Interview With Poet Claudia Rankine On 'Just Us: An American Conversation' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Poet Claudia Rankine is back with a new book called Just Us: An American Conversation. Much like her acclaimed 2014 book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, her new volume offers an unflinching examination of race and racism in the United States — this time in conversations with friends and strangers. Guest host Audie Cornish talks to Rankine about what she learned about herself and others in these conversations, why she doesn't mind educating others about race, and how we move forward together in tough times.

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Poet Claudia Rankine And 'Just Us'

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Poet Claudia Rankine And 'Just Us'

Poet Claudia Rankine And 'Just Us'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You know, the whole thing of this dialogue is, like, you're so socialized as a Black person, especially in white spaces, to not talk about this stuff.

CLAUDIA RANKINE: Mmm hmm.

CORNISH: It really is part of the social contract of upward mobility - of like, OK, you can be here...

RANKINE: Yeah, exactly.

CORNISH: ...But let's not do that.

RANKINE: Let's not do that.

CORNISH: Let's not do that thing...

RANKINE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...'Cause then you become the angry person - right?

RANKINE: Yeah.

CORNISH: Like, no - well, now I have to make you a trope. And it just seemed like your whole book was just you violating the contract...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Over and over and over again.

RANKINE: I know. That's why there's a section that says Social Contract Violated.

CORNISH: Yeah...

RANKINE: I know.

CORNISH: ...Violated.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Audie Cornish in for Sam Sanders. On today's show, the poet Claudia Rankine - she's written many books of poetry, but the one she's most known for is called "Citizen: An American Lyric." It won several awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. That book focuses on the destructive nature of casual racism. "Citizen" came out in 2014, after a summer that saw the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the protests over police violence that followed. Now, in 2020, she's back with a new book. It's called Just Us: An American Conversation.

And that title, "Just Us," has an unexpected source. It's the punchline to a joke by the comedian Richard Pryor. And warning - he uses strong language, including a racist slur. I mean, it is Richard Pryor.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "...IS IT SOMETHING I SAID?")

RICHARD PRYOR: I went to jail for income tax evasion. Right? You know, I didn't know a mother******* thing about no taxes. I told the judge - said, Your Honor, I forgot. You know, he said, you'll remember next year, nigga.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Start writing on your ass...

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: They give niggas time like it's lunch down there.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: You go down there looking for justice; that's what you find - just us.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So why the title of her book? Claudia Rankine says that humor offers an example for how to talk about race.

RANKINE: Comedians like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes - you know, these people are able to hold the good and the bad of it. They're the people I go to who can both see it and hold it and move through it. And they don't abdicate. They really stay in there.

CORNISH: The book is less humor and more conversation - with friends and strangers. She told me that she found airports to be the sweet spot for making conversation. It's what she did with that conversation next that gets at the heart of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RANKINE: I'm really interested in what other people say to me, but I'm also really interested in why I say the things that I say. And so in as much as my interlocutor was my subject, I was also my subject because we are all socialized inside a system that was shaped with the tenets of white supremacy.

CORNISH: So one of the things you do in the book is you are pursuing conversations with white men, who you say, in general, you don't have a lot of interactions with in a way. Right? Can you help me understand that - especially to people who might Google you and say, I think she has a white husband, so what does she mean by this?

RANKINE: Well, I have interactions with white men in terms of work and I am married to a white man. But I don't have conversations - long conversations exploring a subject without a destination, in a sense, with white men in general. And so the task I gave myself was to approach white men in the way that I might have a conversation with a white woman just because I'm sitting next to her but really to push the moment so that these white men would talk to me about this idea of white male privilege.

And so that was - you know, that was a task. And if I could move the conversation to that subject, I did.

CORNISH: This is not an easy thing to do (laughter), it sounds like. And in the book, sometimes I feel your reluctance, like, kind of getting up the nerve to do it. How did you think about approaching it? I mean, can you remember the first time trying to do this?

