Everyday Maneuvers: On Driving Claudia Rankine to the Airport
The sky still dim one April morning, I picked up Claudia Rankine at the pink adobe Arizona Inn to drive her to the airport after her reading at the Tucson Poetry Festival the night before. As we drove quickly down the empty early spring streets, she told me that she isn’t particularly concerned with the tenets of nonfiction. Yes, she is concerned with accuracy, as Citizen: An American Lyric is documentary or a “community document” as she described it at her Tucson Poetry Festival reading. Some of the stories in Citizen are certainly her own, but she also includes anecdotes collected from friends and colleagues, both black and white. Rankine told me she wants the people in her book to recognize themselves as responsibly and accurately portrayed, but is less concerned with a true story; she wishes to interrogate the feeling inside of a moment.
There is something there, in the emphasis on tone rather than story. Writers often talk about the emotional distance required to properly portray. Some things are too close, we say. Reading Citizen, I have the sense of peeling away the narratives around a series of moments and climbing inside. Rather than a spectator of the scene, I am part of it: the perpetrator, the addressed, and the exposed. As Rankine elaborates in an interview with Lauren Berlant in BOMB Magazine: “Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun.”
The truth is that I had hoped to do a full-length interview with Rankine (that I might have transcribed and posted here). But being nominated for (and winning) the Los Angeles Times Book Prize crunched her time in Tucson and I was lucky to get this daybreak-drive. Rankine in her gauzy scarf asked me many more questions about my work than I expected. She gave me a wide-ranging list of book and film recommendations that I am still working my way through, including Tina Fey’s new television show as well as Rankine’s new anthology The Racial Imaginary. As we drove south on Campbell Avenue, past the university football stadium and the off-campus party dorms, a few people stumbled home from the previous night. I asked her again what she meant by not being interested in nonfiction. She elaborated, “I’m interested in getting at an affect – not a story.” Citizen uses documentary as a way to be present to the emotions and feelings of the people in it, but not necessarily to document fact. We drove by a sea of Airstream trailers on Benson Highway, as I addressed and she responded, she addressed and I responded. We created a moment not dissimilar in its mechanics to the many interactions documented in Citizen: in the Starbucks, at the grocery store, in a car. While our physical orientation mimicked scenes from the book, I hoped our conversation’s content and tone were distinct.
As many have observed, much of Citizen unfolds in second person prose blocks documenting daily racist microaggressions between small groups of people in what cultural theorist Sara Ahmed might describe as the “drama of contingency.” The second person address is a multi-layered and complex quilt; the “you” implicates the reader with a persistent address that is both self-reflexive and interrogative. As B.K. Fischer elaborates in the Boston Review, Rankine utilizes “the subjective ‘you’ that trails the self, the ‘you’ that stands in for the ‘I’ and also telescopes the reader’s apprehension… Cracked open by the temporal deixis of ‘you,’ the lyric space becomes a field of notice, expansion, and interrogation.” Something happens in my reading experience of Rankine’s “you” that creates an elastic contingency between myself, the “you,” the he and she. Because of the “you,” her scenes unfold between us; feelings and tones emerge as if I am recipient of the address rather than merely spectator to a narrative scene.
Early on in the book a scene opens, “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there / You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. / Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” At times Rankine’s “you” feels directive (you are in the dark, in the car), other times narrative (you think maybe), standing in for the I, he, or she, and still other times the “you” becomes interrogative. In these interrogative moments, perspective shifts inside the mind of the “you” to reverse the address outward (to the he, or maybe to the reader).
Rankine seems to trouble this issue of addressability, giving examples when the “you” is invisible and others when the “you” is hyper-visible. Rankine quotes Judith Butler in response to a question about what makes language hurtful: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” By focusing on the affect of the address rather than story, Rankine reveals the pervasive infiltration of racist tones in everyday language.
In the car, Rankine and I approached the discount airport parking lots with their red ramadas and neon signs. Shuttle van drivers waited with their engines running as we zipped by. I asked Rankine about the role of spectatorship in Citizen. I said the Situation Videos give me a sense of interrogating the inside of a moment rather than looking from the outside at a past event. She said she was glad I was thinking about that; the book is all about spectatorship. We smiled. I held the steering wheel with two hands.
