A Review of: Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Format: 352 pp., hardcover; Size: 6.52” x 9.16”Price: $30Publisher: GraywolfRecurring Chapter Title: Liminal Spaces”Some of the Items That Appear Alongside the Main Text: graphs, fact checks, pictures of Tweets, pictures of historical events, screen grabs, a picture of Emily Dickinson, an excerpt from a speech by Audre Lorde, quotations from news reports, pictures of blond hair and blond women, a picture of a PowerPoint slide from a diversity workshop, a picture of a page from Nelson Mandela’s calendar; Number of Erasures: two; Number of Those Erasures That Refashion an Earlier Part of the Text: one; Paper: thick and glossy; Representative Passage: “To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.”

Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation begins with a poem composed mostly of questions, starting with these:

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?

More questions break loose inside these queries. Verbs dominate the poem, but they’re typically deployed as other parts of speech (”a call”) or shifted into the passive voice (“is named”). No subject—no human actor—attaches to them. Who calls? Who names? The sole exception, the pronoun “one,” stands out in its almost-inhuman formality, wondering how to speak, surrounded by actors “one” can’t or won’t identify.

Pronouns matter immensely in Rankine’s An American… trilogy, which Just Us concludes. The first volume, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, was a book of “I,” while the second, Citizen (also An American Lyric), concentrated on “you.” As the title suggests, this third book imagines a synthesis, but it’s mostly thwarted. “Us,” like the “conversation” of its subtitle, and like the “lyric” of the first two (or, for that matter, like founding declaration of the United States) is a reminder of what mostly isn’t there. Rankine tells story after story about failed conversations, situations in which privileged white people—in the first-class section of an airplane, at a dinner party, in her marriage—close down any chance of recognizing the active presence of racism, and so fail to leave space for parts of her experience—which is their own experience, too, were they (we, I) to acknowledge it.

Amid those failures, a few moments jut out as images of hope and models of connection. A promising conversation on an airplane runs aground when the white man she’s talking with claims “I don’t see color,” which, Rankine writes, “pulled an emergency brake in my brain.” But, when corrected, he replies, “I get it. What other inane things have I said?” Rankine responds with “Only that,” “And just like that, we broke open our conversation—random, ordinary, exhausting, and full of longing to exist in some image of less segregated spaces.”

The moment keeps opening from there. Rankine later sends him the chapter describing their encounter, and he responds with a letter unearthing a memory of racism from his high school years, which he’d misrepresented on the plane. It’s one of several letters from friends and acquaintances that unlock an impasse in Just Us, which seems fitting. Interpretation, for Rankine, is a source of vitality—a potential for understanding both context and individual that makes individuals present to each other in the shared spaces and moments of their different lives. And it’s the meticulous care of a writer, rather than the loose freedoms of face-to-face conversation, that gives the book its form and force. 

Just Us invites and rewards attention. And it seeks out not only understanding, but the ways in which that understanding might emerge. Rankine asks, invites, or insists that the white people around her acknowledge the centrality of race in their apparently innocent lives. She pulls dramatic tension from those moments, documenting both her own sometimes-awkward, occasionally timid, often-vulnerable attempts to force the issue and the resistance she encounters, first within herself, and then among the white people she tries to engage, most of whom fall back on one of the many available scripts—so familiar that we can read them without even realizing they’re scripts—for keeping race from knocking the familiar business of life off course.

While narrative drives most chapters, the book insists on contemplation. Its main text only appears on right-hand pages. On the left, Rankine includes notes, fact checks, images, other texts. Red dots in the main text point back to the left, so that you move two steps forward and one step back. Reading page seventy-three, you return to seventy-two for additional notes, then move on to page seventy-five, which directs you back to the images on page seventy-four. It slows things down—it slowed me down—making time for contemplation that an actual conversation (as opposed to this working via converse pages) might not allow. 

On top of that, Rankine treats experience as a text in which each act demands interpretation and implies a legible impulse. There’s a quality of vigilance that spills into the relationships and conversations she describes. “The poet Erica Hunt describes love as ‘a close reading’ that ‘help[s] me invent myself more—in the future,’” she writes. “It’s the most workable definition I’ve found to date.” Most confounding for Rankine, and so most charged, are situations in which others refuse to engage. She writes of attending the play Fairview—at the end of which a Black member of the cast asks white members of the audience to leave their seats and come on stage—with a white friend who does not get up. That refusal is then compounded by another one: Her friend refuses to explain why. 

As an excerpt from a speech on anger, guilt, racism, and women by Audre Lorde runs without commentary on the left-hand pages, Rankine’s confusion and frustration with her friend escalates, and her questions speed up, as if scrambling for some purchase, some steady ground. Finally, the story cracks open, once again with a letter: “And then she did something I didn’t expect but that explains why we are friends. She sat down and wrote.” It’s not everyone’s ideal of love or friendship, but at least for those of us who cherish close reading, it’s often engrossing to read. 

Describing a moment with her husband, she writes:

This white man who has spent the past twenty-five years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition. These phrases—white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation—have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.

And describing how they ended up in marriage counseling after her cancer remitted, she explains:

I sat in a speeding car, and because metaphors can also be realities, speedily informed my husband that, in my remaining time, though always the time remains unknown, I needed to find a partner who would make me laugh. It was a humorless moment and so proved my point. 

Laughter is another aspiration here, an image of shared, embodied presence. She wants the possibility of surprise—the surprise of a better world, or at least of a more honest recognition of this one. During one dinner party, a white woman cuts her off, apparently uncomfortable with Rankine’s talk of racism, by calling attention to the dessert tray. Rankine responds, “Am I being silenced?,” and then into the ensuing silence she writes, “I wanted this white woman to look me in the eye and say, Yes. Yes, you are. I wanted her to own her action and not cower. I would have liked her then.” It’s a surprising claim—and a measure of just how exhausted she is by the ways her anger, her sanity, her life, is foreclosed. 

