Interview: Claudia Rankine, Author Of 'Citizen' For her latest collection, Claudia Rankine mined her and her friends' encounters with racism. She says she wanted to talk about "what happens when we fail each other as people."

In 'Citizen,' Poet Strips Bare The Realities Of Everyday Racism

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It's a common complaint about poetry. It's the oldest form of expression, but what can it do for us now in an age of social media, Twitter, Facebook and national urgency? Poet Claudia Rankine's new collection, her fifth, has an answer. Its cover shows a black hoodie against a white background, recalling Trayvon Martin. And it's a very personal meditation on race in America. The book is called "Citizen: An American Lyric." It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Claudia Rankine joins us now. Thank you, welcome to the program.

CLAUDIA RANKINE: Good morning, Eric. Thank you for having me.

WESTERVELT: Before we chat, I want to give listeners a sense of your book. It reads like a series of kind of diary entries, so to speak, and an anatomy of encounters with perceived racism. I'd like you to read, if you would. Could you start "You Are In The Dark"?

RANKINE: Sure. (Reading) You're in the dark, in the car, watching the black, tarred street being swallowed by speed. He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment, and you're being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an OK conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

WESTERVELT: I honestly wish we could read even more of this book to our audience 'cause it's an experience to read in one sitting, as I did. I mean, the reader's really put in the situation of these encounters. You're sort of brought into it and made to think what the person might have been feeling or thinking. And I have to assume that was part of your aim.

RANKINE: That was part of my intention. I wanted to create the field of the encounter, what happens when one body comes up against another and race enters into the moment of intimacy between two people.

WESTERVELT: Maybe I could have you read a little bit more from page 15, "You And Your Partner Go To See The Film."

RANKINE: (Reading) You and your partner go to see the film "The House We Live In." You asked a friend to pick up your child from school. On your way home, your phone rings. Your neighbor tells you he is standing at his window, watching a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy is walking back and forth talking to himself and seems disturbed. You tell your neighbor that your friend, whom he has met, is babysitting. He says, no, it's not him. He's met your friend, and this isn't that nice young man. Anyway, he wants you to know he's called the police. Your partner calls your friend and asks him if there's a guy walking back and forth in front of your home. Your friend says that if anyone were outside, he would see him because he is standing outside. You hear the sirens through the speakerphone.

WESTERVELT: Ms. Rankine, are these encounters all things you've experienced? Or is it a mix of experience and imagination?

RANKINE: There's no imagination, actually. Many of the anecdotes in the book were gathered by asking friends of mine to tell me moments when racism surprisingly entered in when you were among friends or colleagues or just doing some ordinary thing in your day.

WESTERVELT: I mean, it must've been hard emotionally cataloging these racist verbal attacks, both for you and for your friends, and to get them on paper.

RANKINE: It was, rather. You know, I feel, like, surprise at my own surprise at some of the accounts. And then, when you start paying attention, it's amazing how many things occur in a single day or a week or a month. And, you know, in a way, you have to kind of step back and just let them go.

WESTERVELT: Well, it's hard to let go. I remember my wife, who's Asian-American, was walking down a street in Jerusalem, where we lived at the time. And an ultra-Orthodox couple walked up to her and said, excuse me, do you speak English? And she said, yes, I do. And they said, are you available to clean my house on Tuesdays and Thursdays?

RANKINE: (Laughter).

WESTERVELT: And my wife, you know, of course kind of lost it and was angry. And I think to this day, when I bring that up, even though it was years ago, she still says, you know, the nerve. And it can be hard to move on.

RANKINE: I think it's surprising because you go through the day assuming certain things, that other people are seeing you as a person. You know, that's sort of basic. And when these moments come into your day in these ordinary events, it's shocking. And it's disturbing. And the disturbance is deep because it goes back to the roots of racism in this country.

WESTERVELT: This is such a big, bold topic that's, you know, in the headlines and on the TV and on the radio every day when we're talking about Eric Garner and Michael Brown. But your prose is so intense and personal. You seem to be writing about how people hurt each other day to day. And it really brings it down to a personal level. Was that part of the aim as well?

RANKINE: Well, yes. You know, on the one hand, I am talking about institutionalized racism. But on another and I think equally important level, I'm just talking about what happens when we fail each other as people.

WESTERVELT: Your book is called "Citizen." What does that mean to you? Do you want people to meditate on the meaning of citizenship, partly, in reading your work?

RANKINE: Exactly. I want to - I want to understand that there are two worlds out there, two Americas out there. If you're a white person, there's one way of being a citizen in this - in our country. And if you're a brown or a black body, there's another way of being a citizen. And that way is very close to death. It's very close to the loss of your life. It's very close to the loss of your liberties at any random moment. And so I wanted that to be considered, to be considered.

WESTERVELT: Claudia Rankine's book of poetry is called "Citizen: An American Lyric." I found your book more powerful than a thousand commentaries on Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It was a moving experience. Thank you for writing it.

RANKINE: Well, thank you. Thank you for reading it and for having me.

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