in in the way life works let's put it that way I'm the editor said to me you have to send in the final it we can't wait for you any longer and so then it became the thing that I had to do and I you know basically the last page was what exactly happened I was sitting in my car waiting to go to play tennis and a woman a white woman drives up into the opposing spot and she looks at me and I look at her and then she backs away and drives across the lot of our club and parks over there and I'm thinking wait this is kind of like a microaggression let me do something I haven't done let me go ask her why she just did that instead of me trying to read that action let me go ask her so I jump out of my car and I start running in my tennis skirt after this lady's car and then all of a sudden I thought two things one I thought she's gonna think I'm crazy and the second thing was because I guess I'm such a good person and good you know in in a bad way good person in a bad way I thought oh my god I'm gonna be late to the match so then I looked down and I didn't have my tennis racquet so I thought if I if I go after her then I'm gonna have to go back to the car and get the racket and there's no way I'm gonna get to court on time so I decided to forget her go get your racket you know what she's gonna say or you don't or you don't but you know how you feel and you know what you just experienced and maybe that's all you need and that became the end I was like oh that's the end and and then I and then I went and played tennis I don't know if I so that's how you know it just happened you just you just find these moments and they they enact something you think you're looking for it's almost like your crawl don't you think I mean I crawl sometimes I used to a lot more but not anymore as much but in the sense that the crawl isn't it is an attempt to arrive in a place to enact a moment right like you saw the moment of what it meant to be decorated inside the society and you wanted to enact it and then you got down and you crawled and it it it became the moment in its largest sense I guess you know I I guess like we I mean I haven't really done any formal crawling lately lately people do my crawling for me but I remember someone people you know people ask me they go well you know this the black guy who does these artworks that he crawls and but I haven't done a formal crawl a long time you know like by myself and I I knew this when I first started I think in 78 that that I wanted other people to crawl with me of course the problem was I wasn't well-known crawler you know so of course it's like this you running up to this woman you know I've never run out to people to go hey crawl with me you know this is meaningful you know it's just not gonna work even now I may have a problem but anyway well it wasn't good for your knees I thought it wasn't good for you it wasn't good for your knees to be crawling yeah yeah there's that too I don't know but I wish I thought later that you know I knew initially when I was doing these endurance works that it was about a kind of sacrifice that it was about a moment that was maybe like writing and it since uh because I like to write that it was about a text that sort of was about wearing itself out and not being ashamed to you know it was a text or a thing that maybe was sponsored by the fact that gets in the seventies in New York City was opening it's obviously mental institutions and halfway houses and sort of spewing these individuals onto the street and so you know you go to an ATM and you have to step over these people and many of them are black and that really touched me because I'll at the time a lot of my family were on the street and I said there's got to be way to not step over these people you know saw also it's got to be way to show that they're not in earth that there's something inside of them so why not into the picture in a way beat it you know and then to show this animation you know almost like a horror film animation you know the creature moves you know but the idea was to make it you know was to not do it by myself the idea was really it was a community problem you need to be solved in a community way it's just that I had to begin the sentence if you will yeah and you know I I could maybe say that about citizen because that seems to be the way the book has transformed itself when I started it it was really just about talk to people without a sense of what it would do beyond the making of it I think I was just interested in what it meant to bring these stories to the page and how language could hold history and in that the simplicity of the moment that is never simple you know you know that's the cool thing about the book is that it talks about I mean the head bug right Sudan thing it's like simple in a way like you're saying it's almost Simpson stick and and this isn't solid I mean a woman ready about a sport event is kind of cool I mean it's actually very much how do you say it's just most times you don't have that perspective you know you know usually when they have a woman do sports you know it's she's usually on the side as it were but it's funny that you entered the event from the center and to talk about something that that you know any sort of how do you say peel it you know from from the inside out but just talk about that like that I followed the book I'm following the book I'm following the book but then suddenly you're sort of into let's use a cool phrase but you sort it into this the text becomes mediatised through looking at this these so she the way the book has we can get to the image can we go there yeah this is great now you look at this basically single images single images sometimes a double but suddenly we're dealing with this you know we're dealing with multiple images multiple pointed well single point of view from the camera but but then you start dealing with the text and then you start taking it apart and we can see it from different perspectives as well really to really break down what seems to be a really honey almost this wholly simple of a bitch is a collision theoretically you talk about that you know the critic Lauren Valon she actually teaches with you she and I did an interview and she also asked about that the idea of what it means to step inside a moment the sadhana headbutt was fascinating to me because when it happened there were all these projections on to what was said and then they hired the lip readers and the lip reader said clearly what was said had to do with race it had to do with racism and and then I read the blogs and the blogs went to town in terms of racism that's where the racism really happened and it gave the moment gave like you know a lot of racists permission to to go after Arabs blacks anybody they wanted to so I thought if if they're hiring lip readers to read the moment why don't I step in and read