What Did You Say?


Claudia Rankine’s poetry ushers the reader in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. (Photograph from Pomona College)

If you are among the 128K followers on Twitter of @AcademicsSay, you have read tweets like the following:

“I have a statement followed by a two-part question.”


“I often get emotional. But when I do, I call it affect.”

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”


I recognize myself — and us — in these tweets. Such self-mocking tweets can be amusing and also, if the need arises, which it often does, aid procrastination. I was distracting myself the other day and saw this tweet from @AcademicsSay: “I don’t make mistakes. I create teachable moments.”

That phrase “teachable moment” gained popularity after the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in July 2009. President Obama first said that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Gates, but he later revised that to say that he hadn’t meant to criticize the police. Instead of recriminations, the president was now offering regret. He said he hoped that the episode would serve as a “teachable moment.”

Teachable moment! The president was engaging in academicspeak in order to appear balanced and to tamp down confrontation. Perhaps it was only right that the tame end to the rupture marked by Gates’s arrest was the event derisively called the Beer Summit — with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Gates, and his arresting officer, Sgt. Crowley, sitting down for a beer around a table in the courtyard of the White House.

In the light of numerous killings of unarmed black people by the police in recent months, how idealistic and necessary, but also so empty and hopeless, does that “teachable moment” sound.

Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book Citizen illustrates, with considerable anguish, the despair I’m talking about. Everything in American public life, when it comes to race relations, serves as a frame for a history of violence and degrading humiliation. And yet, what is inspiriting about Rankine’s latest volume of poetry is its deep investment in the teachable moment. The teachable moment in Citizen doesn’t involve sharing beer. Instead, we watch the poet flinch, or introduce a pause, or post a rebuke. The teachable moment here often simply resides in asking What did you say?

One of the pieces in Citizen begins thus:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred
street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean
is making him hire a person of color when there are so
many great writers out there.

We are unlikely to read that statement as a tweet on @AcademicsSay, but such utterances are a part of our cultural life and our discourse. What the other person, the narrator of this piece, says and does in response is also unlikely to be a tweet on @AcademicsSay, but it too is a part of our protest and our strategy of survival. The latter voice, in asking in one form or another What did you say?, exposes repeatedly what was really being said, or left unsaid, in the original formulation. This voice can be seen as a form of academic speech. Except that its thoughtfulness, and its urgency, not to mention its anger, and also its melancholia, is a matter of life and death.

Here’s another example from Rankine to make this point clearer:

Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical
schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on
sabbatical. You are friends so you respond, easy.
What do you mean?
Exactly, what do you mean?

Rankine is a professor of English at Pomona College. I’ve deliberately chosen examples from an academic context in Citizen. They demonstrate for me the structure of the teachable moment as critical practice. But Rankine’s interest isn’t limited to academe alone. In fact, just the other morning, watching Serena Williams serving her way to victory at Wimbledon, at the moment of her triumph, I was reminded of what Rankine had written about her. And I engaged in a small teachable moment of my own:

Rankine has said in an interview that she got interested in athletes like Serena Williams after she heard the commentary that accompanied their performances. She was interested in the context the sports commentators provided, and then in adding her own bits of contextualization. What is the difference between Rankine’s commentary and the one we hear on television?

To read Rankine on Williams and the treatment meted out to her is to witness racial otherness and gendered difference displayed and disparaged against a backdrop of white supremacy. The power of Rankine’s writing is that, as a reader, you are ushered in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. You feel the burn in lines like the following: “For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.”

There, my friends, is one successful attempt at creating a teachable moment. For me, Rankine is the example of what academics say, and oh, how well!

Amitava Kumar replaces Lucy Ferriss, who is on vacation. 

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