Rankine’s “Scripts for Situation Videos” in Citizen provide text scripts to video collaborations with the filmmaker John Lucas (the videos can be found on her website). She explains in the same interview with Berlant: “The decision to exist within the events of the ‘Situation Videos’ came about because the use of video manipulation by John Lucas allowed me to slow down and enter the event, in moments, as if I were there in real time rather than as a spectator considering it in retrospect.” The videos provide an abstract reenactment for the original event: not an exact replica, but one that explodes the emotional moment. In “Stop and Frisk” (number 6), the video opens with the monotone breath of an accordion bellow and a suburban street where several young men walk down the sidewalk. As the young men enter a clothing boutique to try on jackets and sweatshirts, digital galactic sounds perforate the dull roar of the accordion, and Rankine’s voice over begins: “I felt that whatever is happening is happening in front of me, but the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade.” The blue and red of cop lights flash across the young men’s faces giving me anxiety and a sense of urgency as I watch, despite their smiles as they try on jackets. The sounds coalesce into police sirens as the eerie accordion monotones throughout, sometimes interrupted by President Obama’s voice, or a conversation over a police radio: “Is it a male or female?” “You don’t know why?” Rankine’s voice tells the story of a person with a briefcase (a lawyer?) being pulled over for no reason on the way home, repeating this refrain as the interaction escalates: “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
The title “Stop and Frisk” points to a very specific violent policy of the New York City police concerning young black men. Living in Brooklyn for seven years, I often watched the cops throw middle school kids up against brick walls then dump their backpacks on the sidewalk. I approached these situations when I saw them happening. “Are you okay?” I asked the kids. Do you want me to document what is happening to you? The cops yelled at me that it was none of my business. I worked hard to figure out responsible ways to be in solidarity with individuals and groups trying to change the City’s racist policing practices. My complicity was also complicated. There are many ways that my white body contributed to the ordinary violence I saw happening in my neighborhood. Newly gentrifying neighborhoods, especially like Lefferts Gardens where I lived, often saw the highest levels of policing and most increased numbers of frisks.
Rankine’s story of the lawyer’s arrest for nothing does not document a “Stop and Frisk” apprehension in particular, but gestures to the many ways black bodies get policed in America on the street, in cars, in the airport, in the coffee shop. Rankine’s voice-over juxtaposed with an everyday situation of men trying on clothes and layered with the urgent visual and sonic affects of sirens, police radios, and lights all give the sense of an ordinary danger. It reminds me of seeing the children against the brick wall on the way home from school. Rankine’s choice to explode the Stop and Frisk moment out, when she might have attempted an accurate story, does more work to reveal the hidden, displaced, and negated insides of a moment than might ever be possible to unpack as a spectator. In that sense she seems to investigate the tone of Stop and Frisk, not the story.
Rankine and I arrived at the quiet Tucson airport terminal and laughed about how different her experience arriving at LAX would be, compared to our hushed desert departure lounge. We said goodbye. On the way back to town and for these past two months, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of interrogating the tone inside a moment. My short conversation with Rankine bounces around my brain like a pinball. I see manipulations of tone everywhere I look. Citizen makes important moves to reveal the layers of racism imbedded in everyday interactions. Perhaps by focusing on accurate story, as a white writer I’ve been blind to giant tone missteps, microaggressions, or even macroaggressions in my essays. I want to work hard to peel those layers off, work hard against imbedded racisms, interrogate my tones. As police murder young black men around the country, kneel on a fourteen-year-old girl in a bathing suit and, and wave guns at unarmed teens, as a young white man mass-murders nine people at a church prayer meeting, this hard work is crucial.
I want to write an essay from the inside out, exploring the hidden, negated, displaced emotions in the drama of our everyday interactions. Reading Rankine’s work and thinking about our conversation makes me want to deeply investigate the subconscious tones in my own essays. I’m left wondering how I might get closer, shoulder-to-shoulder, with my narratives to recognize their limits, the way racism unconsciously infiltrates my stories. Especially as a young white essayist in America at the beginning of my career, I want to think hard about which are my blankets. Which are my guns?
Jan Bindas-Tenney is a candidate in the nonfiction MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona. She is at work on a book-length collection of essays exploring enclave (gated, secluded, and intentional) communities and their relationships to a continually dissatisfying and unattainable desire for the good life. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast Online, Guernica, and CutBank Online, among other places.