Reading and writing

Claudia Rankine tries to answer the impossible

RANKINE: In my latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, I intentionally moved my life and myself forward in order to say, “No matter what it looks like.” If I have the same education as you, it does not mean that we had the same educational experience, it does not mean that the road traveled has been less difficult for me, because the problems we are talking about are institutional. I don’t claim to have felt the worst, but in Only U.S and my game To help I wanted to say, “Let’s take the economy off the table. Let’s take capitalism off the table and look at racism for what it is. It’s your understanding of who you are and who I am, and my understanding of who you are and what I want.

SALOMON: Do you experience the world as a hostile place?

RANKINE: I experience the world as a complicated place and that takes management. I’m going to tell you a great story. I was at the airport, and I walked over to the first class counter, and a woman came running out from behind the counter and said, “Miss, miss, you’re in the wrong place. There is a long line of people. And she says, “The economy is there.” And I said, “No, I can read.” And she said, “Let me see your ticket.” So she takes my ticket, and people are laughing in line, and she’s embarrassed. I was heading to the end of the line, but now she’s like, “Go ahead.” Go see that lady over there behind the…” So now she put me in front of the queue. She sent me to the next woman at the counter. So, the woman saw all this, suddenly is incredibly nice and says, “There’s a salon you can go to. She takes my ticket, but I’m pissed. I get on the plane and there are three white women on the other side of the plane. They talk, look at me, and they point. So I think they must have heard what happened. And then, finally, one of them comes up to me and says, “You’re the poet, aren’t you?

SALOMON: Oh, it’s a great story at the end.

RANKINE: Exactly. All of a sudden, the world is spinning.

SOLOMON: I get, even for me, the feeling that other people may react to me in a particular way because I’m gay. For example, my husband had surgery last week that didn’t go entirely as planned. We went to see a doctor yesterday and I thought, how much am I going to have to explain who I am and why we’re coming together? And I thought, we’re just gonna get rid of it. And so, I said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I am John’s husband. He had some tough times. My main assumption is that the doctor doesn’t care and everything is fine, and I didn’t even think we would get a lower level of care. But I thought, is he going to be one of those people who kind of dreads dealing with people like us? I feel like that possibility is still there.

RANKINE: Yeah, one of the privileges of my life has been living in New York and California, where you take certain things for granted and people’s ability to take the difference is something you rely on. But there is always someone. And I often wonder what the defense is, what people fight in themselves when they’re homophobic, when they’re racist. What are you afraid of? What do you think should happen now?

SOLOMON: I’m always shocked by the stories I hear, and at an earlier stage in my life my instinctive response was, “That’s not what they really meant, you must have misunderstood.” It seemed unlikely that people would be so outspoken and outright homophobic or racist. Once a beloved friend sat me down and said, “You have to stop telling me when I tell you that I was a victim of racism, that it wasn’t really racism or that it wasn’t that bad or that serious. And she is right. One of the things your piece does so powerfully is recount that experience to the point where it becomes absorbable and complete. Because I think for well-meaning liberals who are raised to be color blind, it’s often hard to come to terms with the black experience. I don’t think just because white people understand the black experience doesn’t mean the black experience will improve as a direct and immediate result. But it seems like a step in that direction. In your play, are you writing for the typical white male to undergo a transformation? Are you writing for people who will identify with the narrator?

RANKINE: I am often asked this question: who is the target audience? I’m being honest when I say I don’t have a target audience. When I started working on Citizen, it was like doing a math problem. Can you put something on paper that lasts a second or ten seconds? Can you capture it in language so it’s visible? This was the mission. And it took me years to listen to stories, to understand what word can fall historically. I didn’t think an Asian girl could read this and think, “This is how I’m treated.” Or a black woman might read this and think, “This happened to me,” or a white person might read this and think, “I did that.” I thought, “How are you? Can you do this?”

SOLOMON: You can.

RANKINE: Turns out the language can. The tongue can contain it.

SOLOMON: I have close friends who are an interracial couple. And I went to interview them about their experience for the book I’m working on, knowing them for years. They really wanted to talk about it. Stephanie said: “I said to Doug, when he said he wanted to marry me, ‘You’re going to give away social capital if you do that.’ And Doug didn’t seem to really understand what I was talking about, and I said, “Just make sure you’re ready for what you give up doing this.” Doug seems to have a lot of social capital and Stephanie is fabulous and the two have a great marriage and beautiful kids and everything. Did you have any idea of ​​that when you got married?

RANKINE: I did, because when I was in college, I dated a guy whose parents very aggressively disapproved of the union. We had gotten to the point where we were engaged and the mom did an interesting thing where she threw an engagement party and then locked herself in the bedroom after fixing everything.


RANKINE: And then another moment she said to me, “If you really loved my son, you wouldn’t marry him and you’re going to devastate your children’s lives.” I mean, she was engaged. I didn’t marry him, but not for those reasons. It just wasn’t the right time. But by the time I married John, I had obviously encountered resistance to this kind of union and his family helped in their own way to make the marriage possible because of their ability to treat people as people.

SALOMON: What are you writing now?

RANKINE: I’m working on a movie. But honestly, it was hard to write anything after January 6 of last year.

SOLOMON: I think for many of us, January 6 was the moment when we realized that things weren’t necessarily going to get better. They could only get worse. I remember a telling moment in Afghanistan when I was reporting in Kabul, someone showed me a photo album from the 1960s of women wearing miniskirts. We tend to think of the burqa as a primitive garment. But it was introduced there after the transition to liberalism. And I still feel like something similar could happen here.

RANKINE: Yes, it is possible. But on the writing side, I expect something. I do not know what it is. It can be good or bad. It could create an avenue of possibility in terms of a line of inquiry, in terms of my own thinking and writing – or it could be a cry for help. I do not know.

SOLOMON: To help, the title of your piece, is it a must? A description? Advocacy ?

RANKINE: It’s all of those things.


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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson