Claudia: There are times in life when you need to be able to live in the vision where you are making a leap of faith into something unknowable. It's that, it's that thing of, you know, I'm gonna do this thing and I might not know how it's gonna fall out, but I know it's better than what's here.
Helga: Claudia Rankine is one of the most celebrated writers of our time.
She's been a Professor of Poetry at Yale University and a recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. She's also a fierce psychoanalyst of tennis players. I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of conversations with extraordinary people.
In my conversation with Claudia Rankine, we talk about who holds the power in our democracy and what it means to earn a mother's understanding of your work. She also reveals her superpower and the advice she would offer to everyone who looks to find fresh inspiration. I hope you enjoy.
Very often when I come to talk to people, something happens, so I get on the train. We get to hundred 16th Street, the train is still crowded. People are going places, even though I think it's a little bit later in the day. And these two people start fighting, and by fighting, I mean screaming at one another.
And then I started thinking that there's a kind of energy right now that actually needs to be moved through the body, and that can be true of all actions, whether it's joy, whether it's fear, whether it's anger that it, it wants, it wants out. Through the hands, through the mouth, through the eyes, through the pelvis, through the feet, through the legs, it wants out.
And then I started wondering what are all the things that people are tired of? And then I had to get out my pad so that I could write them down. Cause I knew that I wasn't gonna remember. So, masks. Wear them or don't wear them. No, I'm not wearing them anymore. Inflation. Vaccines. The recession. The words BIPOC and EDI, the subway fairs are getting ready to go up or there's talk of it because the MTA says that it won't recover from the budget deficits. And here's where I started to laugh. I was sitting right in front of the sign that said, let us do the math.
Claudia: I would've laughed too yeah.
Helga: And you know, in part, it's an opportunity to feel that you could be tired of all of these other things on the list, but that somewhere, someone is going to give you something, they're gonna take care of you, they're going to ease whatever discomfort, whatever financial challenge. And for the most part it's just not true.
You know, I, I feel like just across the board, even maybe globally, we're in a, ain't nobody got time for this kind of way. But that came, her voice just came into my head as you were telling the story about the frustrated. The frustrated.
Helga: Do you feel frustrated?
Claudia: I do, I I frustrated in a mathematical kind of way actually. I think that right now it's hard to know what all of this adds up to. And, um, we're in a moment where government doesn't seem to equal government. Climate change is behaving in the manner in which it was described it would behave, and yet we have no idea what or if there is a solution. You know, maybe the, the, the heat of the planet is the solution, and we are thinking there's some other solution. You know, maybe we're just on that road and, and the road is itself, the solution to everything that we put into the atmosphere over centuries, you know? So I, it's hard to know if, if it's even frustration.
I think a lot about where the power and powerlessness comes from right now. Because you are not supposed to approach people. You're not supposed to trust the health of anybody. You're not supposed to touch anything.
Helga: Talk about anything?
Claudia: Talk about anything. Slavery was involuntary relocation, apparently. You know, all kinds of—
Helga: Glad that's sorted out now.
Claudia: I'm glad the math was done on that one because, you know, I was a little confused. So it's, it's a moment that is illogical in some ways and predetermined in other ways.
Helga: There's a spiritual leader I love whose name is August Gold, and she always says, if you wanna know what you want, look at what you have.
Claudia: Yeah. Or…yeah. If you wanna know what you want, look at what you have. Or if you wanna know what you did, look at what you have. I feel like we're a little bit there too.
I mean, I get a little bit of satisfaction from what the committee investigating January 6th has turned up. Not that it's a surprise, we all know that it was premeditated, that the idea that the voting was fake or illegal or whatever was also fake and the whole claim was made up. It's not that, but there's something about, at least there, I feel like they're doing the math.
Even if no one is treated like we would be treated as two black women if we decided we wanted to do any of those things. Even walk up the steps, you know, let's just put that aside, let's not go there. But, there is, there is some satisfaction to that. Um, but I, yeah, it's, it's really, it's really hard know.
Helga: Are there things now that you feel you are learning anew? And I don't mean even about the pandemic, about, about any of that. What—you like how I said that? Not any of that.
Claudia: Any of that? Ain't nobody got time for this.
No. I, I know what you mean. I, you know, as I am about to turn 60 soonish. I really have been thinking a lot about agency and authority and where it comes from. I'm thinking a lot about the fact that the swing vote is in the hands of white suburban women, and what does that mean about what they think their agency is, what do they—how do they think about authority?
Did they go to the suburbs to give up on authority, and agency? Did they sign that over when they signed up for Suburban Housewife, you know, is the role of mother and wife in their minds? Erasure of their own voice, their own authority in the world? That seems like a silly question, but it's been on my mind partly because we are in their hands right now.
What they do come, midterms come 2024, will determine what is possible for the rest of us? I mean, black women can, we have been doing what, to me feels ethical and right for the general population as well as for ourselves. But we are not enough and these white women have allowed the patriarchy to take away even the rights to choice around their own bodies. So how can I look to them to save a democracy? You know? So I'm just, I'm wondering about that. I really am curious to find out from them not what they're gonna do, that's not my business. They can vote whoever they wanna vote for. But I'm really interested in how they think about authority. Like what does being a mom in Westchester or Connecticut or wherever they live. And you know, maybe we don't think New York is a problem, but you know, everywhere has the suburbs. Georgia has their suburbs. And those women who could change the course of this country. I mean, I went to college with them. I went to graduate school with them. Where are they? What are they doing? Did they? Did they sign some secret document I don't know about that says it's okay for this to be happening to all of us?
Helga: But do you think that the agreement that they made to go to that school and to that graduate school was already casting them in a way of deciding or not deciding what was good for them?
Claudia: I don't know. I mean, I think adjacency to power must be really seductive. I mean, we don't have that as part of our story, but they do. They are able to marry people who give them a life that maybe they dreamt about. And so that's all I can think, but I feel like, you know, maybe that's reductive.
Certainly we're not talking about all white women, I know that. But as we look at who holds the swing votes in these red states and blue states—everywhere in this country, that is the population. So what will allow them to swing in my direction? That's what I'm wondering. Because I wanna live, I want you to live. I want us to be able to do, you know, what we wanna do and have children when we wanna have them, and do the things that contribute to a livable life. So, you know, these guys who are doing what they're doing and not just, you know, not just, um, the Supreme Court. Everyone who's allowing what's happening to happen, when they sit down with their wives and their daughters, what are those conversations? I don't know. Like, I don't, I'm not gonna project, I'm not gonna pretend to know. I'm not even gonna judge. I'm just curious. Because you said, what am I learning? That's, that's, I'm learning that I don't know. I really don't know because I, I don't know how we can know what we know and still be here again. So that is my humble pie
Helga: And inside the pie, you've also said we're not enough, that black women are not enough.
Claudia: In terms of numbers, we aren't. We aren't enough. I was just reading, um, a conversation between Baldwin and Audre Lorde, which you know all about. And um, and there's a point where Baldwin says, we are powerless, but maybe our power is the fact that we are a nuisance to the power. That that role of being the constant irritant may be a kind of power. So we're not enough in numbers, but certainly we have been an irritant. I, you know, I went to, I was in, um, LA at, and I just happened in on the ICA art gallery. And um, there was a neon sign that said: Maxine. And that was it. And of course you knew it was Maxine Waters and this idea of reclaiming your time, you know, was fantastic, but it was just this beautiful blue neon sign, Maxine. And that's what I mean. Like, you go. That's all I have to say about that, you go.
During the run of Help at The Shed here in New York, you had a night that was called Blackout. Tell me what that was about for you.
Claudia: Well, you know, many of my projects, um, especially the plays, but some of the books people have complained that they feel it's for white people, which I never can understand. I'm like, I'm a black woman. How could what I write be for white people? Like how is that possible that that's the only person I'm intending to reach as a black woman? I've lived as a black woman all my life. So in the last play Help, which was a kind of an extension of the piece I wrote for New York Times. Alex Poots, the creative director, CEO of The Shed, approached me to adapt it into a play, thankfully, because I thought it was a damn good play.
Helga: As did I.
Claudia: And there was some thought among some people that it was a play meant for white people, partly because there was only one black actress.
And um, and then 11, in this iteration, white actors, um, two women, I think, nine men, some, some configuration like this. And so when we had the Blackout night, which is for a black audience, the question was, will the audience feel like this play speaks to them?
Helga: Whose question was that?
Claudia: A few people.
Helga: Okay. I was just wondering if it was your question.
Claudia: It wasn't my question ever because I am always thinking about black people because I'm always thinking about myself. So why people would think I wouldn't be thinking about myself and talking to myself, I don't know. Um, so we had an audience—I think it was, uh, you know, it looked all black to me. Um, black and brown I would say. And it was deeply satisfying to everyone in the cast and, um, in the production to see that people felt moved by what they were being asked to both observe and take in and that it was a useful 90 minutes for them, not just an entertaining 90 minutes for them. You know?
Helga: What does your mom think of your work?
Claudia: You know, my mom didn't get to see the play. She was gonna come and then my sister's grandchildren came. And so that was—it just, they came, unexpectedly on the day that she was gonna show up for the play. So I don't know. Um, not recently. She reads the books.
Helga: She does?
Claudia: She does. And she finds them interesting. And she will say, you know, we're very proud of you. But I don't know if it's—no, I believe her. She's very proud of me. I believe her. What I was gonna say is, you know, sometimes you don't know if it is, I am proud that the world thinks your work is good or I am proud of you. You know, it's hard to know—to parse that. And maybe it doesn't matter, you know?
Helga: I experience with my own mother who's also a Caribbean woman around the same age as your mom, a little older.
Her amazement that I work doing something that she doesn't understand or that she doesn't know about. She came, or I should say, I invited her to one thing that I did. When Robert Wilson and Bernice Johnson Reagon's The Temptation of St. Anthony was at BAM. I invited my mom. I invited my brother and I told my brother that I was happy that they were coming, but I didn't wanna be distracted by them. And he said, no, sis, I understand. I understand you're working. This is your work. And already for me, that was a step in a direction that we had not taken before, that it's work. There is a scene in which, because I worked it out, I get to the door, which I don't walk to, I slide to. So, there's already that.
I have to make sure I slide to the center of this entryway and I know that I have 17 steps and then I have to put my hand out to the right. I'm carrying, uh, some flowers or, and then I have to turn when I get to the mark and then put my hand out as they, as they would say, just so. And that there's a light there and the thing that I'm carrying should be in the center of the light.
Claudia: I got it.
Helga: But I've worked it out, so I'm not worried about it. I do my slide. I turn slowly in the doorway. I begin my 17 steps and I see my mother, my brother, my brother, my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister-in-law, my sister-in-law, my niece, my niece in the front row. aAnd I walk down, I do my thing, I turn, I get my flower bush in the light and my mom stands up and applauds
Claudia: All right, God bless her.
Helga: And so after the show, everyone asks me, was that your mom? And I say yes, and I don't know if it's because I was, whatever age I was when I was doing that, or because I worked so hard to get it right, but I feel all of a sudden that my entire effort is for naught, and that the show for me has become about my mom. And I remember speaking with her after—I didn't say anything but that then she began to name all the people she told how excellent I was and how good Helga was, and I did my best to receive that in light of the fact that I also felt that the moment wasn't about me. That it was about her.
Claudia: Well, you know, as a mom myself though, I, I kind of feel like maybe she was just pulled up from that chair, you know? Not even—
Helga: In a Pentecost kind of way?
Claudia: In a Pentecost kinda way that it was an amen moment. It was like my child wanted to do that and she did it. Because I, I was, I was up on my feet with her.
Helga: Except that you wouldn't have done it.
Claudia: I wouldn't have done it. But, but I'm, I, you know, I go to the theater all the time. Maybe she doesn't, maybe the protocol—she doesn't—I—my mom went with me. I remember I took her to Rutgers, actually, I had a reading there and she was in New York and I was in New York, and I said, why don't you come with me.
And it was a, um, a kind of watershed moment in terms of her understanding what it means to share your work publicly. Because ever since then, she has, been much more understanding, say, of my travel. You know, before she would say, why are you traveling so much? You shouldn't travel so much. But now she'll say, oh, you're giving one of your readings.
