On Being with Krista Tippett

Claudia Rankine

How Can I Say This So We Can Stay in This Car Together?

Last Updated

January 10, 2019

Original Air Date

January 10, 2019

The poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine says every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. But she says all of us — and especially white people — need to find a way to talk about it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Her bestselling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, catalogued the painful daily experiences of lived racism for people of color. Claudia models how it’s possible to bring that reality into the open — not to fight, but to draw closer. And she shows how we can do this with everyone, from our intimate friends to strangers on airplanes.

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Claudia Rankine is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute. She is the author of five collections of poetry including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Her plays include The Provenance of Beauty and The White Card.


Krista Tippett, host: Claudia Rankine says that every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. She’s revelatory for me, as a white American, about pain points that are woven into the fabric of the American everyday. She models how it’s possible to bring this out into the open, not in order to fight but in order to draw closer. She shows how we can all do this hour by hour, encounter by encounter, in ordinary times and spaces.

Claudia Rankine: I spend a lot of time thinking about, how can I say this so that we can stay in this car together, and yet explore the things that I want to explore with you?

Ms. Tippett: I just think that line —

Ms. Rankine: How can I say this so we can stay in this car together?

Ms. Tippett: That should be a national motto for us.


[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric was a New York Times bestseller and won many awards. She teaches at Yale and is also the founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute. She’s published several collections of poetry and also plays. She joined me at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City. We were there as part of the 2018 Werk It Women’s Podcast Festival.

Ms. Tippett: Hello, New York City. Just before I start, I want to — well, first I just want to say how fabulous it is to be here. I’ve wanted to interview Claudia forever, and I’ve just been waiting for the right moment, and this was it. Here we all are, together for it. And I want to thank Melissa LaCasse and WNYC and, especially, the great people at WNYC Studios.

So you were born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. when you were seven?

Ms. Rankine: That’s correct.

Ms. Tippett: Somewhere, when you were describing that time of your birth, you put it in context this way: that 11 days after you were born on September 15, 1963, four black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. You were still in Jamaica, those first seven years of your life. I wonder, did you know that? Did you have that context, or was that sequence something that you learned later, when you were in the States?

Ms. Rankine: I didn’t know. I can’t even say if my parents knew. But what they did know is that that wasn’t a surprise, so that when we came to the United States, my mother said — she had two things, two things that she believed, in any case. One was that public school was awful. And two — and she did say this to me — you cannot trust white people. Those were her two — as a Jamaican woman coming to the United States in the 1960s when the American government opened up immigration because of a need for healthcare workers, so that’s brought a flood from the Caribbean.

Ms. Tippett: And previously, most immigrants had been white Europeans.

Ms. Rankine: Exactly. So whether or not she knew exactly that, she knew it, and she communicated it.

Ms. Tippett: Was there a religious background to your childhood?

Ms. Rankine: My mother is religious in any way you can be religious. [laughs] She goes to church. She reads the Bible. She quotes the Bible. She invokes the Bible.


So we grew up with a real sense of her going to church. I didn’t always go, because I didn’t want my hair straightened. And if I wouldn’t straighten my hair, she wasn’t going to take me. So, of course, what… [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that’s great.

Ms. Rankine: There was no straightening of the hair.

Ms. Tippett: So true. One of the main things I remember about going to church, growing up, was dressing up for Easter, which is really not what we’re supposed to be remembering.


Ms. Rankine: Well, it became a moment to be public in all your beauty, whatever your sense of that is.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You published Citizen — 2014, right? It’s funny, I thought it was more recent. And, to your point, 2014 feels like about 25 years ago.


It feels like a different world. Although, in my mind, one of the characteristics of the world of 2014 as opposed to now is that it was easier to pretend that we had made more progress than we have — for some of us.

