Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.
Certain authors are so inherently chic that the fashion world lays claim to them. Think of Joan Didion as the face of Céline in 2015, or Zadie Smith attending the Met Gala this past year. I’d argue that acclaimed author, Yale professor, and recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Claudia Rankine should be among those ranks.
With her colorful scarves and equally bright eye-shadow palettes, Rankine is no stranger to the art of self-presentation. She’s best known for her 2014 poetry/criticism hybrid Citizen, which dissected American racism (Solange Knowles recently cited it as inspiration). Late last year, she took part in an art initiative focusing on beauty as a basic right and its relation to the construction of whiteness. She also wrote a South Bronx travelogue called “The Provenance of Beauty” in which the audience toured the neighborhood on a bus as her poetic voice mapped out key parts of the neighborhood.
Still, I wasn’t sure what Rankine would think of my request to interview her about beauty. Initially, I thought she might be offended that despite all of her accomplishments — and there are many — I wanted to talk about something frivolous.
Thankfully, it was quite the opposite. She responded in less than a day and invited me over to her apartment, where I found myself utterly bedazzled by her charm. Her answers conveyed to me that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with my black womanhood, and reminded me that solidarity with another black woman — even if it’s as simple as a compliment (she told me I looked “fantastic,” no big deal) — can unravel what I thought I knew about myself through the white gaze.
In Citizen, you write about attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and someone telling you that “you smell good and you have features more like a white person.” What did that make you feel in that moment?
Many of those pieces in the opening section are collected stories from friends. This one is autobiographical. The other girl had been failing her tests, and when she asked me if she could copy my exams, I let her do it, obviously. And then after a while, she said to me, “You smell and you have features more like a white person.”
I don’t think I could actually tell you what I thought at that moment because I don’t remember. More than likely, I said nothing to her, but thinking back on it, I recognize it as her desire to give me something. What she was giving me was her whiteness, you know? We are in a dynamic together. You are helping me, and I will give you some of my privilege by telling you that you can go around in the world and you have features more like a white person. In a crazy way, it was an act of generosity from her perspective.
I remember the writer Marlon James once told me and a group of people during an AWP get-together that black glamour is different from white glamour. What do you think about that?
I think we have such incredible, beautiful black women in the media over the years: Beyoncé, Solange, the First Lady. I don’t think black glamour or black beauty was ever in question for black people. It’s only a question from the perspective of the white gaze and that we have had to waste so much time combating derogatory language over our looks and our bodies. When you talk about where the stress is, that’s where the stress is: pushing off that interruption and all that anxiety to denigrate black beauty.
Are there any colors, accessories, and/or cosmetics that have a particular significance to you?
Ah, that’s a good question. The thing about the things that I choose — like my lipstick or what I eat for lunch or what pen I use when I write — is that once I find the thing that I like, the search is over. That is the thing I will have for many, many years, unless somehow something gets introduced to me and I’m like, “Oh that might be better.”
In terms of my lipstick, I’ve been using NARS Charlotte lipstick forever. I just like it. I like the shade, and I think it is the right red for me. And what does that mean? I don’t know. When I look at myself in the mirror, I like that red.
I do have a tendency to want to settle things because I want to get back to my work. I decide and then I don’t have to think about it. I wear Laura Mercier powder and NARS lipstick, and that’s what I wear.
Where do you usually shop?
Let’s see. I get my tights at Fogal’s, usually twice a year when they have their sales, and that’s it. I like the color palette of the Fogal tights. They’re fun. I’m in my 50s, and this is after years of figuring out what’s right for me.
Scarves: Because I wear so much black, scarves are where I can act out. You can bring out color or not.
I love going into consignment shops. When I’m in Paris, there’s a consignment shop in the Marais that I go to. I’m not there often, only a couple of times a year.
When you’re in your 50s, you’ve been collecting things over the years, and so you don’t need a lot of things. In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I was more experimental. In my 20s and 30s, I had less money but more choices. I was thinner and I was happier wearing jeans and a jacket. It was my uniform.
And now I rarely wear jeans. I buy dresses more now. I don’t like buying shirts because I don’t like spending money on things that only cover half of me. If I buy a shirt, then I need to buy a skirt or pants.
What kind of advice would you give to your younger self?
To be less anxious. Looking back now, I cannot believe that I had any anxiety around how I looked or my weight, because if I weighed now what I weighed then, I would think, Oh, I am great. I don’t know if it’s displaced anxiety or what, but when we’re younger, we worry about things that we shouldn’t worry about because they have no impact on the people who love us, because they love us. When our girlfriends tell us we look great, we look great and they aren’t making shit up. We don’t believe our circle, and we have these internal shaming parties. It’s crazy.
In Citizen, talking about Serena Williams, you wrote this:
Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness–all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.
I thought about that and was like, Man, that makes me tired before I even go out into the world. How do you prepare yourself psychologically to go out into the world?
I don’t think I’m preparing myself. I love the visual arts. I love beautiful things. I love colorful things. When I’m in the world, it’s not that I’m preparing myself against the world. It’s that the world interrupts me in the course of my living.
I think Citizen is really about the way in which we get rerouted out of black joy, out of living, out of life, out of all the things we take so much pride and joy in. There is no dearth of black joy and black living and exuberance and engagement. The question is, how are those moments almost taken away from us, you know?