RANKINE: Well, I think initially I thought I would just wait for somebody to give me an opening in conversation, you know. So you're sitting next to a guy. You're waiting. The plane is delayed. He asks the time. He asks, what did the gate agent say? And then that leads to something else and leads to something else.

And in one of the situations recounted in the book, eventually he asked me what I did, and I said I taught at Yale. And he said, you know, his son didn't get in on early decision. And even then, I wasn't willing to say, let's talk about white male privilege. (Laughter). But then when he said his son didn't get in because his son's friend, who was a person of color got in, then I thought, OK, he is in my wheelhouse (laughter)...

CORNISH: Mmm hmm.

RANKINE: ...And we can start this conversation.

CORNISH: I want to ask about another one of these conversations that starts in an airport - one that starts, you describe, as having the ease of kicking a ball around on a fall afternoon, which is a lovely image. This is on Page 49. And I was wondering if you can read it to us. It begins, eventually, he told me...

RANKINE: OK.

(Reading) Eventually, he told me he had been working on diversity inside his company. We still have a long way to go, he said. Then he repeated himself. We still have a long way to go - adding, I don't see color. This is a statement for well-meaning white people whose privilege and blind desire catapult them into a time when little Black children and little white children are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The phrase, I don't see color, pulled an emergency brake in my brain. Would he be bringing up diversity if he didn't see color? I wondered, will you tell your wife you had a nice talk with a woman or a Black woman? Help.

All I could think to say was, ain't I a Black woman? I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth, or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of Blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people's understanding of Black intelligence? Aren't you a white man? - I then ask. Can't you see that? Because if you can't see race, you can't see racism. I repeated that sentence, which I had read not long before and Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility." I get it, he said. His tone was solemn. What other inane things have I said? Only that, I responded.

CORNISH: You follow by saying you refuse to let the reality he was insisting on be my reality. And one of the things that struck me is that you're having a meta conversation. Right? (Laughter) Like, in your mind, you're seeing this conversation through how he would view it, how you would view it - society, history. Like, it's this, like, multilayered thing. And that's actually quite common, especially for people of color - right? - that you're having the double consciousness in your conversation, so to speak.

RANKINE: Yeah. I think Du Bois' notion of the double consciousness is a ruling metaphor for how Black people exist in the world. And - so you're always a little bit suspicious about the source of statements coming at you. And it's sort of being sort of sifted through all of history and snagging on moments.

CORNISH: I want to ask what that means in this moment when there are many white people trying to have the conversation, as well. Right? Like, this guy thought (laughter) he was in dialogue with you at a certain level that revealed not to be the case.

RANKINE: Well, I think he was in dialogue with me at some level. And all I was doing was saying, look; what you are thinking is not what I'm thinking, and I'm going to show you. I'm going to tell you that. (Laughter) And then we see where we go from there.

His understanding - I mean, again and again, I think we have seen that, with the best intentions, white people have a different understanding of reality because they have been living a different reality. They have a kind of mobility socially that Black people don't have. They have been given a hand up in society in a way that Black people have not been given. And whether or not they can see the trappings of that, you know, depend on who they are. Not all white people are one white people. But those things still remain facts. And so the more you know, the more you understand why you are positioned in a certain way and they are positioned in another way.

I mean, this man, I really liked him, and we have since become friends. He got in touch with me via email. And he and his wife and me and my husband had dinner, and we now email each other. But it had to start with a kind of clarity around what I was hearing versus what he thought he was saying or (laughter)...

CORNISH: Right.

RANKINE: ...Wanted to communicate. You know?

CORNISH: One line of the text that you read - this is a statement for well-meaning white people whose privilege and blind desire catapult them into a time - talking about this line of colorblindness. And you do that with your own fact check (laughter) in real time, which gets me to the structure of "Just Us."

Describe how throughout the book you have these kinds of - it's almost like the entire book is its own Wikipedia.

RANKINE: Mmm hmm.

CORNISH: You've got a line, and then you've got (laughter) your own no (ph) - it goes beyond footnotes. And how did you think about this structure as you were putting it together, the book?

RANKINE: Well, I think the book - each conversation comes with a kind of positionality of the interlocutor and myself that is informed by what we know. And I wanted, as much as I could, to lay bare that. And to say that, some of these things that I'm saying actually have factual evidence behind them; sometimes they only have anecdotal evidence behind them. Sometimes it's a tweet. Sometimes it's a quote. Sometimes - you know.

And I thought it was important because we are in a moment where this notion of fake news and false science has been thrown out into the atmosphere as real things - as if history doesn't exist, as if science doesn't exist. And you know - and also, I'm curious about how many white people have been able to live their entire lives and gotten so many degrees and been so educated around certain things and are such good readers and yet manage not to know any history about the subjugation of Black people in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: OK, time for a break - when we come back, Claudia Rankine picks her battles when it comes to talking about race. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: Hearing you do this reminds me of a conversation that was happening nationally this summer parallel to the issue of police misconduct and race in American and that reckoning - but the idea that - I'd hear young people say, I'm not here to educate you about race.

RANKINE: Mmm hmm.

CORNISH: Right? So I, as the Black or Latinx or Asian person in this room - I'm not here to do this work for you. I don't want to have this conversation in this way or on your terms. Can you talk about that a little bit because, in a way, like, you are having the conversation. Right? Like, you are acting in that space.

RANKINE: Well, you know, the - I've heard that statement for as long as I can remember. And I don't agree with it because the assumption is that I know everything. I don't know, and I don't believe I know. And yet, I am working with white people. I am married to a white person. I have friends who are white. So you know, I am a person. I am a Black woman who lives in the United States of America, a country where the president has said I'm a nationalist, implying I'm a white nationalist - 'cause he is white. And I don't like the way things are going (laughter), to say (laughter) - you know, that is the understatement of my life.

And so I don't see these conversations as educating. I see these conversations as trying to have people join in the same reality so we can move forward towards a more equitable society. You know, this notion of segregation - Black people didn't put it in place. White people put it in there, and it serves them. And I'm not interested in serving them in that way.

CORNISH: Is it taxing?

RANKINE: Well, sometimes, maybe. But it - you know, you always have a choice. If I don't feel like talking, I'm not going to talk even to you (laughter), you know, as another Black woman. So it's not - I don't think sharing what I know and asking you to share what you know so that we can build something together - even if it's just a conversation right now - is taxing. I think that's what conversations are.

CORNISH: Does that feel generational to you, that approach? I've been thinking a lot about sort of...

RANKINE: A little bit. A little bit.

CORNISH: Yeah.

RANKINE: I think that it feels a little bit like it's a new activists positioning, you know? And I feel like if somebody needs to do that, they should do that. I'm not here to tell them not to do that. I think if they - if that's their mode of rest in the world or what makes them feel safe, they should do that. But I personally don't see conversing with people as a burden if I'm choosing that, you know?

CORNISH: One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is where you attend a play with a friend. And it's a play in which, at one point, white audience members are asked to leave their seats and go up on stage. And some do. But the white friend that you came with does not get up. And you describe what's going through your head in that moment, the kind of frustration and your perception that she didn't feel compelled or that she needed to answer the commands of this Black playwright. What was it like trying to take this personal interaction...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...And kind of look at it like a diamond - right? - all the different facets of what's going on? Did you scribble some notes in the bathroom? Were you fuming in the Uber? Kind of walk me through how this happens. I'm sorry that's such a brutal craft question, but I'm curious.

RANKINE: (Laughter) Well, "Fairview" was the play, Jackie Drury Sibblies' (ph) brilliant "Fairview." And what was ironic and not in the essay, actually, is that they invited us as members of the Racial Imaginary Institute, an institute I helped found that had to do with investigating race culturally in American society. And the play asks, in this beautiful way - an actor comes to the audience and says, you know, what if we can imagine something differently? What if we could give the space to Black people, the space of the audience to Black people for a minute, you know? Like, we can make something happen here that doesn't happen in the real world. And in order to make it happen, all you have to do if you're white is get up and go to the stage. And when my friend, who's also a member of the Racial Imaginary (laughter) Institute just sat there...

CORNISH: Right. So in short term, woke, right?

(LAUGHTER)

RANKINE: Woke. Yes. Exactly (laughter).

CORNISH: ...That's your woke friend that you took to this performance. So you're like, OK. The one thing you're probably going to do is get up. And then...

RANKINE: And then, she doesn't. And I truly sat there to the point where I no longer could hear the play because I couldn't believe this. (Laughter) I just thought, what are you doing? But I couldn't say - you know, but we were in the play. The actress is talking. People were going up. And I had such a physical reaction that it stayed with me for weeks. When the play ended and we - everyone rose to exit, I turned to her and I said, you know, I didn't know you were Black, and she - to which she answered nothing. And then we left quickly because it was pouring rain. And we ran to the car. And we drove back to Connecticut. And...

CORNISH: And also, that was a little bit of a mic drop by you. I mean...

RANKINE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Let's be honest here. You didn't say, how'd you like the play?

RANKINE: (Laughter) Well, I mean, it's sad. They asked, you know, Black people stay here. She stayed there. So I'm assuming - and so then I waited for us to have a conversation. And she - you know, it was interesting. And she - when I said to her, are you willing to write down, you know, what you were thinking? - because I sent her the essay. And she said, you know, this is what I said, what I did, but not what I was thinking. So I said, will you write down what you were thinking? And so this essay in the book usually gets a lot of attention because of her detailed attempt to bring forward her own feelings in that moment.

CORNISH: I'm going to read a section of that. It begins (reading) I didn't think I was Black at the end of the day. But I was all over the place - so sick of white people, so identified with those who feel watched, the Black people in the play, so in awe of the play, shaky. Claiming, owning whiteness in that moment by getting up felt hard. I felt glued to my seat. I'm sure there's a lot more to say, think, analyze about all of this, but that's the phenomenological truth of it - and then a word I can't say because FCC rules (laughter) - and otherwise.

But it does get at the idea that - I have heard this kind of, like - I have heard white people express such, I guess - how do I say this?

After this spring and this summer, when all of a sudden it seemed like mainstream white America was engaging in ideas about race, specifically ideas like white privilege, which for some time had seemed kind of academic, and then there was already a kind of backlash to the idea of white fragility or anti-racism or a kind of ironic detachment of, like, oh, this performative thing that doesn't mean anything. And I kind of heard that echoed in this letter. You kind of want to be a part of something that's performative.

RANKINE: Yeah. And I heard that, too.

CORNISH: So is she right?

RANKINE: I mean, it's a complicated thing. It's complicated. It's intellectual. And intellectually, maybe she's right. But (laughter) - you know, but what does it mean for the other Black people there that she's refusing? What does it mean that such a small ask is not possible as a kind of symbol of the larger and more important asks? You know? So if you look at it that way, it's not really a question of right or wrong. It's a question of, how much discomfort are you willing to hold? How much do you care how a person next to you feels? Do you even understand what this play is investigating?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: Time for one more break - when we come back, Claudia Rankine talks about the myth of cancel culture and how we move forward. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: I can still hear the emotion in your voice. And may I ask, how did this relationship survive?

RANKINE: How did it survive?

CORNISH: Yeah - 'cause there's a lot of people right now who are going to hear this and think, I tried to have a similar conversation or I had a moment like that, and it just felt like it was opening up something that I could not put back.

RANKINE: Well, that's the thing. It did open something that could not be put back but something that can be helped. And I appreciate this friend because, you know, we have had similar disagreements or conversations, and I think she allows me to see a kind of complexity that opens up my thinking in some ways. And here's an example. Amy Cooper, the woman who was asked by Christian Cooper to put her dog on the leash, and then sent...

CORNISH: Yes, this is the story - the New York birding story, people would call it.

