In an interview about her book Citizen: An American Lyric, the poet and playwright Claudia Rankine recalls visiting Ferguson, Missouri a week after the protests began this summer. She describes how visiting the memorial reminded her of classical tragedy:
It was a very hot day, and there were a lot of people standing around, waiting for something to happen. Things were happening at night, the police force was coming out at night, but during the day they were just sitting in their cars, watching out the windows. And so there was a kind of odd, steamy, hot August waiting happening.
Really, I just kind of looked at the memorial and stood. And then I found myself being approached by people. A man stood next to me, and saw a picture of Michael Brown at the memorial, and said, “He looks like me.” I didn’t want to say yes, because I didn’t want to align him with a person who had passed away. So I said nothing. And then he said it again, he said, “He looks like me.” So at that point I looked at him and looked at the photo, and he did look like Michael Brown. And I began to think, I wish there was a way to stop him from identifying with somebody who is dead. But the real understanding was that he too could be dead, at any point. He just stood there. He was a teenager. He was still in his pajamas.
And then there was a woman who came up to me with a toddler. I had taken out my iPhone to take a picture of the memorial, so the woman grabbed the toddler’s hands and put them up in the air and said to me, “Take his picture.” But again, I didn’t want to take a picture of a toddler, with his hands up in the air, surrendering to the police that was going to shoot him anyway. So I didn’t take the picture. I just put the phone in my bag and then bent down and talked to the child.
Those two interactions—they exhausted me. Because they just had a sense of inevitability. It almost felt Greek. Predetermined, and hopeless. And then you had all these police cars with white policemen and policewomen, just sitting inside the cars, looking out at you. It was like you were in a theater, and they were this encased audience. It made me think of Antigone. And so that’s what I’m working on—a rewriting of Antigone, as a way of discussing what it means to decide to engage. The dead body’s in the street. What do you do now?