Ms. Rankine: For some of us. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: No, so there were realities, and there were realities, and it was possible to not know or to not say that you could see that. But it seems to me that one thing you were doing in Citizen is — you said your mother would always speak of American blacks and American whites — she had this clarity that there were different realities and experiences — and that you were laying out, documenting, giving voice to the cumulative imprint of those distinct realities and experiences. And it was in ordinary time: in the subway, outside your therapist’s office, on an airplane, at lunch at a college you’re speaking at, in your child’s school, in a real estate showing — on and on and on. You write about this exhaustion of constantly — not just having the experience, but asking yourself, did he say that? Did I hear that? Did she mean that? Is this racism or not?

Ms. Rankine: I think, in the years coming up to the publication of Citizen, I was interested in this idea that we had entered a new time, and yet, I was seeing the ways that racism — we know about structural racism. We understand how it goes top-down, institutionally, structurally. But when you understand that it’s coming from your friends, your so-called friends, and it’s coming from your colleagues, and it’s so unmarked — so the writing of Citizen was really a project in how do you get language to mark the unmarked? Because clearly, I believe these people are my friends. I spend a lot of time with them. And in good faith, I’m working with my colleagues, or I’m trusting — every time you drive your car, you’re trusting everybody around you. And yet, I was still feeling assaulted and diminished and insulted and — you say that anger is how pain shows itself in public? — and angry. So I really wanted to see, how do you get language to show that?

The examples in Citizen aren’t — some of them are mine, but for the most part, they’re not mine, intentionally, because I didn’t want people to say, “You should get new friends.” [laughs] Or, “You should make better choices with who you hang out with.” So I called other friends who are, for the most part, African-American and said, “Can you tell me some ordinary thing that you were doing, and then somebody in your life said or did something to make you realize, in their eyes, you are no one?” And some, many of those, came — and they wouldn’t come right away. People would say, “I don’t know. I can’t really think of anything.” And then they would call back, and then the stories would pour out, to the point — I remember I asked a friend who’s a lawyer in Los Angeles. He’s this guy who is — he’s the definition of cool. He’s the one, if all the kids are in the house together, and his family’s there, and our family, and 100 families, and some fire starts, and the rest of us are like, oh, my God! He’s like, put it out. He’s that guy. [laughs] Put it out.

When he came over — I said, I’ll make you dinner, and you come over, and you can tell me everything that’s ever happened to you. And that’s what happened. He came over, and he turned into a different person. He cried at our dining room table. His wife, who’s white, had never heard any of these stories. And she completely changed after that dinner. So it was a sobering exercise, in terms of the gathering of those pieces in Citizen.

Ms. Tippett: I wonder — let’s see. This one — because I think we’re talking in the abstract, if people haven’t read the book. Here, just this one. Page seven, which is also the effect it has on you.

Ms. Rankine: “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be your fatal flaw — your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the ‘all black people look the same’ moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?”


Thank you. That last line, I have to say, was the hardest line to write in the book, because the original version of that piece was something like — I was trying too hard to come up with the language in my head. I was thinking, is it because she’s a servant? I would go on hikes and think, OK, come on. What is it? And then I realized, it really is about intimacy. When it comes down to it, the space between us gets violated in these moments, and you get othered.

Ms. Tippett: Right, where you don’t expect to be othered.

Ms. Rankine: Where you don’t expect to be othered.

[music: “1000 Arms” by Lymbyc Systym]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine.

Ms. Tippett: In our project, when we are talking about race, always being attentive to wanting to soften the space for people to hear. We won’t let language of white privilege or white supremacy — you can talk about it without using the words. And that’s, I think, important, because some of these words, like the word “racist,” trigger all these reactions in people and you know, shut their imaginations down and get them — and so they stop listening.

And the language of white supremacy now is so loaded in all kinds of other ways. Now we think of very real energies and people who are hatemongers, vigilantes. But I feel like what you also give voice to and put words around is — and I don’t know if this is the right language, but the soft underbelly of white supremacy that is really about all of us, our culture, that’s just in this fact that — you point this out — white Americans don’t identify as white Americans. They just identify as Americans. You mention Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil,” that notion.

I think we all — a lot of us who are educated know that, but I don’t think white Americans ever apply that image to how we live, because what you’re describing about going through your days is experiencing the banality of evil, and it is white supremacy as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Ms. Rankine: Bernie Sanders, who said, the fact that in Florida and Georgia, that white Americans couldn’t get themselves to vote — they’re not racist; they just couldn’t get themselves to vote for a black person.