And I'm like, yeah, I'm giving one of my readings. And so that sense of, um, coming into the world and not just seeing what it looks like, but seeing that it mattered to her too. That the content of the work was something worth listening to and engaging. And so it moved out of the world of abstraction and into a world she understands, which is very pragmatic and um, you know, you do this thing and you get something from it.
Helga: Do you have that also? Do you have that too?
Claudia: A sense of pragmatism in the world? I think so. I think, um, that's why I'm wondering what the white women are gonna do because all those nice swing voters out there. Um, because I, you know, because I think actions are tied to actual consequences in terms of what you can and cannot do and, and what things look like.
And all of it. Um, what your child has access to, how safety works in the world. I mean, I do think we have, we, it's often a one-to-one relationship. I do have a very pragmatic approach to life, which sometimes I think doesn't help me because I think there are times in life when you need to be able to live in the vision of a possible where you don't know what the one to one is, where you are making a leap of faith into something unknowable.
And I, you know, I think if I'm learning anything from the generations that are younger than me, that I see very actively creating interventions in the world that we are in right now, it's that. It's that thing of, you know, I'm gonna do this thing and I might not know how it's gonna fall out, but I know it's better than what's here.
So it's been interesting to try and live beyond the practicalities. Trust beyond what you think you know, you know, and to hold actively the idea that what you know is only part of it and can only be part of it. Because you gotta hope it's only part of it because that part is not looking so good. So I, I really hope that, I hope that the large—and I do believe it actually, I do believe that what can be known by me, um, is only a small part of what can be known. And so I just hope that we have access to the other part soon. Very, very soon.
Helga: Can you say something about the importance of words, what we name things, how we call things?
Claudia: Well, as someone who deals in words, um, I, you know, I find them fascinating in the sense that the right order can give you so much more than the stated thing, you know, whatever the statement is, if the words are in the right order, if they, um, sit in the right paragraph, if they own their punctuation in the right way. They can do so much for you or not, or not and they, you know, language is one of those things, it, it can, um, enter or not. I was, um, reading something today about one of Adele's songs. And how? Oh, it was in—oh, John was reading, that's what it was. John was reading Nuar's book, Animal Joy, and she was writing about how psychoanalyst, um, are interested in Adele's songs because people have such profound reactions to them and whether it's the music or the actual words themselves. And I think, um, Saturday Night Live did a skit about people playing an Adele song when things got heated over Thanksgiving, you put on an Adele song and everybody calmed me down. And it was something about the song that hits everybody in one way or the another.
But I, you know, I think that's true for a great novel or a great poem that it, it lives in you because, and it's really all about the order in which those words appear and, um, so I know this is, um, hyperbolic, but I love language and you should say, you should marry it then. And I would say I did .
Helga: I don't have to say anything.
Claudia: But I do, I'm fascinated by conversations.
I love sitting on public transportation and listening to people's conversations because it's, it's not that, you know, they're people, so what they're saying has been said a billion times before, but, but not how they say it, not in the order that they put those words and not with the intonations that they give those words.
And so it's, it's always delightful to me to just listen.
Helga: I did hear a wonderful split second conversation the other day between a mother and a son. Oh yeah. I have to find it so I can read it properly.
I ripped the cover off my little book there. All right. Let me turn it right side up. Here it is. A mother tells her son. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do it. It wasn't on purpose. Sometimes you just have to move on. I think, ah, this is where you learn. This is how.
Claudia: That's great. How old was the son? Do you remember?
Claudia: So it actually could be heard. I remember when my daughter was the, that age. The things you say they were heard before they started talking back before they're like hey ain’t nobody got time for this
Helga: One of the things I am, I know that you are going away to be in a different city doing what you do and I'm sad to miss watching the US Open with you.
Claudia: Oh yeah.
Helga: One of the things I love watching the US Open with you is listening to your psychoanalysis of the players. So someone serves and they double fault at let's say 40 love, and you might say, no, they don't, they don't really want it. Their head's not in the game. Um, it's the, the, you don't, they don't really want it one that always sticks with me. Where it, where it comes in. What's your relationship to tennis and when did it begin?
Claudia: Well, you know, I, I, first of all, thank you for being generous cuz I thought you were gonna say my screaming, which you know is true.
Helga: We could edit and I could, I could say it again. .