not only the actual moment but all the moments leading up to it and the moments following it but then I began to think well there are all these texts out there in the world where black men have written about rage from the get-go so why don't I go back to all of those texts and find the moments so the easiest one was Frederick Douglass when he decided I didn't give you know I didn't care if Covey's gonna kill me I'm gonna hit back on this and so that I knew was the moment of impact the the Douglass statements and then and then I went to the to Fano and Shakespeare and different places but so it became a kind of architectural building of a historical thought around what it means to decide that your own humanity is more important than any retribution or judgment that will come in terms of you misbehaving in a moment when you feel your humanity is being taken away from you so that's that was sort of the thinking and the process of making that piece it's I think it's really you know striking you know because what I've been hearing among you know if you go to the bars and people talk you know I mean they wanna you know well this guy's just an asshole right is it yeah yeah yeah and that's that's just his signature and that's how those people are I mean what else could we expect from them and but there's it's very flat and very how do you say I'm inflected in terms of the complexities of what might have been going on you know especially since it's really something that it's from an American point of view that's American American Bar these kinds of analyses so it's also that part of it that that is sort of flattening out of how would you say the layers of the events so it's really cool to see that you sort of opened it up right and showed us another way to read it or also connecting it to our own soil if you were our own terra firma you know but ask you some of the other images in the book for example what's the image not the Glenn Ligon one but the lynching image I think yeah this is another very striking code tell me about the doubling of the image well in the book we only have the image on the right the original image Indiana the lynching of those two I think it's interesting that you know I think it's it's not you know you think this is booze in the south right right exactly you know and you one forget to have southern these the Midwest was and still is to a certain degree I mean when I came first to move here move here five years ago and I was trying to find a place to live and you know you're taking the train to Train and Lisa black voice is a very southern year at least in my ear you know coming from New York originally and this is beautiful you know little to the voices here Monte almost sound Baltimore but boss when I had a similar kind of thing going on you know maybe you don't expect because Chicago Chicago well you know I think this is one of the myths that we have for example when we had Dylan roof dude that shooting and then we have I began to look at the history of churches either being burnt or you know we know what happened in the south but when Obama was elected churches were burned on the East Coast so we like to believe that the Midwest and the East Coast are better than the south and when you ask people to think about racism they like to think and point to the south and so one of one of the reasons why it's important for me to use that image versus another is that it opens up the landscape of the United States as being as culpable and that's why I wanted to end up with that image because I you know we like to get distracted by the drama of the violence and forget to think about our own culpability in allowing things to go on in fact there my husband since you were talking about sports my husband was invited to a Super Bowl game and you know I live in one of these towns that are college towns everybody's faculty and many many people and so the husband a good friend of mine she's a biologist he invited my husband over and and my husband is white and he arrived at this party for the Super Bowl and all the men there were white and they started watching the Super Bowl and one of the men said something about the nigger and then the host looked at John my husband and then my husband said oh I I have to go you know and and the host knows that he's married to me and he so the funny thing about that moment was I'm there were lots of apologies like his wife had to send me an apology then we found out that the guy who said it wasn't really that good a friend of the host and so then there were also apologies from the husband to me and to my husband and all of these and it but the whole thing was in a way kind of funny to me because I knew that if Jonah hadn't been there that moment would have just floated by that the only reason it became an issue was because of this white guys proximity to me otherwise that would have occurred it would have just been absorbed and maybe I'm not giving um Donathan of enough credit here but although it would have been absorbed into his family called the Bromley's and the Bromley's uh how do you say they were created by this black man from the south who came up after the Civil War married someone in the Midwest in Illinois I think and a whole how would you say basically there are two Bromley companies that were created in one black and one white you can actually look in the I think it's book came out probably in the early 90s and there's a study about the family tree how did these people become two families one black one white both Bromley's BR om why and yet the one side of the Bromley family denies any black you know relate and and yet you know and this is a black man just to make it clear and a white woman who married and it was interesting that you you see this we're so intimately related I mean it's like almost incestuous well there you have it but on the other hand there is this huge divide and I think that it's so most incredibly tragic that you have this kind of huge intimacy and yet this incredible divide so there's things like that happened in this room where I'm sure there are plenty of white people in that room who were going this is up I'm not gonna say anything but even though one doesn't say that to oneself maybe you know but I'm sure the people are thinking it but they don't say anything but they're not saying anything what is that that is my you know it's not that I think you know intention is everything like I I would never do that I don't I don't believe that I would never say that but at what point does that mean that I will not tolerate it mm-hmm you know I will I'm okay with making the the field of whatever room I'm in uncomfortable I'm hope okay with holding that discomfort of the the rupture of breaking the moment because something intolerable has entered that moment I think is that you know it's a tension between this is a Don moment