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The Crack Magazine


Claudia Rankine in Conversation with Degna Stone

Claudia Rankine is the author of the acclaimed trilogy on race and whiteness in the US – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Citizen and Just Us. Her play The White Card, written before the world turned upside down in 2020, has its European premiere at Northern Stage in April.

Degna Stone: One of the things that struck me about both Citizen and Just Us was the focus on conversation. That speaking with each other, that reciprocity and actually moving forwards. So the question I’m gonna ask is - what kind of conversation would you really want to be having in this particular time?

Claudia Rankine: With you? Well, I shouldn’t say this, but when I saw it was going to be you, I was very happy. For many reasons, one, because you’re a poet, and you have hair just like mine. But, you know, it meant that we would be starting from a similar positionality. And the world comes at us as a category, not as individuals. So I was thinking, oh, we’re gonna have a conversation that starts there, rather than other places.

DS: Precision around language is something I find interesting in the way that you work and in the way that poets work in general. Trying to process the world, trying to distil it to its core elements so that you can communicate that. One of the things I love about poetry is it is intensely about communicating with the reader or the listener.

CR: I wasn’t familiar with your work before, and I listened to some poems on your website and the one about the girl in the housing project, what do you call it over there?

DS: Council housing.

CR: And her movement through the space. What I loved about that was the way, and I think this is particular in some ways to poetry, the way the interiority of her position as somebody who is unseen and so who can move through spaces more or less freely, becomes the guiding, propelling direction of the poem, and so it stays inside her body, which I loved. Obviously her life is not my life but I was feeling all of the ways in which one, in that kind of aloneness, moves through the world. There is a sense of motion and mobility that comes with the devastation of being that alone. Saidiya Hartman calls it critical fabulation, that you end up building a world for people that wasn’t there in the history books and wasn’t there in the other places we are not portrayed.

DS: I’m blushing thinking about you reading my work and enjoying it. So that is amazing. But you talk about aloneness and in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely there is a centring around loneliness, grief and grieving. One phrase that struck me was “Why are we here, if not for each other?”. Do you feel that grief and grieving is the thing that pulls from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely through to Citizen then through to Just Us?

CR: I do. I mean, I think the major concern of the work from the very beginning, and continues to be in my present projects, is the question of the role of reciprocity in our lives. What does it mean to be here together, and inside a world that has put together hierarchical structures that devalues people just based on the colour of their skin? Is it possible to expect reciprocity? Is it possible to exist outside of the loneliness that comes with the structure? And the problem is the structure has deep and long ramifications on people’s health, their physical and mental health. And their view of their possibilities that you have of being held. I heard you talking about the, what is it called the National Health...

DS: The NHS? Yeah, or our NHS they’ve been branding it.

CR: Well one of the things that was markedly different about the Brits versus the Americans was the fact that there were the systems in place that helped people. And health care and a recognition of people as people. And so I have been asking that question all my life, why are we here, if not for each other? Because obviously, nothing else really matters. And if nothing else matters, if what you get doesn’t matter, what you do doesn’t matter, then it must be that what matters is our relationality. And if we agree on that, then why do we let some people fall? So it’s a simple question but I’m always stunned by the repetition of the violence and the injustice. Stunned not in this way of I don’t expect it, but in the way of how can we be so smart and learn nothing?

DS: So many people have had these conversations stretching back decades about structural inequalities across so many areas of life. So how is it still happening?

CR: And it’s happening because of a commitment to white supremacy. And that is the hard fact. I think the gift of the 21st century is the clear understanding of that. Which comes with a kind of sadness.

DS: Race and this notion of white supremacy have been accepted as something you can talk about. I mean, it is difficult but apart from the people who try to shut it down as ‘woke nonsense’, people aren’t shying away from thinking maybe it is more structural. Can we talk about The White Card?

CR: The White Card was actually written before a lot of the controversies around portraying black death. But the conversation had started. Do we want to portray black death? If you are replicating a thing to show it, what are your assumptions about who’s seeing it? Because if you include Black people and victims, people of colour, then what you’re handing them back is their own trauma. And you’re replicating that trauma. So I really wanted for Charlotte’s character to be grappling with that. We had been in a position of saying, “Look at this. Look at what it looks like”. But the look meant that you were also portraying the death of Black people over and over. I think that moment when Charlotte realizes that in the eyes of Virginia and Charles, the potential buyers and promoters of her work, that for them, that’s what they were seeing. But because they aren’t the subject of the violence, it’s easy for them to just purchase it and add it to the list of atrocities. And they see it as a bad thing, but it’s not a bad thing that they feel, it’s a bad thing that they know. They are able to reduce it to all of it being one soup of anti-black racism as a dinner party conversation. There’s a comment in the play (as if I didn’t write it myself) where Virginia says, don’t worry, we’ll buy your work too. As if there’s a competition between artists of getting in there first with the subjugation of blackness. Both of those were moments I wanted to put in to show that we’re all enmeshed in the workings of white supremacy, in the values of white supremacy. Even in the showing of the victimhood of blackness, there’s a way it has become commodified. And can be utilized. So, to switch, you know, there have been two approaches, some people say we should talk about black joy. And I personally think racism and white supremacy are the same thing. The only difference is you turn the gaze upon the person who’s committing the violence, rather than the person to whom the violence is committed. And so in act two when she starts photographing Charles, it’s her attempt to… I remember reading in Teju Cole, he says, there’s racism without racists and misogynists without men, so that the concepts and the ideas are out there without the people attached to them. And so she does a one-eighty. Even though she is the sole Black person on stage, it’s really watching her interior repositioning and re-evaluation.

