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

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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.

256 pages, Paperback

First published November 11, 2014

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About the author

Claudia Rankine

47 books1,447 followers
Claudia Rankine is an American poet and playwright born in 1963 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and New York City.

Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, including "Citizen: An American Lyric" and "Don’t Let Me Be Lonely"; two plays including "The White Card," which premiered in February 2018 (ArtsEmerson and American Repertory Theater) and will be published with Graywolf Press in 2019, and "Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue"; as well as numerous video collaborations. She is also the editor of several anthologies including "The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind." In 2016, she cofounded The Racial Imaginary Institute. Among her numerous awards and honors, Rankine is the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry and the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, United States Artists and the National Endowment of the Arts. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches at Yale University as the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
(source: Arizona State University)

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Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for Jacob Wren.
Author 10 books349 followers
March 23, 2021
Jericho Brown, from his text Love the Masters:

"Poets whose work supports the status quo often fail to acknowledge that their poems are just as political as poets whose work questions it."

I think this book is incredibly important and everyone should read it.

Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 12 books2,717 followers
January 1, 2021
This is a collection of open letters about writing and race with an excellent critical/theoretical introduction. Perspectives range widely, both racially and in terms of the individual writer's understanding of how race affects their work. I particularly liked Rachel Zucker's letter, in which she responded and then went back and footnoted her response extensively, interrogating basically everything she'd said, deconstructing her own response to the question of race and writing.
Profile Image for Rachel S.
40 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2016
[Note (after writing)--my reviews are also reflections, with forays more personal in context than perhaps what a review typically intends. My objective, generally, is to respond to the work from my experience. I've tried to designate and distinguish the reflecting from the reviewing, after the fact, but it doesn't separate so cleanly.]


I think this reading experience, for me, is beyond that of the book's scope itself--the project of writing race, (identity, other or self) that it takes; yes, that project is incredibly meaningful and significant to uncover, but this anthology also represents my first dive into the poetic universe. Its significance compounds as I take in for the first time this contemporary room of writers, poets and critics; as I observe and relate to a poet/writer community dialogue--or for that matter, any kind of practitioner community dialogue--for the first time. The irony, that the one aspect of experience that isn't new for this white girl is the deep reflection and unpacking of race.

There was the jargon of the universe--I really was a visiting Martian, in awe of this foreign discourse, rhythm, and name dropping. While I was going to glide over this point, it seemed to merit a moment's observation, as it caught my attention repeatedly. This way of "writing race", dropping words like "poetics", a glimpse of the academy of words. It was startling, sometimes confusing, sometimes distracting in that academic sort of way. But all because it's a world I'm not in, a language I don't use. So reading the writing community became part of this reading experience, beyond just reading writing on writing race.

Reading writing on writing race.

I can already count the number of family members who will hate me if I start talking like this.

For all the foreignness, it was also like coming home. People writing essays in such writerly, literary, (of course, poetic) ways? I could feel my own long-ill-fitted literary rhythm, one I'd sometimes knowingly--awkwardly employ in the social science/social work paper or some other unsuitable context. The style of asyndeton, polysyndeton, or enthusiastic use of dashes, all which I'd excessively pepper my writing with since the 8th grade. I'd toned down the excessive listing of commas and fragments, but some style elements stubbornly persisted. Here were my comrades in idiosyncrasy and element. Piling adjectives and images in the way one does when they love words. Discovering my voice might just have a home.

Like reading a master poem swiftly, reading some of these entries could occur deceptively quickly; in poetic tradition, the authors' word count belying the depth and power of their punch. Many of those punches left me with comments, some of which I mentioned here in my early reading status updates. I won't repost them here, but they inform my overall review of the book. Particularly the laid-bare formatting of the entries that embraced and exposed the structure of the project--its open call.

I hope/plan to return to this with more on the content than the process, and the implications for me as a writer, artist, social justice worker, and human. There's a certain irony in the focus on myself in this review, and absence of racial interrogation; as a white person, and from the book's contents, such a response is oddly myopic and suspect. It's not intended to be comprehensive or complete. And the personal implications are yes, personal. But as we learn here and from the past, feminists and other movements, again and again: personal is political. Jericho Brown writes on how love is political, and political is love.


Rife with epiphanies and a multitude of voices, the kind that benefits yet also begs more of the hands-off editorial approach employed by Rankine and Loffreda.

Multitudes. We go from writers of color explaining why they don't like to write about race as it is a part of them always, or that they don't necessarily/always have art to make of it, or how they want to be more than their racial signifier; and then we near the end with Bettina Judd, who infuses her physicality into the book and writing process, her rounded brown hand connecting to paper. In the honest and lovely ways of qualitative and humanistic methods (geez--social work schooling--escaping soon) the thesis or result is not a single idea but the manifold humanness of racial imaginaries, racial (writing/creative) identities.

On that note-- I don't think they're the same thing. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong somehow, or still ignorant to the lexicon, but racial imaginary feels to me like individual and also collective writerly consciousness about race-in-writing. This could just be my processing and digesting of it all, they could be the same, but the identity/perspective/experience that Judd describes feels distinct from a racial imaginary--it feels exactly that, an identity. Not a project of writing, or a practice. But the self, deeper and more intrinsic and fundamental than a literary imagination or undertaking. Again, I'm not in the literary world, so I don't know.
Profile Image for Susan Merrell.
Author 5 books49 followers
November 29, 2017
Read this for the Stony Brook MFA faculty's book club, and am so glad I did. Without providing answers (a smarter book than that), this collection of essays raises a multitude of questions about race and the way we live in the world as writers of all colors, and it is no bullshit great. So looking forward to talking this book over with my colleagues.
Profile Image for Lisa Eckstein.
509 reviews18 followers
May 14, 2015
I'm interested in the topics tackled in this anthology: how writers address fraught subjects, how to engage in discussions about race, how to write well about and across racial differences. In these essays, writers (mostly poets) reveal how race impacts (or doesn't) their work and their careers. The wide range of viewpoints and approaches make this a great anthology to read, study, and contemplate. The book itself is beautifully designed and includes artwork selected for its relevance to the topics under discussion.

The pieces in this collection are all thoughtful and unflinching. Many of the essayists discuss how difficult these subjects are to write about, or even to consider, and many reveal personal moments of shame or hurt. This book doesn't set out to be a how-to guide for writers (if you're looking for that, I recommend WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward as a good starting point), but I found it helpful in thinking about my own writing. I recommend it to any writer or reader.
Profile Image for Kristin Canfield.
31 reviews5 followers
October 19, 2015
Ooh I'm imagining using this book as an anchor text for so many different types of classes.
Profile Image for Brandon Amico.
Author 2 books17 followers
August 10, 2017
This should be required reading; a diverse group of poets and writers discuss how race is approached or avoided in our work, in our lives, and the areas where they intersect. Among many other topics and branches of the discussion of race, I particularly appreciated a frank look at "whiteness" and how it manifests, erases, or frames so many interactions and expectations, and what we can do to move away from the "whiteness-as-default" mindset in writing and in life; not to mention how to think about doing a better job supporting and listening to to those unlike ourselves or marginalized in society as well as literary and academic circles.
Profile Image for Gabrielle Bates.
Author 5 books21 followers
July 5, 2018
Terrific collection of letters and essays. Totally transformed how I think as a writer. Among the many challenging gifts this book gave me was that it brought to light many of the (damaging) tropes white writers often turn to when attempting to write about issues of race and racism. The voices assembled here speak to a wide range of perspectives; they do not all agree, and as a reader, you must grapple with each one on its own terms, listening and questioning.
Profile Image for Krys.
105 reviews5 followers
March 21, 2020
Outstanding foreword and a wonderful breadth of writing that attempts to tackle speaking/writing about race. My copy is marked with lots of stickers and underlined passages. The section on 'Readings' was particularly illuminating, and I'll be thinking about parts of this book for a long time.
Profile Image for Anatoly Molotkov.
Author 2 books24 followers
December 31, 2021
An important and illuminating essay collection that examines what writing about race, or with race in mind, should or might be. The range of opinions and life experiences presented here is deeply affecting.
Profile Image for Sylvia.
16 reviews3 followers
November 21, 2019
Essential reading for anyone who reads, writes, teaches, or otherwise leads a thinking life.
Profile Image for S.M..
Author 5 books17 followers
November 3, 2020
The intro is pretty dense, but don't let that dissuade you. This is an excellent read.
Profile Image for Josephine Ensign.
Author 4 books40 followers
April 6, 2015
This was an interesting collection to read and look through (includes photos of different types of art as well as letters and essays)--all in response to an open letter/questions by poet Claudia Rankine on writing and race. I found many of the responses in the book thought-provoking, although many of them were way too stuck inside the stultifying language confines of 'academese'--and thus, not so broadly accessible.
Profile Image for Corrie.
157 reviews4 followers
October 19, 2015
While I didn't have time to deeply read this, the good chunk of entries (essays? blog posts? some are more 'free-form' than others) I did read were thought-provoking and worth my time. The art! Get this just so you have an excuse to look at some great contemporary art that investigates questions of race.
Profile Image for Alyson Hagy.
Author 13 books95 followers
December 29, 2015
A thoughtful, provocative, essential collection of essays and art that address how writers might/can/should approach questions of race. The collection is wide-ranging (and even contradictory) by design. Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap have done all of us a great favor with this book.
Profile Image for Hannah Notess.
Author 4 books71 followers
January 15, 2017
This book is worth picking up just for the introduction, which is incredibly clear-eyed about writing and race - I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any literary writer.

The quality of the pieces in the anthology vary (which is normal and as an editor of an anthology I feel I can say this is normal), as do the form, but there's lots of good food for thought and meaningful reflection.
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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