Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Penguin 2021)
This is a wonderful book.
Note to Australian (and possibly other non-US) readers: Don’t be put off by the book’s self-description as ‘an American conversation’. It is deeply, intimately USian, but Claudia Rankine’s mind is to be learned from and loved by anyone with a heartbeat. The book’s central question is how people can reach for each other in human ways given the horrors of racism that divide us – and racism isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon.
Note to white readers, especially white male readers: Though these essays are mostly about racism as enacted and mistaken for reality, don’t read them in the spirit of self-lacerating virtue or grudging worthiness. They are exhilarating, challenging, inviting, occasionally funny. Almost every essay is written as part of a conversation. People quoted in the essays (including white men and white women) are given right of reply, adding unexpected perspectives and enriching the conversation wonderfully.
The title is a pun. The first of the book’s two epigraphs is a line from Richard Prior’s stand-up comedy:
You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.
In its original context, which you can see on YouTube, the line could be paraphrased: you look for justice in the criminal justice system but all you find is the targeting of Black people. Rankine’s use implies an additional possible reading: If you want justice, you have to find a way to make us all part of one ‘us’.
The book’s 19 essays and two poems are mostly printed only on the right-hand page of each spread. The left-hand page is sometimes blank, but mostly carries ‘notes and sources’, or images, or fact-checks. When a piece of police brutality is discussed on the recto, the verso might show how it was captured on camera. A general assertion on the right is backed up by statistics on the left. And so on. It’s an inspired design concept.
The opening essay starts with the author preparing to teach a class on whiteness at Yale University. After discussing some of what she asks of her students, the essay takes an interesting turn:
I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself – a middle-aged black woman – walking up to strangers to do so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Indiana, did when his female colleague told him during a diversity training session that he benefited from ‘white male privilege’? He became angry and accused her of using a racialised slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave and a reprimand was placed in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, or Chelsea Handler and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage.(‘liminal spaces 1’, page 19)
So we follow her as she shies away from the challenge a number of times, before finally hitting paydirt. On the way, she slips in a quick introduction to Peggy McIntosh’s popularising of the term ‘white privilege’, noting in passing that she would have preferred ‘white living’ because ‘”privilege” suggested white dominance was tied to economics’. She seamlessly invokes other scholarly and non-scholarly writing (including some excruciating Twitter threads). We hardly notice that we’re being educated as the suspense builds, and as a white male reader I found I had a lot invested in the project as well.
That essay sets the tone. Rankine is after conversation, not confrontation. She aims not to provoke defensiveness or denial but to learn something.
The subject matter of the following essays include revelatory moments in ‘diversity training’ workshops, including the one referred to in the quote above; her marriage; a meditation on Woman with Arm Outstretched, an art photograph by Paul Graham; white supremacist assumptions in the education system, specifically at her daughter’s school; the way different white and black people remember a cross-burning incident in her college days; a dinner party where she gets to be the ‘angry Black woman’ for insisting on the primacy of racism as a factor in Trump’s election; how racism plays out against Latinx and Asian people; and a brilliant discussion prompted by the moment at an all-Black dinner party when a professor asks her what to tell her black female students who bleach their hair blond. The essay on hair has the distinction of being the only essay/conversation where the right-of-reply takes the wind out of Rankine’s sails, when one of the young women under discussion gets to speak.
This book is evidently the third in a trilogy of sorts. Where this book is mainly essays, the earlier two are a mix of poetry and videos, sharing the subtitle An American Lyric. I haven’t seen Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), but I was completely enthralled by Citizen (2014, my blog post here), so I came to Just Us with high expectations. I was not disappointed. The book opens the world up to great possibilities.
To give Rankine the last word, here’s part of the left-hand-page commentary on the final spread:
A friend finished reading the final pages of Just Us and said flatly, there’s no strategy here. No? I asked. Her impatience had to do with a desire for a certain type of action. How to tell her, response is my strategy. …
For some of us, and I include myself here, remaining in the quotidian of disturbance is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating. Until then, to forfeit the ability to attempt again, to converse again, to speak with, to question, and to listen to, is to be complicit with the violence of an unchanging structure contending with the aliveness and constant movement of all of us.
And here are the final lines on the right-hand page:
What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.
Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.