The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

by Claudia Rankine

"To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.

"It is not only white writers who make a prize of transcendence, of course. Many writers of all backgrounds see the imagination as ahistorical, as a generative place where race doesn't and shouldn't enter, a place of bodies that

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"To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.

"It is not only white writers who make a prize of transcendence, of course. Many writers of all backgrounds see the imagination as ahistorical, as a generative place where race doesn't and shouldn't enter, a place of bodies that transcend the legislative, the economic—in other words, transcend the stuff that doesn't lend itself much poetry. In this view the imagination is postracial, a posthistorical and postpolitical utopia. . . . To bring up race for these writers is to inch close to the anxious space of affirmative action, the scarring qualifieds.

"So everyone is here."—Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, from the introduction

In 2011, a poem published in a national magazine by a popular white male poet made use of a black female body. A conversation ensued, and ended. Claudia Rankine subsequently created Open Letter, a web forum for writers to relate the effects and affects of racial difference and to explore art's failure, thus far, to adequately imagine.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Claudia Rankine is author and editor of more than six collections of poetry and poetics. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of English at Pomona College.

Beth Loffreda is author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-gay Murder. She directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wyoming.

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The Racial Imaginary

Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

By Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, Max King

Fence Books

Copyright © 2015 Max King Cap, Beth Loffreda, Claudia Rankine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934200-79-7




The depiction of social and racial identity has long been attended by equivocality—a recipe of complex motivations of fetishism and degradation, exoticized beauty and reflective distancing. For the viewer these multiple readings are available when considering ethnographic portraiture such as the romanticized paintings of Native Americans by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, the sentimental photographs by Edward Curtis, the voyeuristic Orientalism of Ingres and Delacroix, and the vulgar prurience in depictions of Saartjie Baartman—also known as The Hottentot Venus. What was once presented as analytically accurate now more often seems farcically corrupt, while appropriation of the image of the other has remained a common, if not entirely acceptable, practice. The compulsion to represent the other, and the drive to commandeer the other's representation of the self, remains. Unfortunately, also remaining is the comparison to the supreme exemplar, the troubling gold standard against which all racial appearance and cultural custom has been measured.

Whiteness, but not just any Whiteness, an admixture of Western and Northern European appearance, custom, and taste, remains the standard being replicated or struggled against. The tragedy of post-colonialism is that whiteness remained even in its absence to haunt the self-image of the natives, imprinting a comparative hallmark by which the savage will always know his inferiority. The greatest attributable accomplishment of this criterion is convincing the rest of the world that it wanted to be White. A subcategory within this accomplishment is a deprecation of any other metric. Thus "Black is Beautiful" becomes the Wankel engine, and "La Raza", Betamax.

That is the Quentin

This makes cultural appropriation a one-way street. When done by a member of dominant Western culture it is innovation, when done by others it is merely assimilation. Darius Rucker, the Black former frontman of the '90s band, Hootie & the Blowfish, has now, appropriately, embraced country music. Yet latter-day White minstrel/artist Joe Scanlan is lauded as an icon of ingenuity for masquerading as a Black woman; he has been rewarded with inclusion in the hallowed Whitney Biennial (Tyler Perry must be seething). These are acts of self-portraiture in which both artists embody another persona that contradicts their cis-race and cis-gender expectations. They seem to be equal portrayals of themselves as the other, but some selves are more equal than others.

Such antics demonstrate we are far from being a post racial, post misogynist society. On the contrary, we seem to be so entrenched in divisive tactics that we are no longer even able to consider value in contemplation and revision. We accept every new piece of information and contort it to our biases until they become bulwarks, impenetrable and permanent.

The artists included in this volume are siege engines against such intractability. They employ the varied strategies of satire, history, drama, documentary, revelation, inversion, and incongruity. They expressly do not use the demeaning tools of caricature, stereotype, fetishization, deprecation, aspersion, or chauvinism. The artist Liz Cohen's photography places the artist herself in unexpected roles that demand the code-switching intelligence of the viewer to decipher, while Edgar Endress examines the responses of those whose identities have long been dishonored. Race and gender identity are explored by EJ Hill, and the historicism of John Leanos reverses the George Washington slept here motif. Both Nery Gabriel Lemus and Charles McGill notate experiential alienage but Amis Motevalli and Dread Scott answer back with immersive revelation. Alice Shaw and Kyungmi Shin revisit genderized portraiture with chilling poise; Ian Weaver and Jay Wolke unscramble tradition, history, and exclusion.

