On my radar: Claudia Rankine’s cultural highlights

Claudia Rankine is a poet, essayist, playwright and a professor of poetry at Yale. Born in Jamaica in 1963, she moved to America as a child and later received an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of six books of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), which won numerous prizes including a National Book Critics Circle award. Rankine lives in New Haven, Connecticut with her husband, the film-maker John Lucas, and their daughter. Her latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, which interrogates race in the US through a series of conversations, is out in paperback on 2 September.

First Cow (dir Kelly Reichardt)

During the pandemic, we’ve probably watched more movies than we did in the past five years. One of the standouts for me was this film about male friendship set in the Pacific north-west in the 19th century. It explains American individualism – every man for himself – but also critiques a lack of community. Two men get together and come up with a way to make money that involves “sharing” someone else’s means of production, which leads them into trouble. I enjoyed the film for its beauty, but it also made me think about some Americans’ inability to recognise the importance of getting vaccinated, not for themselves, but for the community at large.

Titus Kaphar: From a Tropical Space (Gagosian, New York)

Titus Kaphar is an incredible painter who has done amazing work reframing historical images – he painted George Washington alongside the names of all the slaves that he owned. His latest show featured paintings of black mothers holding or pushing babies, but in the place of the child is a blank space. What is this loss? In an environment where black people are under assault, from police and systemic racism, what is the impact on the daily lives of regular people? It’s phenomenal in what it says and what it doesn’t say, and where it demands the viewer go in the act of apprehending the image.

The White Lotus (HBO)

This is the best thing I have encountered in a long time – a series about (mostly) white people on vacation in Hawaii and their encounters with the staff at their hotel. [Series creator] Mike White is a genius. I myself have tried to depict white people and their privilege and their good intentions and their deep, deep unknowing regarding others and themselves and the structure at large – and, oh, I wish I had been able to do this. Jennifer Coolidge is the standout as the rich, narcissistic white lady who tries to help a black woman and then forgets when something else comes along, but it was all just fabulously done.

Blaire Erskine

This is another pandemic moment: stuck at home, friends would send things to my phone constantly. Blaire Erskine was one of the people who showed up all the time. And she’s hilarious. Her Twitter videos engage with things that are happening politically right now in the US. She presents herself as a white woman speaking on behalf of rightwing politicians or the 1%-ers – “A Message from Amazon” was a congratulations to Sir Richard Branson for getting to the top of the sky ahead of Jeff Bezos. When she first started doing them, people thought she was for real, because she looks the part, and you think: wait, is this a joke?

Naomi Osaka walking away from Wimbledon

Naomi Osaka is turning out to be such an interesting tennis superstar. You think about how shy she was when she first arrived, and then how she came out politically after the murder of George Floyd. And then this latest walk away from Wimbledon, where she said that not everything is about winning. I just thought she was an incredible example to women, of her age especially, that you can set the terms. You can say: enough is enough for me right now. It doesn’t mean I won’t come back, or that I am not committed, it means that I know my body better than you know my body. Good on her for doing that.

The George Floyd murder trial

The people who were involved in the George Floyd trial said some things that were incredible to me. Darnella Frazier [who filmed the murder on her phone] said: “Everybody’s asking me, how do I feel? I don’t know how to feel.” Another witness, Donald Wynn Williams, when the defence attorney kept undermining his testimony, said: “I grew professional. I stayed in my body.” Those phrases have become almost like new signposts in my imaginative world. They have been helpful for me to think about how I myself am feeling, and also understanding how one negotiates a life when, as Homi Bhabha says, a risk to life is also a risk to living.

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