and I late for my tennis lesson moment is that you you do have to negotiate these things and it's always amazing when someone who has something at stake no has nothing at stake per se actually they do for example let's say imagine that room someone wipers had stood up and said something it would have been revolutionary for those people because it was not expected right you know that person theoretically would have nothing to lose except a tiny piece of their humanity that they didn't say anything but it's always amazing when someone does speak up against the tide like that and risks their their friendships in their the surface the surface Sheen of things mhm and says you know you shouldn't say that right which is not that big a deal right well apparently it is yeah you know because while these things have to do with maybe those men in that room do business together so it's not simply a threat of loss of smiles in the hallway it could be business so you this is all of this hooking up with other layers economic you know political you have no idea what's going on but the person who actually risks that that like those set of layers of interrelationships it's always kind of you can't it's like you can't sit there and sort of take a little tote board and go all right if I do this and this will happen now do this there's some time for that and so usually those moments of bravery I think it's kind of it's like a stupid courage that's amazing where someone simply does that thing that breaks the whole thing open and maybe when you do it like you know and I've done things like that it's like I always think like maybe I should have done that but I did it and you can't sort of think about the tote board no it's true it changes it does change your interaction of people after well but I feel like the change is worth it I always feel like you know people might be thinking when I say something oh there she goes but I I think well if that means that you're not gonna say some racist homophobic anti-semitic thing to me that's okay I'm okay with that you know humor me you know you know but when you were talking made me think of Thomas Jefferson oh that's good no because the thing that's really interesting to me about Thomas Jefferson is he's somebody who said oh you should free the slaves you shouldn't treat human beings like that and yet he didn't but the reason he didn't didn't have anything to do with him not recognizing the atrocities around slavery it had to do with his finances he you know he would go to Paris and he would buy art and books and wine cuz they at Monticello they would throw these huge parties and and then he would get back and he would be in so much debt that he would have to sell off the slaves or he would put Monticello and the slaves up for mortgage like he would get a second mortgage on them so it he couldn't tree them even though George Washington freed his slaves based on what Thomas Jefferson said so this idea that the person who kind of wrote plan was our first capitalist you know capitalist and conflict well you know I'm sensing a moment I'm sensing some needs out here that maybe some few people might going to ask you a few things maybe it may be that's right let me bring up the lights oh there that this is the correct moment for the lights there we have it I was the image that was on the screen for probably the first half of your discussion which would look to me like a decapitated hoodie could you talk about that a little bit please yeah that that hoodie is by it's a piece of sculpture by the conceptual artist David Hammons and he did that in 1993 so around the time of Rodney King and it's called in the hood and clearly he was meaning to bring forward all the ways in which that hoodie which worn on the body of a white person would not mean what it means in terms of attaching the black body to criminality instantaneously and so I think that's why he chose to put it up and then when people saw it on the front of the book they thought it was in association with Trayvon Martin and that the piece had been made recently which is part of what is interesting about any moment inside citizen it seems both now before but do you know do you have anything to add about Hammonds work I think what's interesting about that also that you say that is object is that it is you're right this has a sense of decapitation but it's a shadows you know and that what fills these these this structure called the hood you know you know this the meanings that we put into it or kind of you say they're not firm there are open to interpretation in that way and I think the way it's lit even I mean against that white wall gives that sense of ghostliness that I've never really have thought about you know because usually when people wear their hoodies it's about really it is about kind of putting shadows on your face is about doing something to the edge of your face but it's it's fluid and yet it's fixed that's what's I think interesting about the way it is a fluid image and yet it fixes on the black body in one way yeah I mean I think there is a time for everything so sometimes anger is appropriate but I you know I don't I'm not angry with anyone because I feel that racism is institutional and all of us all of us are subject to the ways it remains in play in in this in these great United States right so if white people certain white people allow their imagination that has been built inside a racist culture to steer their behavior that's not all white people that certainly people and there are also black people who have allowed their imagination to be built inside a racist culture so I am you know the and for example I wrote a piece on Serena Williams in the New York Times the other day and I was giving a talk in DC and a black woman came up to me and she said I read that piece you wrote on Serena Williams in which you explained what she had to go through and all the things that have happened to her and she said for years I thought she was just acting badly and it made me so ashamed ashamed of her and ashamed of black people and then I read your piece and realized she was reacting to something she just wasn't out there shaming black people and that moment was poignant for me because it made me realize that black lady had been living her life under the shadow of white the white gaze that black people were performing for her estimation of what white people would say about them which showed a kind of lack of freedom in and out of herself and so I and that's part of racism that's part of the racist structure that we live inside so if there's not anger there's not anger at it because we're all grappling inside the same system and the question is who's gonna call the system out who's gonna you know show up so that all of us can start living a little bit better or at least failing differently in the future you seem