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Claudia Rankine on race, reading, and conversation

Claudia Rankine will discuss "Just Us: An American Conversation" during a virtual talk presented by Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Claudia Rankine will discuss "Just Us: An American Conversation" during a virtual talk presented by Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m. Tuesday.John Lucas

Given the mass demonstrations over police violence against Black people plus a president bent on widening the country’s deep racial divide, Claudia Rankine’s new book, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” could not be timelier. But Rankine writes about what white Americans should have been doing for decades: talking about race. Using a mix of poetry, anecdotes, tweets, documents, and images, Rankine shows us how to start the conversation. With works such as “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Rankine has won multiple awards for her prose and poetry, including a MacArthur “genius” grant. She teaches poetry at Yale University. Rankine will discuss her book during a virtual talk presented by Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m. Tuesday.


BOOKS: What have you been reading?

RANKINE: A book by W.J.T. Mitchell called “What Do Pictures Want?” because I’m interested in how you portray violence without repeating the trauma of violence. We have so many videos coming out of the police shooting Black people. I’ve read Mitchell’s “Picture Theory” earlier and turned to this book to think about the way images function in our imagination and as political tools. I often go to books to help me work through some questions.

BOOKS: Have you found you can answer your questions with fiction and poetry?

RANKINE: There are poets like Jericho Brown, who wrote “The Tradition,” and Fred Moten, who moves between the lyrical and the critical, that offer me help. Saidiya Hartman, who wrote “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” is an incredible theorist and a beautiful writer.

BOOKS: Have recent events inspired other reading?

RANKINE: I was fascinated by the video of the woman who called the police on the Black bird-watcher in Central Park, by how white women can weaponize white fragility in service of Black death. So I went back to Ruth Frankenberg’s “White Women, Race Matters.” I’ve also recently read “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, “Reproductive Injustice” by Dana-Ain Davis and “Counternarratives” by John Keene. I recommend those books and Susan Briante’s “Defacing the Monument,” which uses documents, newspaper articles, quotes, and typographical images in a very exciting way. I’m always interested in hybrid works.


BOOKS: Which books about whiteness do you recommend most often?

RANKINE:White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. I love that book because it offers a vocabulary for naming these dynamics that we recognize. Judith Butler’s work isn’t specifically about whiteness, but it’s about precarity and citizenship, especially her last one, “The Force of Non-Violence.”

BOOKS: Did you grow up in a house of books?

RANKINE: We had lots of books, and I was a big library attendee. I used to go there and take out all the books by an author. That’s why at a young age I had read everything by Beverly Cleary.

BOOKS: Do you still read everything an author wrote, one after the other?

RANKINE: Once I’m interested in someone’s work, I’m really interested. Like the artist Glenn Ligon. I first saw his neon work. Then I read every review and article about his work, and any book he put out.

BOOKS: What are your other reading habits?

RANKINE: If I’m really interested in a book I usually get two copies. I have one I mark and the one I keep clean. Those are in my living room. There are clean copies of Hilton Als’s “White Girls,” Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings,” and Gary Younge’s “Another Day In the Death of America.” These books have partners in my office that are written in and dog-eared. Somebody whose work I’m inking a lot now is Teju Cole; his “Blind Spot,” which combines short prose pieces with images.


BOOKS: Has the pandemic influenced any of your reading habits?

RANKINE: It has allowed me to do what I’m usually fighting to do. When I was younger what I loved was being shut in because I couldn’t afford the theater, but I could afford to make a cup of tea, sit in a chair, and read a book. Then I would take it everywhere. It became what I read at lunch, what kept me up at night. As I’ve gotten older it’s been harder to find the time to sink into those kinds of reads. Now that I’ve stopped traveling and people can’t come over, I have found myself reading, not for work or to answer questions, but just because someone said, “It’s a treat; you should read it.”

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane.” She can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.