DS: Something that’s interesting for me is that idea about who is in the audience? Who is it for? I’m really interested in that dynamic between creating work and who comes see it.

CR: The people who come are the people who’re there. I’m often asked that question, who are you writing for? And I don’t really think it’s a question that can be answered in terms of gender or race. And not everybody can. Some Black people are like, we’re not interested. Some Asian people are like this is very close to my reality. Some white people are like, you’re racist, I don’t want this. So it’s not like I’m writing for white people, or Black people, or Asian people, or anybody. I’m interested in the people who are interested in the conversation. That’s what I’m writing for. Who I’m writing about is a different question, but who I’m writing for I could never know that. Because it’s never the people you think. It could be people in Newcastle. It could be just because of the history, that’s where Frederick Douglass was bought and freed. So there’s a history in that landscape that speaks to an involvement with the concerns of the wider problem.

DS: Is that one of the reasons for wanting to bring the piece to Newcastle because of that history of activism, that engagement?

CR: Let’s put it this way, it’s one of the reasons maybe that I’ve been invited. And I believe that there is a commitment to history, that’s how it begins. That’s why I think people undervalue conversation, the importance of it. That it allows a thing to be in the home, to be discussed, a tradition to begin. And the 19th century conversation becomes a 20th century conversation becomes a 21st century conversation. So I don’t find it surprising that that lineage between Frederick Douglass being there and me being there exists.

DS: Recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. being awarded an honorary doctorate at Newcastle University so there is engagement on one level but there’s real work that needs to be done in terms of being fully engaged with all the diversity of people who live in this region.

CR: And that’s what, you know, the structure exists, the structure is there with its commitment to whiteness. So, yes, but that the university has made a commitment to bring in, and you can get cynical or not, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care. I feel like they’re doing it. And people have to say, who’s Martin Luther King? What did he do? Why is he important? If they’re eight years old and don’t know. So it’s not that there’s any place on this earth, I think, I could go and live without the spectre of colonialism and white supremacy. No country in Africa, not Australia, not China, not Japan. So there’s nowhere, but at least allow me to have a sense that the history is seen.

DS: I’m grappling with this shifting focus from blackness to whiteness. Trying to unpack and acknowledge that internalized white supremacy within myself in order to keep having the conversations to try and shift that forward.

CR: I mean, I don’t believe that you can shift it forward. I don’t think we have that power.

DS: So again, this goes back to that question of ‘what can you do for you’?

CR: Exactly. That’s not my job. I don’t feel like the work is to change anybody’s mind. It’s to have a conversation with people who want to have a conversation. If you don’t want to have it, I’m out. Don’t buy the book, don’t come to the play. That is not my concern. Not after 250 years of sameness. It’s not good for our health. And I’m interested in my health and your health and our health collectively. I am interested in having the freedom to portray the reality that I’m living, and to see what I’m seeing. What you do with that is your business.

DS: I love that. I saw An Evening with An Immigrant by Inua Ellams a few years ago and during the post-show discussion there was a question about wider impact. Ellams said it’s the people who are in this space, engaging and getting a glimpse of understanding, it’s about them then going out into the world and having conversations. It’s that idea of not having to think about who’s not coming or who doesn’t want to engage, you don’t have to engage with them.

CR: Yeah, that would be a very different exercise. You know when people are like, we agree not to talk politics, we agree not to talk religion? Because the conversation was already had, and there will be no movement. So why bang your head against the wall? But you never know, those same people can be moved by things that you don’t expect in the same way that we shift surprisingly. When we encounter something that we think we understand, and then suddenly we encounter it in a different way. I mean, sometimes it’s tragic. It’s through accidental death or illness. So I’m not saying that change is not possible for people, but I just don’t take that on as an artist. I feel like the artist’s role is not that.

DS: I like a phrase you’ve used in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness”. Truthfulness and honesty with the language that we use is interesting to me.

CR: I won’t speak for you, but I think as writers the power of language must have struck us at some point. I’m fascinated by the way people communicate, the way I communicate. What is the silence? What is underneath the silences that is also talking? What is built by word choice between us? Often I find in conversations that I’m in, either I’m getting irritated, or I’m getting comfortable and that has to do with word choice. It has to do with tone with all of the elements that build a piece. And it’s all we have, really, in terms of communication. We also have touch and unspoken, but the unspoken can be captured inside the spoken. And that’s why theatre is fascinating to me, because on the page you just have the language. But in the theatre, you get to work with touch and the space between bodies and gesture. It extends the world that language builds, with all the mechanisms of the body that brings the language. The move to theatre is not better than poetry, but it gives me a different toolbox to work with.

