"Her answers, like her book, never shy away from the harsh truth. But one senses that she believes, that she actually imagines a better reality." — The Believer
Claudia Rankine is an observer: of people and society, of words and language, of everyday voices and the voice of history, of the person at the store and the crowds on TV, of the body's gestures and the body politic. "I'm always looking," she told Radio Open Source.
Rankine was born in Jamaica, but she moved with her family when she was seven to the Bronx, where she attended Catholic primary schools. Her father worked as a hospital orderly; her mother a nurse's aide. They were avid readers. Rankine remembers her mother reading her Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" shortly after they moved to the U.S. It was in her youth that she also learned to see American culture both from within and as an outsider. "My mother would say things like 'American blacks' or 'American whites,' identifying herself as a Jamaican as she was trying to make sense of a new culture.... I was always negotiating two cultures as a child" (The Spectacle).
In college, Rankine studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück and was especially influenced by the work of James Baldwin and the poetry of Adrienne Rich. "My initial understanding of feminism and racism came from these two writers," Rankine writes in her introduction to Rich's Collected Poems 1950-2012. After college, she decided against law school to pursue creative writing. "Becoming a poet seemed like a risky career choice, but it felt like a calling—I didn't argue" (Forward Arts Foundation).
Her career as an accomplished, award-winning poet includes the publication of five volumes of poetry, two plays, and various essays and pieces for prominent magazines. She is the editor of several poetry anthologies and serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Following the 2004 release of her celebrated book Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine was commissioned by the Foundry Theatre in New York to write about the South Bronx. The result, The Provenance of Beauty, A South Bronx Travelogue, ran in 2009 and took audiences on a bus tour with a live narrator and pre-recorded poetic commentary on the passing landscape.
In 2016, following ten years of teaching at Pomona College in Claremont, California, she was named the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. "I think poetry has no investment in anything besides openness," she told Guernica. "It's not arguing a point. It's creating an environment."
The environment Rankine creates in her more recent books, like her play in the South Bronx, is one without conventional artistic boundaries: she combines poetry and prose with visual artwork and, in the case of Citizen: An American Lyric, accompanying films called "situation videos," curated in collaboration with her husband, the artist and filmmaker John Lucas. "I'm not interested in illustrating the text," she says, "but I am interested in creating conversations between the text and the images" (The Spectacle).
Since the publication of Citizen, a powerful and direct engagement with race and violence in present-day American culture, Rankine has done hundreds of readings, keynotes, interviews, and lectures about her book and the subject of racism, particularly in the ubiquitous, everyday exchanges between individuals and in the media. "Sports is one of the places where race plays itself out publicly," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Although we pretend it doesn't." Asked how she became interested in the tennis player Serena Williams, who appears in Citizen, Rankine told Vulture, "I was really interested in Tiger Woods when he arrived on the scene. My husband was a big golf fan, and he would watch and I would be in the other room listening to the commentators. The ways in which [Woods] was always being accused of breaking the rules made me begin to watch when it was on, and that somehow led me to watching Serena and Venus. Then I started playing tennis myself."
"Rankine is part of the long and exalted tradition of the artist who makes something meaningful from the raw stuff of adversity. She has made art from oppression" (The Hairsplitter). "I love language," Rankine says, "because when it succeeds, for me, it doesn't just tell me something. It enacts something. It creates something. And it goes both ways. Sometimes it's violent. Sometimes it hurts you. And sometimes it saves you" (Guernica).