RANKINE: Yeah, the birding story - and then claimed that she was afraid after, you know, a performance of - that deserved an Oscar when she called the police saying that she was being threatened. And you know, my friend and I both agreed that it was ridiculous. But then she lost her job. And suddenly this friend called me and she said another friend - she didn't say she did - but she said another friend thought maybe that was too much.

And I said, too much - in what sense?

Oh, you know, she had an altercation with a guy in the park. She shouldn't have called the police, but she called the police. But now she should lose her job? And I said, she called the police, you know, within the same 24 hours that Floyd is killed by the police. So we can all see how this story could end. I mean, Amy Cooper should lose her job because if she thinks about Black people in this way, then how is it that she can go back to corporate America and behave in an equitable fashion? How is that possible? How can she represent her company in a way that says, when I come to her I will get fair and equal treatment? That's the problem. And that's where, you know, many white people won't go.

Did you see that article recently that talked about the fact that newborns are three times more likely to die if they have a white physician?

CORNISH: No, I did not.

RANKINE: You didn't see that?

CORNISH: At a certain point, my husband asked me to stop reading...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Terrible stories during my COVID pregnancy because I was going to my doctor and talking about, you know, Black maternal health statistics. And it was...

RANKINE: Yeah.

CORNISH: It was a - it cast a pall over my pregnancy in a way (laughter).

RANKINE: Mmm hmm.

CORNISH: It was this thing in the back of my mind that, like - oh, my child is more likely to die under a certain set of circumstances known as life.

RANKINE: Exactly.

You know, when people are talking about cancel culture, I think, sure, it's going to be abused in some ways - in the same way that #MeToo, sometimes it's not justified. But the real question is, how did we get to a point in society where #MeToo even had to form? Like, the people who are so concerned with cancel culture - why weren't they concerned with the abuses being used against women, used against Native Americans, used against Black people, used against immigrants, used against undocumented? Why isn't that the thing that is bothering them?

CORNISH: I think - there's something you talk about towards the end of the book - the too-muchness of our present reality. I feel like as I'm following the stories about this issue in the country, we are witnessing the beginning of the backlash to what we've experienced this spring and summer - of people talking about protests in cities as part of, from the Republican point of view especially, law and order - issues of law and order. So how does one go forward, right? Like, how do you, as you say, hold onto something as the tide is turning?

RANKINE: Well, I think you have to know that, when the protests happened, that the tide would turn. Of course it's going to turn. The status quo is always what people are asking for. You know, the DA office - how do you think the Central Park jogger case ended up with five kids in jail when none of them were at the site of the rape and beating? Because of the status quo, because somebody like Linda Fairstein was able to convince policemen, jury box and judge and jury and press that innocent people were guilty because they were Black and Hispanic.

So this move towards controlling protests or backlash, that's the natural state of things in this country. And that is what has led us to where we are. And as long as we're afraid to push against it and afraid of the idea of backlash, we're never going to address what's there.

CORNISH: A friend who reads your book comments to you that there's no strategy here. It seems like you were probably heading off this line of questioning, as well...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...By interviewers like me. Why is there no strategy here?

RANKINE: I'm not interested in telling people what to do. I'm not offering a prescription. "Just Us" is a book that says, look at this - let's see what it means to be in conversation; let's see what it means to try and apprehend the same reality. You know, when you see a man put his knee on another man's neck until he dies and has to call out for his mother, what is behind that? What allows us both to be able to hold that as part of America?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Thanks again to poet Claudia Rankine. Her new book, "Just Us: An American Conversation," is out now.

This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Andrea Gutierrez. It was edited by Jordana Hochman. We had engineering help from Vincent Acovino. Special thanks to Justine Kenin and Art Silverman from All Things Considered. All right, listeners - Sam Sanders is back on Friday.

I'm Audie Cornish. Stay safe, and take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And I know you said you came here as a small one, as I did, but I can guarantee you my mother will claim you when this interview airs.

RANKINE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Like, for real - she claims everyone. Like, just - she's like, oh, you know they're Jamaican. I'm like, yeah, Mom. I got it. I got it.

RANKINE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Like, I know this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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