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Poet Claudia Rankine On Latest Racial Violence


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Poet Claudia Rankine's last book, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a deeply personal accounting of racism in modern America. And it arrived at a critical moment, two months after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. That was almost two years ago. Now she joins us on the line from her home in California at another critical moment. Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

CLAUDIA RANKINE: Good morning, Lynn. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: I want to read a line from one of your poems that - that's been on social media over the last few days. It's from a poem called "Stop And Frisk," and let me read it to you.

(Reading) Each time, it begins in the same way. It doesn't begin the same way. Each time it begins, it's the same.

What did you mean by that, and what does that line mean for you at this moment?

RANKINE: Well, first I want to say - before I say anything, I want to extend my sympathies to the families of the police officers, you know, which - I just find that incredibly tragic - and also the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I just think, in a sense, that is the thing that begins, and it begins, and it begins again - the grieving of these families due to the proliferation of guns in the United States and to racism in the structure of our dynamics.

NEARY: So it's just a circular thing that keeps happening in this country. And I - do you believe that it can stop, that it won't keep happening in the same way?

RANKINE: I think until we face up to it, recognize it, begin to address it, it won't stop. And I - you know, I happen to think that we are facing up to it. I think that the demonstrations - the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that happened on Thursday and again on Friday after the horrific shootings in Dallas - are a step towards saying these things have dominated our lives for way - you know, for much too long, and we need change.

NEARY: You went to Ferguson in the days after the Michael Brown shooting. What is different now? Is anything different now? Does it feel different to you?

RANKINE: Yes, I think it does. I think that people - all kinds of people - we saw the footage - all kinds of people are out on the streets saying no, this is not acceptable. And what's also fantastic is the fact that the discussion has gone - extended out from racial prejudice into the proliferation of guns. So, you know, it's both things that are destructive elements within the society, and both things need to be addressed. And both things are being discussed and talked about at this time.

NEARY: You wanted to begin by offering condolences to the Dallas police, as well as to the relatives of the victims of those police shootings. Do you think a common grief bring - has the capability of bringing people together, in a way?

RANKINE: On a certain level, but I think the thing that I worry about is that the police force will consider Micah Johnson a representation of all black people and treat this time as open season against black men. I mean, you know, for me, Micah Johnson and Timothy McVeigh are not very different. They're both war vets who were clearly unstable in a certain way and trained in the use of guns. And, you know, why somebody was able to have an automatic gun in their home - I'm not sure why that's possible.

But in any case, those two gentlemen are the - you know, they're cut from the same cloth, but in no way does Johnson represent black people in America. And, you know, what we've seen with the police is that black people have been seen as one person. And so consequently their level of vengeance against what they assume to be the black body as a criminal body allows them to behave in a way that costs the lives of innocent people.

NEARY: You have written about Ferguson. Do you think you will write about this?

RANKINE: You know what? I might. You know, I don't know. But the thing that struck me deeply was that child in the back seat who said, it's OK, I'm right here with you, to her mother when the shooting occurred in the car. And why a policeman would send a bullet in a car with a 4-year-old child, I'm not sure, when no one was firing at him. But that child - that black child - now has to behave and perform like an adult and negotiate a trauma for the rest of her life.

NEARY: Yeah.

RANKINE: And that, I think, you know, people wonder about black people negotiating the day-to-dayness of this kind of violence. That's how it starts.

NEARY: Thank you. Thank you, Claudia Rankine, for joining us.

RANKINE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

NEARY: Claudia Rankine is a poet and author of "Citizen: An American Lyric." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.