Now, if that is not the definition of racism, I don’t know what is. And Bernie Sanders puts himself, was presented as the hope of America, right? And this person doesn’t understand what racism is? So I think we need to allow the conversation to happen, and I’m really interested in your conversations because of that, and trying to think about ways to start conversations.

But I also think that we need to grow up in terms of what the realities are, because as long as we allow the kind of euphemisms — I was at a dinner party, and somebody said, “My son has been redeployed. I’m really nervous. I think the military is important, but I’m just full of anxiety.” And a woman who is a former judge said, “Well, I know what you mean. My son just moved to Brooklyn.”


And I’m sitting next to her, and I’m like, “Brooklyn…” And she said, “Yeah, I really worry about him. I worry about whether or not he’s going to live.” And I’m like, oh, so Brooklyn is — and I said, “Have you been to Brooklyn lately?”


But that’s Brooklyn as equal to black people as equal to racism. That’s just it. And this woman, had Hillary won, would’ve been in the government now. We would’ve thought that’s better than what we have. And it would be better than what we have, but she’s still racist.

Ms. Tippett: You wrote a play, coming out, The White Card, as you were on the road with Citizen and out of the conversations that emerged from that. Now, you said, you’re writing about how to have these conversations. It seemed to me, maybe this was a spark. You describe being in this cathartic moment where you were speaking, reading, and a man stands up and says, “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” — trying to muster in himself the appropriate response to what you were showing, and you said, “I think the question you should be asking is what you can do for you.”

Ms. Rankine: Right.

Ms. Tippett: The play — I watched a video of it, which was important. You said that you wrote this because you then were having this experience, and you needed to act it out, to roleplay it, make it three-dimensional. Do you want to set the scene?

Ms. Rankine: It’s a play about the art world and very wealthy art collectors who are committed to social justice, are interested in acquiring a series of works by an African-American artist. The play begins at a dinner party where they are meeting her for the first time. And the dinner party goes off-track in ways that are both subtle and not subtle.

Ms. Tippett: The dinner party, there’s an aspect of — it feels like caricature, and I wanted to think, I wanted to feel like it was caricature, but it’s actually way too close to how too many conversations go, from her leaving the room and somebody saying, “I’m thinking she’d be good for the board. It will definitely solve the diversity issue.” But there are these moments where — Alex, the Columbia student, says, “I’m angry at my father for incarcerating your people.” He builds private prisons. And she says, “Why not just say ‘people’?” I had this experience just this week, two plays in two days, watching yours and then seeing an American Son, that play Kerry Washington is doing. Have you seen it?

Ms. Rankine: Not yet.

Ms. Tippett: I talked to her a little bit after the play because there’s something about that one and yours that — and it was a very mixed, racially mixed audience. There were a lot of things that people took as laugh lines, and I was — frankly, I wasn’t sure the whole time, and I think different people were laughing at different things. It was a black mother, a white father, a black policeman and a white policeman.

Ms. Rankine: I’ve read the…

Ms. Tippett: But one of the things I said to her is — because this black mother’s son did not come home, and there’s an accident report. I said, “How does that feel? Is that offensive to you, to have to — when people laugh?” And I feel like, in your play, also, people laugh because — and it’s uncomfortable. She said, as a producer, she said, “People can’t handle this intensity. You can’t just ask them to sit there for an hour and a half.” I feel that same creative work and tension in your work. But it just — I don’t know. I came out of it feeling like, realizing, this is a lot to ask of people, to watch this. But it’s not too much to ask of us.

Ms. Rankine: It’s not too much —

Ms. Tippett: It’s kind of like you said: We need to grow up.

Ms. Rankine: Yeah, one of the things I like about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility book is that she introduces very clear terms about certain things that I find very useful. One of them is “white stamina.”

