By Julia Munemo
When poet Claudia Rankine ’86 is working, she positions herself inside of a question and, she says, “I just look at it, but not in search of an answer. I am more interested in the dynamics that brought the question about.” The question in her most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, is the insidiousness of racism. She starts with the quotidian, using the pronoun “you” to draw the reader into scenes she describes as “micro-aggressions.” The white girl in sixth grade who says you have “features more like a white person.” The fellow alumna who tells you affirmative action is to blame for her son not getting into college.
“I was interested in the deep rootedness of racism in America,” Rankine says. “How it trips us up to the point where it’s impossible to trust each other, or the police, or jurors, or people sitting across from you in the board room or at a faculty meeting.” Citizen, which takes not just from Rankine’s experiences but from those of her friends and colleagues, builds up to moments no one could call “micro.” “It began with thinking about how these micro-aggressions allow us as Americans to hold the macro-aggressions—the kinds of omissions that happened during Katrina, for example, and the tolerance of the murder of unarmed black boys and men again and again.”
Rankine was born in Jamaica and moved to New York City when she was 7. She says she came to Williams in part because the lush landscape reminded her of her early childhood. Once here, Williams opened windows onto different ways of seeing the world. “Where better does that happen than in great literature?” she asks, reflecting on what she calls her second home in the English department. There, Rankine was introduced to Adrienne Rich and Mark Strand, and she says she “started to feel that language could build something.” When she enrolled in poetry courses with Louise Glück and Lawrence Raab, she says “the work began.”
“I love language, I love what a single word can hold, the way even a pronoun can pull forward history, can be both an embrace and an accusation,” she says. But language as vocation wasn’t immediate. She taught primary school in Grenada for a few years and later worked as a paralegal, thinking she’d go to law school. “But there was always a nagging feeling about writing,” she says, and so she enrolled in Columbia University’s MFA program. “It took time to commit to studying poetry. It was a leap of faith to engage in something that had no monetary return when you’re not coming from family money.”
As it turned out, her graduate thesis won an award that resulted in the publication of her first book and a two-year teaching position at Case Western Reserve University. “It was terrifying to start teaching suddenly,” she says now. “But then, that was it. I’ve been teaching ever since.” She taught at Barnard College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Universities of Georgia and Houston before settling in at Pomona College, where she’s been since 2006.
“I go into the classroom with the desire and the responsibility to bring forward canonical texts that have shaped my understanding of what forms a poem can take, and how these formal decisions hold meaning,” Rankine says. “But I also feel as a black woman writer that I’m able to investigate certain questions that somebody else might not.”
For example, of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, she says, “There is nothing in the criticism about the ways in which constructions of whiteness and privilege are part of his subjects, because whiteness is considered a universal positioning. When I teach Lowell, I talk about it, I ask my students, what do you think about this?”
Rankine’s next book, an edited collection titled The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, comes out this month. And she’s already inhabiting another question, one that may become a book. “Michael Brown’s body in the street brought back Antigone for me,” she says, explaining an interest in rewriting that text. Like so much of her work, this project would help Americans face themselves, to become, she says, “accountable to ourselves and to understanding what’s causing the impasse when one person is faced with another person of a different race.”
To learn more about Claudia Rankine, visit her website.