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what if

by Claudia Rankine

Apr 29, 2021 | Culture, Race

Illustration by 
Edel Rodriguez


what if


What does it mean to want an age-old call
for change
not to change

and yet, also,
to feel bullied
by the call to change?

How is a call to change named shame,
named penance, named chastisement?

How does one say

what if

without reproach? The root

of chastise is to make pure.
The impossibility of that—is that
what repels and not

the call for change?


There is resignation in my voice when I say I feel
myself slowing down, gauging like a machine
the levels of my response. I remain within
so sore I think there is no other way than release—

so I ask questions like I know how
in the loneliness of my questioning.
What’s still is true; there isn’t even a tremor
when one is this historied out.

I could build a container to carry this being,
a container to hold all, though we were never
about completeness; we were never to be whole.

I stand in your considered thoughts also broken,
also unknown, extending
one sentence—here, I am here.
As I’ve known you, as I’ll never know you,

I am here. Whatever is
being expressed, what if,
I am here awaiting, waiting for you

in the what if, in the questions,
in the conditionals,
in the imperatives—what if.


What if over tea, what if on our walks, what if
in the long yawn of the fog, what if in the long middle
of the wait, what if in the passage, in the what if
that carries us each day into seasons, what if
in the renewed resilience, what if in the endlessness,
what if in a lifetime of conversations, what if
in the clarity of consciousness, what if nothing changes?

What if you are responsible to saving more than to changing?

What if you’re the destruction coursing beneath
your language of savior? Is that, too, not fucked up?

You say, if other white people had not . . . or if it seemed like
not enough . . . I would have . . .

What if—the repetitive call of what if—is only considered repetitive
when what if leaves my lips, when what if is uttered
by the unheard, and what if

what if is the cement of insistence
when you insist what if
this is.

What is it we want to keep conscious, to stay known, even as we
say, each in our own way, I so love I know I shrink I’m asked
I’m also I react I smell I feel I think I’ve been told I remember I
see I didn’t I thought I felt I failed I suspect I was doing I’m sure
I read I needed I wouldn’t I was I should’ve I felt I could’ve I
never I’m sure I ask . . .

You say and I say but what
is it we are telling, what is it

we are wanting to know about here?

What if what I want from you is new, newly made
a new sentence in response to all my questions,

a swerve in our relation and the words that carry us,
the care that carries. I am here, without the shrug,
attempting to understand how what I want
and what I want from you run parallel—

justice and the openings for just us.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.


Claudia Rankine, “what if” from Just Us: An American Conversation. © 2020 by Claudia Rankine. Reprinted with the permission of the Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

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