Claudia Rankine ’93 to Found Racial Imaginary Institute

October 25, 2016

Claudia Rankine ’93 has announced plans to found what she calls a “Racial Imaginary Institute” using the money from her MacArthur “genius grant,” which she received earlier this year.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Rankine described the institute as a “presenting space and think tank all at once” that will allow her, the group of thinkers she’s working with on the project, and contributors to “show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.” Rankine will donate her genius grant stipend—$625,000—to the project. She conceives of the institute as being located in downtown Manhattan, so that it can coexist on the “same playing field” as the city’s renowned art galleries, such as Gagosian, she told the Guardian.

The project, if realized, would constitute a natural (though ambitious) extension of Rankine’s work as a poet. In 2014, she published Citizen: An American Lyric, a book-length and formally experimental poem about race in the 21st century. The book was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, and, in a rare double-honor, was nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award in both Poetry and Criticism (it won for Poetry).

Rankine received the MacArthur genius grant earlier this year. In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation said, “In Citizen, Rankine’s aesthetic evolution culminates in a powerful poetics, at once visual and documentary, as she brings to life a series of everyday occurrences tinged with racism directed toward African Americans.”

Rankine told the Guardian that she plans, through the Racial Imaginary Institute, to undertake an investigation of whiteness. “Constructions and conceptions of whiteness,” she said, have been “propped up with eugenics and propped up with false science and false rhetoric and maintained through the justice system in every way.” She hopes to make people see that “whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.” She also said her next book, which is currently in process, will be similarly focused on whiteness, and the ways in which it’s been constructed and reinforced throughout American history.

Rankine recently said of receiving the genius grant, “To have a career recognized in this way, a career and practice that I feel in many ways began at Columbia School of the Arts, is a very exciting and motivating gift.”