Ms. Tippett: White what? Stamina? [laughs]

Ms. Rankine: Stamina, for racial content — that white people have to build up a stamina to be able to hold — racial stamina, to be able to talk —

Ms. Tippett: But I think that’s a useful, some words —

Ms. Rankine: Yeah, it’s a useful term, right? So I think the more one goes to see plays like these and read books like these and listen, it will not seem so foreign or hot or self-incriminating. If one understands, “Oh, this is the society we grew up in,” and if one is honest about what those secret thoughts are or what got said inside what was a private space with white people or what gets said when people of color come in — if you begin to just be honest about those things, then when you see it, it won’t be like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” — because the reviews for The White Card, it’s like, “Claudia Rankine is giving — she just turned those white people into horrible characters.” [laughs] Some of them — it was, “She didn’t give them any good lines.”


All kinds of things were said, like that. I just called up some artists and said, “What kinds of things get said to you?” And they told me — not that they needed to. [laughs] I have been living this life too. But yeah, I think the one thing I have learned in the last ten years, let’s say — well, I had breast cancer, and I think that really was a turning point. And you realize, oh, you could just die anytime. So you might as well just speak your piece before it’s rest in peace, you know?

[music: “Room One” New Century Classics]

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Claudia Rankine. You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every conversation I have on the On Being podcast feed. Now with special, occasional bite-sized extras wherever podcasts are found.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine. We’re at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City as part of the 2018 Werk It Women’s Podcast Festival from WNYC Studios.

Ms. Tippett: I interviewed Eula Biss on whiteness. This is one of the ways she wrote about what you’re writing about — in her language: “One of the privileges of being white is that you can coast through your experience. You can coast through your life without having to think about what your race means to other people and what your existence in a community means to the people around you.”

Actually, she quotes you, and I read your words to her from this incredible piece you wrote in The New York Times after the massacre in the church in Charleston, where you said: “I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. ‘The condition of black life is mourning,’ she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality. At any moment she might lose her reason for living. Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”

Eula Biss wrote that she read this essay of yours and then started to ask — she said, “Sitting with this essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be.” And I wondered, is that a useful question, in your mind?

Ms. Rankine: I think so. I’m really appreciative of Eula’s work. I’ve read it, and I know her. I find her very careful, sometimes, in — because I’m really interested in what is going on in white people’s heads when — because I know a lot of things are going on in my head. And I know that you are no different from me. I know that you’re having lots of thoughts and saying three sentences. So what are all those thoughts? And I think Eula is one of those people out there that I think will be able to say, if she’s willing to say, what is being circulated inside, in terms of one’s sense of the negotiation, because there is that sense of, everybody has to be so careful.

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation — there aren’t that many people like Eula, saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where — two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

Ms. Tippett: But she said that she really — she experienced in her students that they’re scared of saying things out loud, because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing.

Ms. Rankine: I have a friend who — she’s a white woman. She and I read books together. We read it, and then we talk about it. And they’re books on whiteness. It’s interesting, because we made a rule between us that we would say whatever we’re thinking. And it’s been great. It’s been really interesting because then we sort of navigate: What is that?

It might be that that kind of exercise needs to happen, first, with white people with white people so that they can do it. But that’s ironic, in a way, because that is reinstating segregationist principles in an effort to be anti-racist. But it might be necessary. I don’t know. She and I had that conversation, because she said, “Well, that’s a stark way to look at it.” And I was like, “That’s an ironic way to look at it.” But I think it just has to start happening.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. The Racial Imaginary Institute is a project you’re working on. I feel like you are, out of that, offering up some tools of language and imagination and action. It sounds like you’re writing about this now, too. So I’m just curious about how you’re thinking, these days, about how to open that space wider.

Ms. Rankine: Well, that really is my ambition: how to have a conversation so that the space can hold discomfort, so that the thing isn’t a thing that you have to put over there, so that we can get over ourselves, in a sense — and I mean all of us, people of color, white people — that we have, suddenly, a moment where we have an investment in a kind of possibility that is beyond our negotiation of each other. I think the messiness of just saying what it is, when it is.

If Bernie Sanders could say, OK, those people are racist, and that’s why it’s difficult for them to vote for a black person, hopefully the next time they can get a little closer to doing it. They did it, some of them, for Obama, and then reverted back. Just say it — especially, people who are in the media — so that people can see it modeled.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but I think people probably feel like — that probably feels so dangerous.