Claudia: I know, and sometimes I'm just like, I—you know, everybody leave because it's getting ugly in here. But, um, I started watching tennis in a, in a back door kind of way. I had just gotten, I think it was my, second job teaching at Barnard in the upper West side, you know, the women's college and—
Helga: Harlem, you mean?
Claudia: Harlem, alright.
Helga: Words, Claudia words.
Claudia: Words. And with that job came an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue.
Um, it was part of my contract, and so John and I lived in this apartment, this little apartment. So that if you were in the bedroom and John was in the living room watching golf, which is what was happening, Tiger Woods in his heyday, I, um, would be trying to read in the bedroom and all I would hear is Tiger was Tiger Woods.
But then I would hear things. Is that legal? Is that legal? Can he really do that? Is he, is he cheating? Is that legal? and I, you know, and as John was watching Tiger and Tiger was doing these incredible things, you know, um, play, you know, winning tournaments in the dark. You know, it'd be dark and Tiger has just hit a ball in the hole and then they'd be like, is it legal to hit in the dark? I don't think it's legal. I don't think you can win that way.
And, um, I, the racism of the announcers was off the charts. Off the charts, and so the, the Williams Sisters were just coming up around that time, and I. Oh my God. If it's like this for Tiger Woods who they love, they love him so much that they hate him and, and you know, they were just so racist and they brought in a, a white announcer who was younger and the white announcer.
Um, Would say things like, no, according to the rule book, um, he can do that. That's perfectly legal. And that's all he did. He didn't interrupt the other two guys, the older guys, he just would say things like, according to the rule book. And so then I started watching tennis cuz I, I, I thought if he's being treated like that, how are black women being treated?
And they were playing tennis. And it was ruthless. It was, and especially for Serena, and I got hooked. I mean, and the more I, um, followed Serena's career, the more hooked I became on tennis itself and interested in the other players. And so then, you know, you would follow them and listen to the commentators and after a while you really, you get to know them. So when they come, when they come, you know, when they find themselves in the quarter finals or the semifinals of a Grand Slam, you sort of understand what they will do and who they are as players and as people. And you want them not to do those things or to do those things differently or to do what they know how to do in those moments.
And you know, some of them are brilliant but frustrating like Monfils or others who are clearly brilliant players, but never have managed to win a Grand Slam. So you carry the knowledge and after, you know, it's been oh, oh my God, 30 years of watching. So you get to know.
Helga: How does it relate to you though? What does it say about you?
Claudia: What does it say about me? It says, I am passionate. You know, I'm a passionate fan of whatever it is I'm engaged in and, and, and I think that's true. I think give me anything and give me 10 minutes, and I am full on with you. I think that's one of my superpowers actually.
Helga: I do too. What's a thing that you do everyday that every person could do to find something new in themselves? To ask a different question, to go on to, to be inspired?
Claudia: Well, I think, you know, this is gonna sound uber ordinary, but I do think, I hope, I try to listen and if I feel like I'm in danger of not listening, I will write down, “listen” on a piece of paper. I, you know, if I think I'm going in here and I might not listen, I will write down “listen” because I, I think it's so important to, to hear what somebody is really telling you.
So I hope, I hope those people in my life and the people who are in my life briefly, feel that because I'm trying, I am trying to hear and to know, and it's not because I, I feel—I, you know, I have a lot of boundaries. I spend a lot of time making sure my boundaries stay, stay in place. So it's not that I feel like I will give myself over, but I want to be able to act accordingly.
I want to give to the other person as much as they need while keeping myself erect, you know, keeping myself standing. And the only way to do that in a way that's equitable and feels good so that I can go on to the next moment, not regretting the moment before, is really listening, really being attentive both to my own needs and to the needs of people around me. But it's like anything worth doing. It's work. And you have to remind yourself to do it and not to go into autopilot and not to think, you know. You don't know. You know, we're all such complex individual masterpieces, you know, we really are. And, um, capable of breaking. Capable…
Helga: From the pitch comes the shape of things to come. I know this and open my eyes knowing you are already somewhere shaping the black. Thank you.
Claudia: Thank you.
Helga: My love. That was so much fun!
Claudia: That was fun.
Helga: That was my conversation with Claudia Rankine. I'm Helga Davis.