incredibly resilient in in your writing and in your presence and I'm wondering where do you personally find hope where do you find hope where do I find hope yeah you know strangely enough out there yeah it's as simple as that and it's problematic is that everything you think you don't even have a concept like hope you have to trust you have to trust in the face that there's no certainty mm-hmm you just gotta you know hook it up and make how do you say you sort of make a deal with you with each other that you're going to make an effort to do as you said something different all right to fail differently I think it's cool and I think that it's you know but but you know people are always looking over their shoulders at each other and we're taught to do that you know to be suspicious of our neighbors it's very difficult to come together and do something together in a specific way for specific goal and stay with it like not hate each other so much yeah but also I think we have to realize that we at least I I don't speak for myself we I want want the encounter you want to be in the room together I wanted to meet you I want you know I probably want to meet a lot of you if I got to know you a little bit or maybe not I don't know but but that you you know but inherently we want intimacy we want encounter we are social beings and so in that I think that's the hope that we're gonna keep struggling because we want we want to be in the room I want to be in the room you want to be in the room and we just got you know we need to get the room to hold us to hold all of us you know I mean you know the rooms gonna do with the rooms gonna do the world's gonna do with the world's gonna do it's up really up it's the world's gonna do what its gonna do but I really think it's up to us to take that risk you know and to not how do you say prophesize or guests or tote board whatever phrase you want to use what the outcome will be because no one really can tell it might work out really well and might not yeah you know you know I had this I was in the airport yesterday because I live in the airport you might not know this about me and there were these three black guys sitting in in three seats funny and and there was a fourth seat there was a fourth seat and I thought I'm gonna go sit in that seat so I sat in the seat and the guys they were they were talking and they when I sat down they were talking about a show where divers dived in caves to look at killer whales and then they were saying that the guys were white that only white people would do something like that that they would you know like black people had more sense they would never they would they would never go down and but all four of us we were I was in Kansas City Missouri I thought I was in Kansas but I was in Kansas City Missouri and all four of us were visitors and so they they noted when I sat down but then they continued the conversation and I love this moment because then they said uh you know nothing's going on there we know there was no nightlife in Kansas City and and they were like yeah nothing nothing nothing and then the plane came in from Chicago and some women got off I don't you know some good-looking women and one of the guys said I think we're leaving Kansas City too early and when one of them said but they're coming from Chicago but what I loved about that moment as a social moment was that they kept going even as I sat in that space that my my femaleness did not allow disallowed that moment and and then we could all laugh and you know and then when they got up because they two of them were going to Houston and I was coming here they said bye you know they were like we see you sitting there so that's what I mean they're like I love when spaces can open up and and fold and hold you and then let you go so you said you were born in Jamaica before you moved to the United States right um I was wondering at what point did you first encounter racism or rather like at what point did you realize that it was a major problem because I know like with children that there's a lot of unintentional racism going on and they don't even mean it but I was learning like at what point did you realize that it was a major issue for you you know it's funny my first moment coming to the United States I was around 7 and I came on American Airlines and I think it was American or maybe it was they had those little wings maybe it was an American it was Pan Am it was Panama and and I had been dressed in a dress that my aunt made and and it had short sleeves and I came in the winter and it was very cold and the stewardess who is a white lady had a white eyelet sweater and she gave it to me so that was my first encounter with coming to United States she gave it to me and that was a sweater that brought me out into the cold of the American landscape it was not returned to her that was not my sweater so I think as a child I I don't think I was thinking about racism per se what I I went to a Catholic school and those of us who went to Catholic schools back in the in the 70s and it was before anyone told the nuns they shouldn't beat up the children I mean that there were a lot of good teachers I know but there were some who felt they you know they had the right to do that and so I I remember my first moment which is not an answer to your question but I remember the first time as a child I recognized that adults do things that are unjustified and that justice was not in play in terms of the way people behave that it had to do with their own failings their own desires their own insecurities and that happened in the classroom with these nuns and I think that was more important lesson than when I learned that people would do those things just because I was black and it so I can't I don't know when that other moment happened but I do remember you know as a child sitting there thinking just because they're all grown up doesn't mean they're not children and and it was because Robert this little boy named Robert in the class we were singing to get back to where we started in terms of songs we were singing Ave Maria and the nun couldn't really sit and she couldn't carry a tune and Robert did not laugh but he smiled because she was it was just so broken her Saint singing and she saw him smile and she walked over to him and she punched him and and she then hit him again and the rest of us in the classroom had to watch this and it changed my relationship to those teachers for the rest of the time I was in school and then you begin to watch people in a very different way and understand that when they need something you know they will terrorize everybody to get it even if it's that that thing is just a fiction you know even if she just needs two things she knows how to sing you know anyway that's that's my answer thank you so much

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *