When they go low, we go high, Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. Wednesday night, as the presidential candidates reached new lows in their final debate, I went instead to hear two of the country’s most profoundly reflective writers — poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marilynne Robinson — in quiet conversation before a packed house at the University of Minnesota.
Both are students of the intimate gesture that wounds or heals, divides or embraces, what Rankine calls “the small things we do to take care of strangers.” Yet at first glance, their work seems so dissimilar. Rankine, a black poet who won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and MacArthur fellowship this year, limns the emotional toll that racial fears and isolation take on black Americans. Robinson, a white novelist, examines the fierce bonds, loving care and emotional distance within families and communities in white, small-town America.
Wednesday’s conversation – the University’s annual Esther Freier lecture – allowed these two artists to explore how their work resonates. The theme that emerged was our shared longing for community and the possibility of creating a place where people care for each other regardless of differences.
Robinson challenged the notion that the darker forces of America’s history are inevitable. A student of history and religion, she recalled that Iowa had schools integrated by gender and race in the 1830s. “America has a history of being good to each other. Every good thing I know comes from watching other people.” These shining examples get lost in collective memory – and not by accident, she said, for there are always some who benefit from our divisions.
Rankine too spoke of possibility: “We all have the capacity to fail each other. We have to actively reroute the habits of our culture.”
There was none of the defensive, divisive language of so many conversations about race. Instead, we witnessed two writers working the way improvisational musicians might – listening closely and responding with sharp, refining intelligence.
So Rankine proposed: “If we could see people as human beings we could love them.”
And Robinson responded: “If we could love them societally, we don’t have to love them individually,” for it’s impossible to love every person we meet.
Asked questions about optimism and anger, they claimed neither, reaching for the subtler, more complex reactions that lie below the surface emotions. Rankine said: “I don’t think of myself as describing anger. I spend a lot of time being disappointed.”
Asked what they would tell black teenagers on the east side of St. Paul, Robinson offered not advice but sympathy and a challenge to the more privileged: “Start out with a strategy of general alleviation. Poverty means feeling insulted in the day-to-day condition of their lives. The one thing they have easy access to is awareness of more privileged lives. The exclusion must be terribly profound.”
I’m challenged to convey the salving tenor of that evening — how Rankine and Robinson listened intently, responded thoughtfully and paused at length to think and leave room for the other to speak first. Among writers these days, there is much talk about cultural appropriation — whether one has the right to write about identities and experiences that are not one’s own. What Rankine and Robinson demonstrated Wednesday was the importance of working to understand another’s experience and to build community based on caring for one another. And so beautifully, the writer’s role in helping us accomplish that.