Ms. Rankine: It’s only dangerous because you don’t do it. [laughs] Things get ordinary very fast.


Ms. Tippett: One of the things you say, also, is that every conversation about race doesn’t have to be about racism. I think that’s an important piece of permission for people.

Ms. Rankine: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Some of what you’ve written about the Racial Imaginary Institute I’d like to draw you out on. You talk a lot about all the ways it’s possible to be white and to feel innocent and/or make excuses without meaning to make excuses or knowing you’re making excuses — that these are very well-flexed, very strong muscles. But you said, what a white person should know is this: “Her whiteness limits her imagination. A deep awareness of this knowledge could indeed expand the limits — not transcend them, but expand them, make more room for the imagination. A good thing.” You’re having a conversation among artists. But I also feel, to let the imagination into the room — that’s also a muscle we get to flex here.

Ms. Rankine: OK. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Well, just say something, because are you thinking about that now as you are thinking about how to start the conversations?

Ms. Rankine: No, I am. As much as I’m interested in what is possible, I’m also interested in what is possible for me, and so, as a writer, as an artist, as a person. Part of my desire to have a conversation is really to be able to find my own blind spots and to be able to open — to be curious, to go places with a person beyond our predestined positionings.

And it happens. I was on a plane, and there was this white guy, and he was nice, and he asked me, “What kind of music do you like?” I said, “I like ‘Night Shift’ by The Commodores.” And he’s like, “I love ‘Night Shift.’”

So — you know that song? How does it go? Somebody, sing. [sings] “On the night shift…what you doin’ now” — anyway, it’s a great song. We sang that song — on the plane, two strangers — we sang “Night Shift,” even though I can’t do it now. I had him to push me along, and so the words came back. And he’s the kind of person who, had I met him in my real life, we probably would be friends. And then he said to me, “I don’t see color.” And it was like, whoa. [laughs]

But the amazing thing that happened was, somehow, I said — I don’t even know how I did it, but I said to him, “Ah, that’s not such a good thing to say.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I’m a black woman, and you’re a white man. And I want you to see that. If you don’t see color, you’re not seeing me. And if you can’t see me, you can’t see racism. And I want you to be able to see those things.” And he said — and this is the moment that I loved. He said to me, “Did I say anything else?” And I said, “No, that was it.”


Then we got back on our conversation, just like that.

Ms. Tippett: I love that story so much because it also points out that — I think when we start talking about having the conversations, it kind of sounds like another extracurricular activity. And if these old, flawed impulses are woven into the everyday, then these new impulses have to be woven into the everyday. These conversations don’t have to be hourlong meetings, at the end of which we have made a pledge together. It can be two minutes on the plane that’s transformative.

Ms. Rankine: Exactly. We were able to continue talking and singing our songs. [laughs]

[music: “Nightshift” by The Commodores]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine.

Ms. Tippett: The language of intimacy came up earlier on — that it is precisely the intimacy that makes it such a painful affront. You mention that you have a friend who said to you, “I think what you’re doing is pushing people away, so they can get closer.” This is not about pushing people away. It’s about reestablishing, or establishing for the first time, an intimacy that is meaningful.

Ms. Rankine: Yeah, that is truthful. I feel, my friends — I don’t think it’s easy being my friend. [laughs] But I think the friends who are my friends, I trust with my life, because we have had to consider my life every day. If something is said that means that I drop out or that they drop out, then it has to be mended immediately, or else we’re working with a broken thing.

Ms. Tippett: One thing you mentioned a little while ago, that part of your aspiration with the new conversation is also to see your own blind spots. One thing that’s fun, especially at this point, about my job, is that I feel like there’s a cumulative conversation that happens between a lot of the people who I talk to. I get to proxy with each other. And another person I was thinking of when I was getting ready for this is a conversation I had with Arlie Hochschild, who is a Berkeley sociologist who spent five years in Louisiana and wrote in Tea Party country, looking at that phenomenon. The book came out in September, 2016, and it felt like it described the world we were —

Ms. Rankine: What was it called?

Ms. Tippett: It’s called Strangers in Their Own Land. It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of a very different white reality. But I said to her, I just wonder how you respond to the reality that there are all kinds of people living — people of color have been living in this country feeling like strangers in their own land for a long, long time. And when it’s white people, there’s an intensity of attention to it. She basically just said, well, you’re right; that’s right. It’s a valid point. I don’t know, but you’ve also said that one thing you’ve been grappling with is understanding, or thinking about, poor white people, that that has not so much been in your view.

Ms. Rankine: Oh, yeah, no, definitely. I was picked up — I had to give a graduation speech at a college, and it was two hours past the airport. It was one of those colleges up in the Berkshires. The woman who picked me up was this really interesting woman. She was a white woman, very working-class. I asked her if she voted for our current president, and she said yes. She was very defensive, very “yes; and so what?” And I said, “I’m just curious why. Was it healthcare? What was it?” She said she had Obamacare, but she didn’t really believe in healthcare. She didn’t believe in doctors because when her husband went to the doctor, they said he would live for a year, and he lived for two months. She started crying as she was driving the car.

We got to talking. And then she told me she lived in a double-wide. I had no idea what a double-wide was, but I didn’t want to ask her what a double-wide was because I didn’t want her to think I didn’t know what a double-wide was [laughs] — not because I care about not knowing, but I wanted to share whatever her situation was. And then I figured it out, that it was some kind of trailer park that was double wide.

And then she told me this heartbreaking story that she usually went to visit her sister in Washington, D.C. But this year, there was a crack in the double-wide. So she could work for — this is the end of the school year, so this is May. So she’s not going to go this summer so she could work through the summer, so the guy could fix the crack in the double-wide before the cold came. And I said to her, “Well, how much do you think it’s going to cost?” And she said, “About 300 dollars.” And then I spent part of the ride, thinking, “Should I just give her the 300 dollars?” I didn’t do that — but it was just a different reality.

And then I asked her, what did she do when she wasn’t driving? And she said, “Well, I do theater.” Apparently, there was a church in town, and they had asked for actors, so she comes, and she does theater. All of a sudden, this woman became this whole person — who still would probably vote against my best interests, my life possibilities, and all of that, but was a whole person, with a lot of pain, and was making a life the best she knew how. By the time we arrived, she’s like, “It was great talking with you,” and I was like, “Great talking to you.” But it was a lot — it was one of those moments where — I’m often being driven by people who are not me, and I spend a lot of time thinking about, how can I say this so that we can stay in this car together, and yet, explore the things that I want to explore with you?

Ms. Tippett: I just think that line — what did you say?

Ms. Rankine: How can I say this so we can stay in this car together?

Ms. Tippett: That should be a national motto for us.


Something I love — James’s Baldwin’s words, floating around the world is another example of this. A couple of lines of James Baldwin that you’ve brought to me that I just want to give back to you: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden behind the answers.” And also: “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Ms. Rankine: I have a new one.

Ms. Tippett: What?

Ms. Rankine: I have a new Baldwin quote. It’s in the new book: White people sought to civilize black people before they civilized themselves. Isn’t that good?

Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you to read, just as we finish — this went so quickly — one of the final pages of Citizen.

Ms. Rankine: “And, of course, you want the days to add up to something more than you came in out of the sun and drank the potable water of your developed world — // yes, and because words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes. You hack away. // That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping. // That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice. // To arrive like this every day for it to be like this to have so many memories and no other memory than these for as long as they can be remembered to remember this. // Though a share of all remembering, a measure of all memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce — // a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.”

Ms. Tippett: Claudia Rankine, thank you so much.

Ms. Rankine: Thank you. Thank you.


[music: “Memories of Sky” by Hyakkei]

Ms. Tippett: Claudia Rankine is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute. She is the author of five collections of poetry including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Her plays include Provenance of Beauty and The White Card.

Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.

Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Melissa LaCasse, Alicia Allen, Ed Haber, Emily Skillings, and all the great people at WNYC Studios and the Werk It Podcast Festival.

Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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