Claudia Rankine implores us to not look away
It’s Tuesday afternoon. Already, it’s the kind of day when everything feels like it’s moving perplexingly slowly. Travelling through Braamfontein’s gridlocked traffic feels like driving through dark syrup, like all the wheels moving up Jorissen Street are heaving themselves stickily through the tar.
I’m on my way to the Joburg Theatre to attend a masterclass workshop with the Jamaican-American poet, scholar and playwright Claudia Rankine. My own mercilessly dog-eared copy of her book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, is sitting on my passenger seat while I drum my fingers impatiently on my steering wheel, keeping time to D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah album.
The soundtrack feels uncannily appropriate.
When I finally sneak into the Joburg Theatre amphitheatre space, Rankine is already speaking. Dressed in the elegantly understated attire of an academic, her olive-green scarf is tucked around her neck beneath a gently greying Afro. She speaks unassisted by a microphone to an already enraptured audience. Her voice is measured, smooth and deliberate.
I peek over at the notebook of a girl in school uniform seated next to me to try to catch up on what I’ve missed. Next to a doodle of a whale swimming through a margin of stars, my seatmate has written in large bubble letters: “Ms Claudia Rankine says that slavery isn’t over.”
Something heavy and uncomfortable lodges itself behind my throat as I open up my own notebook and settle in for the talk.
Like many others, I first encountered Rankine’s work when a video of Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a young black woman who was spotted and criticised on camera for reading Rankine’s Citizen at a Donald Trump rally, went viral in 2015.
The video emerged when a Trump presidency still felt like an unlikely, distant and nightmarish idea. This was in the context of troubling footage that showed black people being beaten up at rallies, events that featured festering displays of intolerance.
In a display of civil disobedience, the viral video shows Idusuyi being tapped on the shoulder by an agitated older white man who seems upset by her refusal to listen to Trump’s dangerous and fiery racist rhetoric.
She ignores him, adamantly choosing to read Citizen, a brilliant meditation on racial injustice in contemporary America.
The book, which intersperses snippets about everyday racial injustices with acerbic and unyielding prose about police brutality, unflinchingly examines the violent deaths of black men such as James Craig Anderson, Mark Duggan, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
These deaths sparked the outrage and mobilisation that led to the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, founded by three queer black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
With its timely publication in 2014, Citizen arrived on the international poetry stage and was immediately greeted with thunderous praise.
In a climate thick with the incandescent discomfort and telling global silence about racial inequality, I found it remarkable that a book about race would receive so much praise. Especially in light of global political currents that seemed to signal the return of racist iterations of nationalism: Britain’s “Brexit” from the European Union, Europe’s border closures to racialised refugees, and polarising debates about police brutality and xenophobia in South Africa as a few examples.
When I finally bought and held a copy of Rankine’s book in my hands, one thing was for sure: Citizen was a much heavier book than it looked.
Back at the masterclass workshop, Rankine opens up the discussion with a short film that she produced together with her husband, the documentary photographer and filmmaker John Lucas.
The film, which appears in the Situations series the pair has produced, features graphic found footage of violent encounters between the police and black men, woven together by Rankine’s voice reading her own poetry.
The sounds of gunshots, cries and distressed 911 calls mingle with haunting piano music and Rankine’s monotonous vocal delivery.
Grainy CCTV footage appears repeatedly throughout the film, often featuring the now ominously dark and iconic image of a black person with their hands up.
“What’s ironic to me about that piece is that having your hands up actually means absolutely nothing. The gesture of having your hands up is a gesture that, in fact, means nothing and signifies nothing. If anything, it is another invitation to death,” Rankine says, answering a question from the audience.
During the lively question-and-answer session, another person asks about the purpose and the effect of the films, which expose a kind of violence that many find too disturbing to witness.
“My audience members do not want to see them. They often say: ‘We are tired of seeing black people killed. We are tired of being triggered by black death. We do not want to see this.’
“But I feel that one of the things that Americans have been able to do is to lock those images out. And that has led to a kind of passivity in the face of sustained and institutional violence. And if we can put it away, then we can put anything away,” says Rankine.
“So I’m kind of in two minds — I don’t want to upset people; I don’t want to trigger black people. But when I’m looking at those films, we are not collecting footage that is just purely about black people. In every single one of those films, there is a white person doing the killing. And that’s where my gaze is. That’s what I’m looking at. We have to start looking at that.”
I ask Rankine about her role as an archivist, and the connection between the visuals she creates and her writing. She replies: “I make films as records to say, ‘This is what’s happening.’
“How it informs and inspires my writing is that I’m in constant conversation with a reality that is not necessarily in front of me every day. And that’s no different for me than with history. And this is the history of the moment.”