An American Conversation
By Claudia Rankine
“Fantasies cost lives,” Claudia Rankine writes in her new book, “Just Us,” a collection of essays and poems (and accompanying data graphs, photos, screenshots of social media posts and video stills) regarding all the ways preconceived notions of race take up residency in one’s thoughts. The book, fittingly, feels utterly of the mind, with its anxious inquiries and connections and diversions, not to mention all of Rankine’s brilliance — but for that same reason it can feel incoherent, insulated and disconnected from the world it depicts.
“Just Us” starts with an epigraph, a Richard Pryor quote from which the book takes its title: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” And the dedication follows, saying, “For Us.” It’s an interesting, though unintuitive, entry into this collection, because it seems to imply a book for and about Blackness — a book of solidarity. But there isn’t really a Black “us” at work in Rankine’s book, only the space carved out and defined by whiteness. That is, seemingly, Rankine’s point: Whiteness is dominant, so the question of “what is Black” must always follow “what is white?”
In one of the few sections of poetry in the collection, Rankine provides a stringent series of definitions of whiteness that is as emphatic and unrelenting as whiteness is in our cultural consciousness:
White is living within brick-and-mortar, walling off
all others’ loss, exhaustion, aggrieved
exposure, dispossessed despair—
in daylight white hardens its features.
That’s not surprising: Rankine is, after all, a scholar of whiteness, who teaches a class on the subject at Yale and is the founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute. And more than anything, with the text’s dogged transcriptions of events — her interactions at parties or in airports, her talks in her classes — and statements from her white friends and vast compendium of source materials, the book feels like a sociological study meant for the classroom.
In the book’s first section, Rankine introduces her hypothetical approach with a nagging sequence of “what if”s. As much as her previous collection, the groundbreaking “Citizen,” was a declaration about microaggressions and brutality against Black people in America, “Just Us” is an interrogation, constantly unwinding a spiral of questions.
Many of the episodes Rankine recounts take place during travel, in liminal spaces like airports or planes, when she witnesses or initiates interactions, yearning for reassurance that the white people around her can truly acknowledge their whiteness and what it affords them. She seeks real conversation, despite the cost:
To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.
To converse is to risk the performance of what’s held by the silence.
But Rankine’s interior world is often suffocating. For paragraphs on end we’re stuck in her mind, her internal search for answers and clues. Even when she writes from an academic distance, her volley of interrogatives betrays her anxieties. At a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, Rankine smartly unloads her thinking: “As we sit across from her white teachers, I smile and nod but really only want to ask them if they actively think about their unconscious inevitable racism and implicit bias, which is unavoidable given our world, the very world I want for my daughter. It’s a mouthful. I could choke on it.”
We could choke on it too. Rankine has a love affair with lyrical repetition and syntax that marathons forward through her stately academic prose. Yet there’s less sense of balance here between Rankine’s two prominent modes, poetry and criticism; her lyrics get short shrift. There are times when Rankine gets so mired in her sociological study that when she suddenly uses figuration and repetition to break a prose section out into a more poetic space, it’s welcome but jarring.
“The playwright and poet Samuel Beckett once said that writing ‘Waiting for Godot’ was a way of finding ‘a form that accommodates the mess.’ Are conversations accommodations?” Rankine asks at one point. One may ask the same of Rankine’s own project, which, with its medley of criticism and poetry alongside images and quotes from James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ruby Sales and Robin DiAngelo (among others), is an accommodation of her process, her mind barreling its way through the working of race in the world. But at times — as when this brief reference to Beckett is paired with an image of a production of “Godot” — the form seems superfluous.
Not all of her ancillary materials are necessary; in fact, many are gratuitous, simply reinforcing the book’s function as an advanced thought exercise, plucking references to replicate the wanderings of Rankine’s mind.
Often Rankine drops only the sparest cultural allusions into the book. There are references to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” the HBO series “Big Little Lies” and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play “Fairview,” but no sustained examination of them even in the sections titled “Lemonade” and “Big Little Lies.” This isn’t true across the board — sections like “boys will be boys,” on white masculinity, and “whitening,” on blondness, feel perfectly contained and absolute. And an erasure of Thomas Jefferson’s painfully racist “Notes on the State of Virginia” shows how there was no space in the white imagination of America for slaves to be considered as real human beings: “They seem to require less sleep. They are at least as brave. Their griefs are transient.”
Near the end of the book, Rankine concedes that “Just Us” is no solution; this is no guide to future Black Lives Matter rallies or blueprint for the end of racism in America. She says how a friend read the last pages of the book and “said flatly, there’s no strategy here,” because she had a “desire for a certain type of action.”
The problem isn’t in the concept — Rankine has proved that interrogation, conversation and vigilance are strategies in themselves, pushing back against complicitness with racist structures. But even in Rankine’s inarguable genius, “Just Us” feels as if it skips a small step in the progression of the book, the movement from start to finish among the separate chapters. Even if there’s no resolution or action to be made, there should still be a sense of the avalanche of questions in the author’s mind coming to some kind of head.
“Just Us” is no doubt a work of acuity and insight. But for all the ways it considers race through Rankine’s thought process, it gives only the slightest sense of its stakes in the real world: the drumbeat of Black deaths, the ongoing protests over police brutality, even Rankine’s own interactions outside the space in her head. It stays at a theoretical distance, which brings its ideas into focus but sacrifices any close-up consideration of their implications. “Just Us” can’t always overcome the bounds of its own imagination.
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