Poet Claudia Rankine on studying whiteness, and the age of protest

Neil Munshi:

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She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but moved to New York aged seven and grew up in the Bronx, where her mother worked as a nurse’s aide and her father was a hospital orderly. After receiving her masters in fine arts from Columbia University she taught for seven years at its sister school, Barnard College, so the city has always been home, even as her career took her from Cleveland to Atlanta to a nine-year stint at Pomona College in California.

Her writing style crystallised with “Lonely”. She says she wanted to be able to report facts — about Amadou Diallo being shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999 while brandishing his wallet, for instance — but also wax lyrical, and the prose poem allowed her to do that.

The visuals were introduced because she wanted to write about the 1998 death of James Byrd Jr, a black man who three white men dragged behind a truck in Texas until his extremities separated from his body. It was, she says, an act of erasure, and “I thought, I’m not going to write a piece where James Byrd is referenced but not seen”. So she contacted his family and gained access to a picture of him and those from the crime scene. From there, the images have become more abstract. “The image should allow the reader to go someplace else; do something else.”