DS: That’s the thing with theatre, it’s inherently collaborative.

CR: I’m in production right now for Help [at The Shed in New York] and it’s amazing being in the room with the director and the choreographer, composer and the actors. The script is constantly shifting to accommodate the needs of one or the other of these people. I can feel my own body having to shift, that sense of feeling like saying no, is not an option. I mean, it is an option but I don’t want that option.

DS: One thing always spoken about your work is the phrase genre-defying. There is an interplay between text and images with references to pop cultural phenomenon, which seems integral.

CR: One of the nice things about the development of my craft, and my practice, has been my ability to bring everything that matters to me into the work. And it felt like a leap. My original publisher dropped Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. They said if you want to write a book of poems, we’ll publish that but we’re not publishing this. So I think that sense of having a commitment to this is what I want to do. And there will be consequences but that’s okay. Because, in the end, it will be what I mean. That was the leap of faith that I had to take, given that the initial response was like ‘what?’. But once I did, it was great because I could bring all of my obsessions to the making of the thing. So I have a sense of freedom at the outstart of the making but once I start working, the piece creates its own limits. But initially, I feel like whatever I have access to can, within reason, end up in the making. And it just means that it might not get good reviews, it might not find a home but that’s okay.

DS: Taking that leap of faith seems to have worked. If you have that belief in the idea behind it, that’s the important thing and people will be drawn to it.

CR: Maybe! That’s why I can’t answer that question, who do you write for? Because if you start doing that, then you have to prescribe certain things beforehand. Whereas if you just are making what you need to make, and not worrying about finding the audience beforehand. I feel like I’m just making what I’m making, saying what I need to say. I’m trying to be accurate to what I’m seeing.

DS: It’s that sharing of knowledge and empathy.

CR: And there’s a great joy in getting the work to communicate the thing that you are trying to communicate. So a lot of time is spent, not thinking about who’s getting it, but how to do it. I’m almost 60, I wouldn’t have spent the last 40 years doing this if it didn’t give me joy to make.

DS: One of the things about theatre is that there’s something like a magic that happens there. It ties in with playfulness, fun and actually being in a space seeing something play out in front of you.

CR: There’s a lighting guy, the sound guy, the composer but you don’t really think about it when you’re watching the production. Just the light is doing a certain thing, but you don’t even know it’s doing it half the time, you’re just experiencing it. It’s an incredible gift to work in a genre where you have all this genius coming at you from different planes in order to create an environment for the articulation something. And then the audience gets to benefit from the feeling of an organic space, even though it’s a made space. And they don’t have to question why they’re feeling. Did the light do it? They just enter. It was amazing talking with Natalie [Ibu], the director of The White Card, because as she talked about choices she was making in the building of the set and the choice of x or y thing, I was so happy. I could see that she was building an environment that was safe for Charlotte. That, as one Black woman to another, she wasn’t just building a set, she was building an environment for Charlotte. I know they’re characters, but I just felt like they were in good hands. And so I hope for people who come to see the show that they feel like care has been taken. If they’re allowed to enter into the bodies of the characters, if they feel it, then they feel also held.

DS: Which I think they they’re gonna need because it is really challenging. You can’t go into that auditorium without having to do some deep reckoning with yourself.

CR: You know, it’s about the inconvenience of other people, on a political, racial, historical level.

DS: I’m grappling with those differences between the US and the UK in terms of how honest we can be about race. We have this idea that Britain is a tolerant country but I remember a conversation I had with a friend who said I don’t want to just be ‘tolerated’.

CR: That’s one of the reasons why the idea of structural inequities is a place to begin. What I’ve always heard is we don’t have racism here. We have intermarriage, we have a tolerance. I’m like but who’s in the House of Commons? Who do you see representing the country? Who do you see in places of power? Because go there and it looks like one thing and one thing only. That hierarchical structure is insidiously being read by everyone. And there is not just a class understanding, but a race understanding. I think the Brits are finally reckoning with their racism. Even five, six years ago, I would be interviewed, and somebody said to me, my wife is Black, and she says there’s no racism. I don’t think she would utter that sentence today. Like, why are you saying these things? So we’re also in cahoots with not wanting to disturb whatever comfort we feel we have.

DS: Holding discomfort in order to be able to move through it, otherwise you’re always gonna be on the wrong side of it. I know that you’re super busy. I think you’ve got to head into rehearsal but is there anything else you’d like to add?

CR: Well, you know, I just am grateful to Natalie for bringing the play to Britain. It’s an incredible schedule that she’s put together and I know how hard everybody’s been working on the production. I’m really looking forward to coming. And I do think it’s not an accident that it starts in your town.

The White Card, Friday 29 April - Saturday 14 May, Northern Stage, from £10.