These canny artists represent a primer on the representation of identity in art. They remember that identity is neither prescriptive nor proscriptive; it doesn't dictate or disallow, so they avoid using predictable characterizations. That is the Quentin Tarantino trap. His penchant for fetishization is formulaic, cursory, and salacious. The artists in this volume also demonstrate that while the iconography of White Westernism may be a universal language, it is not universally emulated. Its application is the artistic version of, "I believe we will be greeted as liberators." When crossing identity boundaries they remember this mnemonic: Approach with respect, come correct.

Tarantino trap.

These artists don't say that you cannot make cogent commentary on sensitive issues, just keep in mind—this is going on your permanent record. You may think you are damned clever right now but wait even just a couple of years and see how things have changed. Your poignant commentary on gender relations now just looks like rampant sexism, with a soupçon of homophobia. What you publish, exhibit, and perform is like a tattoo; you've seen the pitfalls in that practice. Use intelligence, research, and humble reflection to avoid marking yourself with humiliating regret.

Happily addicted to our multiple afflictions of inequality—uneven applications of the law, dismissive misogyny, rapacious mercantilism, gender bigotry—we as a nation can hardly expect that a more enlightened practice of identity representation in art can reform our jaundiced inclinations. We are encamped—us against them. Our relentless virtue is exhausting, while their hatred seems to invigorate. What choice do we have? These artists bring choices.


I once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers called When Race Breaks Out. As if it's like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed. Why am I so hard to distinguish, so hard to remember? What is a work called when it punishes intimacy with paranoia? The supposedly inclusive and forward-thinking writing culture we are part of, even at its most avant-garde, progressive, thoughtful, or friendly, is still just an unofficial white poetry club. When you're here, you are supposed to just move through it. Questions of race are never just about narrative or images or stereotypes, they pervade our grammars, our styles, our forms, and above all our unstated system of preferences, of aesthetic value. You say well-wrought urn, I say stunningly tedious; you say stuttering with incompetence, I say a new music for our age. I love you. Let's not sell each other out. Especially while professing that we are here for one another.



I remember things I never forgot. To spend an afternoon returning to the site of some wrong committed only in my imagination against an unnamed person, a vaporous friend, is a bore and no kind of penance. What have I neglected?—has it to do with money? Probably, I've insulted someone. Even the cat, thrashing in my arms, cannot abide being touched improperly in terms of the calculus of will and affection.

Probably, it is impossible to avoid insult in the atmosphere of feint, desperation, and cluelessness that pervades this life. (Supposed to be contemplative, supposed to be romantic in the way it hearkens back, historically, materially, to an eradicated bohemia. Impossible, anyway, to forget what any previous bohemia would have been, for me, black as I am. Thank god for the enormity of my lateness.) To try is to manufacture, it is to glue, it is to piece together against every probability an evasive "we" that moves in my arms like a living animal. The more I think, the more I am estranged. What is a work called when it punishes intimacy with paranoia?

There has never been a moment when the world I lived in did not claim to be mostly white, all white, white shoe, majority white, elite white, and meanwhile the family I was in, the neighborhood I was in, the love I was in, the music I was into, the clothes, the mood, the writing were most(ly) black. If you start from that perspective, looking for the difference between claims about the whiteness of the world and its material blackness, you'll find it—the difference. I mean to be present to that difference without blowing it up into the whole point of the investigation, the mechanisms of which have got, on occasion, to be cleaned.

... the impossible whiteness of the room I found myself in.

I mean, part of the investigation has to be losing track of the way of doing the work. In investigations having to do with blackness—which I'm saying are all investigations—I try never to grasp or grip with too much paranoid ferocity on blackness itself. That's a worldview and a practice: don't be gripping onto it, or you lose sight of why you are holding it in your view, or trying to hold it and get a look at it, why it is precious, why the need to describe it properly, in all its (still) understudied fucking massive significance. This is why there will never be a commercial, institutional, disciplinary word that describes devotional investigation of blackness. All I can do is say back to you some names and words that have led to the present proximal or provisional and insufficient understanding of how black people are in this world.

Nathaniel Mackey resorts to the term name-sake for talking about a kind of meta-quotation that verges on the professional practice of ordinary quotation but is also a gestational gesture: I claim you and take you inside me and, so, you will come out of me. I read you.

By the time I roused myself from the comfort of Bedford-Stuyvesant to a poetry reading in Williamsburg in the dead of winter, over the ice, to hear Anselm Berrigan, Dana Ward, and Lauren Shufran, I had been thinking for a long time about what people mean when they say that American poetry that is not interested in reproducing the familiar (call it what you want: experimental, innovative) is a white practice, a white thing, dominated by white poets and white institutions. I'd been thinking about this as a curator at the Poetry Project, as a person who has published collections only with independent small presses with few informal or institutional connections to people of color "communities" (I use this word reluctantly not because I question the existence of these communities, but because I don't want to be understood to be saying I believe in their existence as natural; as extra-institutional, extra-economic, as ideal, in other words). I'd been thinking about it as a person who lives in, and not by accident, a thoroughly diverse intimate world that could never be described as "white." And I'd been thinking about it as a woman poet who writes poems that could never belong to any tradition but a black tradition.

I didn't know it that night, but I was just the tiniest bit pregnant. So, although I was drinking in the harmless way that I drink (maybe I had two beers), I felt inexplicably drunk and frustrated by the impossible whiteness of the room I found myself in. Let me say again: I am used to being the only black person in the room. It happens all the time and has happened all the time since I was a little ten-year-old pigtailed thing stuck in a tiny private girls school in Chestnut Hill. But the fact is, being used to being the only black person in the room isn't the same thing as thinking that this is a tolerable or reasonable condition. Even when I was ten years old, I knew (or was told repeatedly so I had better known) that this was something to be tolerated and managed, like a nasty variety of mold. I do not enjoy it any more than I enjoy any other condition that is a scourge and ought to be eradicated.

When I say that I became inexplicably frustrated because I had been thinking for thirty years and now, in and out of elite educational situations, the practices of law, poetry, and teaching, about how black people in the United States get isolated socially, economically, and aesthetically—and how it feels to be a problem—what I'm trying to talk about is knowledge about both the fact and the wrongness of this isolation that is more solid and deeper than anything I actually know. More and more, that knowledge means refusal of "community" whose joy is in some way predicated on enjoyment of something I know good and well is wrong. It is total bullshit to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated. I'm saying that in that room, that night, I hit something like a wall or bottom or saw something that I never want to see again, which might have been my own complicity or token-ness or it might just be that I was tired and pregnant and, really, too old to be in an overcrowded white room in Williamsburg full of white people ten years younger than me, and I wanted to go home.

One reason to admire the wildness of Thomas Sayers Ellis's imagination with respect to the possible coming to pass of a map that charts Poetry crimes and misdemeanors on both historical and trivial scales, is that that map is in some ways an analogue of a smaller map (being drawn in my work) that charts the relation between black Philadelphia, its Germantown, Osage, Baltimore Avenues, to the falling-down house of John Coltrane, seeing that every day as a child, and being unable to square it, in any way, with the way grown people whispered his name (the way Baraka falls into whispers in Black Music ...). I cannot draw you a map, but everything that has occurred or might have occurred in any linguistic location on such a map belongs to me.

TSE's apparently two-dimensional, paranoid "A Poet's Guide to the Assassination of JFK (the Assassination of Poetry)" is, for me, a model of melancholy experimentation in and with the assumptions of Poetry competency; the demand that professional poets know their way around players, works, places, and forms, all of which contribute to an atmosphere of smugness that impedes approaching the truth of its insanely segregated reality. The wickedness of Ellis's humor is grounded, for me, in the big joke of presumed whiteness, which he is past saying because he's been doing this for a long time. I think about the ubiquitous "Kill List" and the unending commentary that surrounded its publication—as if it had provoked some genuine emergency of craft, when, for me, it just raised a lot of ethical questions that I consider to be asked and answered while leaving untouched every problem that concerns me about the operation and future of poetry as community—and I wonder: Where was the commentary on Ellis's list, aside from its having become untraceable? Its absence speaks to a broad, pressing question of how Poetry's segregation is related to what an emerging poet needs to know and the question of how to acquire that knowledge outside his immediate surroundings. We are all pressed by limited time and resources: So how and where do you spend your time? How do you come to know the lay of the land? Who are you with and how do you sound? How do you look (over your shoulder)?

The work is called poetry. Paranoia is a measure of its degree.


Excerpted from The Racial Imaginary by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, Max King. Copyright © 2015 Max King Cap, Beth Loffreda, Claudia Rankine. Excerpted by permission of Fence Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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