Just Us is full of questions—runs of questions, questions revising earlier questions, questions about questions people ask. I missed that my first time through, which seems remarkable: They’re everywhere.

I saw the question marks, of course. But I overlooked them, too, treating them as rhetorical or forgetting about their frequency as I went on. Part of that, I’m sure, is a result of Rankine’s style. Though she likes to work in the gray area between objective understanding and subjective experience, she’s an authoritative writer; even her self-doubt registers her command. But I suspect it had a lot to do with me, too: I felt chastised. I felt reproached. I’m a privileged white male, and the unnamed subjects in those opening questions are also the frequent subjects of the book itself—privileged white people. People like me. Or, me. And so my response proved Rankine’s point—even though the point of the book isn’t, at least not in the way I first thought, to make a point.

But even amid my initial misreading and resistance, Just Us compelled me. I don’t say that to minimize my failure (or, at least, not for that reason alone), but to describe one of the reasons Just Us and Citizen work so well. Both imagine and engage their audiences in such complex networks that even to disagree is to enter more deeply, becoming more aware of our own impulses, seeing more clearly what she’s describing and—although it might take took a long time to admit it—what she asks.

Rankine ends Just Us holding out more hope than I’d expected:

The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and worst our democracy has to offer.

The first-person plural surrounds Rankine’s “I,” and she goes out of her way to mark its inclusiveness, inviting in anyone willing to join her. All we need to do is to recognize an American potential for—and ongoing history of—terror, violence, injustice, whiteness, innocence: the worst of us. Which is both to ask very little of Rankine’s readers, and to ask everything of us.

Among the many potential privileges of whiteness, of those of us Rankine asks this of, is fluency—the ability, for example, to say what you think without thinking, in the confidence that you are good, and your goodness sufficient. The work of antiracism is partly an effort to interrupt that fluency, to show people the ground on which they walk and convince them to walk differently, self-consciously, there. I’m especially invested in this trilogy in part, I suspect, because the last two books make that lack of fluency meaningful. They compose a network in which each thread activates the whole, and where moving back a page I also seem to be moving deeper in. They do what important art often does: they create new ways of moving—ways that feel, in this case, for me, like compensation for the fluency I forfeit along the way.

I want to honor Rankine’s invitation, to imagine what it would mean to go beyond the scripts that stand in “for the complicated mess of a true conversation.” The hardest part, for me, is thinking through disagreement (hence my waiting this long). But listening without the possibility of disagreement isn’t listening; it’s patronizing—hiding from the possibility of reproach, and from the person who might reproach me. What does it mean to listen—to really listen—and, sometimes, to disagree? To disagree publicly, accepting that censure might come?

Some disagreements don’t work. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explained when Andrew Sullivan tried to argue about Black IQ, “Being forced to debate your humanity” is absurd. And, Rankine suggests, a conversation that denies racism is effectively the same: It’s impossible to truly listen to a person and deny either their worth or suffering. But within those parameters, I think—and I think Rankine suggests this, too—we need to be present enough to diverge. And I do think Rankine gets some important things wrong.

At times, her habit of close-reading experience causes her to miss out on lived possibilities. For example, in her discussion of young Black women who dye their hair blond, she writes: “Either blondness grants access to something we feel we don’t have, or it feels like a random choice.” It’s hard to imagine the women would recognize themselves here; for many, surely, it’s a camping of whiteness, claiming control over race and turning it into a form of play. 

In addition, Rankine struggles to move with the same clarity outside of a white/black dichotomy. Up to a point, that feels meaningful—Rankine seems at times to be modeling the ways one might operate outside of fluency as she expands to think about Latinx- and Asian-Americans. But that doesn’t prevent her from twice offering up a friend’s condescending take that “Latinx and Asian people are the ‘junior partners’ in a white nationalist administration” as something worthy of consideration. And, in a slightly different vein, her writing sometimes feels confined by the narrow range of terms in which she seeks more resonance than she’s able to generate. For example, a poem made up of lines like “The gloom is // the off-white of white. Because white can’t know // what white knows” both exposes the limitations of the terms it uses and fails to achieve (at least for me) the kind of surprise that Rankine seeks.

Her range is further limited by what seems like a significant blind spot. Just Us focuses primarily on the places of economic privilege where Rankine lives and moves, and yet she doesn’t say much about class outside the realm of her own affluent circles. While she does, for example, address the impacts of racial disparities in generational wealth, she concentrates on the disparities between her and a white friend who owns a house as nice as hers.

At one point, Rankine writes, “From Appalachia to Fifth Avenue, my precarity is not a reality shared.” That’s incontestable. But there are other kinds of precarity, too, and many of them are a function of the world that produces first-class cabins, fancy dinner parties, and Ivy-League schools. Imagining that uprooting economic inequality will eliminate racism underestimates racism. But to talk about elite racism without delving into class, including, for example, the poverty of white people (not to mention people of color) in Appalachia, risks reprising the dynamic that formed whiteness—a cordoning off of African Americans from poor whites, whose suffering is different in nature and causes, but whose lost potential for common cause is a source of our inability to systematically address poverty and racism.

And yet, I feel obligated to say, my thinking about how to best understand—and articulate—these disagreements is inseparable from the experience of reading Rankine’s An American trilogy. I don’t want to minimize any of these objections. But neither do I feel like I can claim my response as separable from the imaginary conversation I’ve been having for years with the trilogy that Just Us concludes.

I’m not sure Just Us makes good on everything those first two books promised. It’s by far the longest of the three, but it also feels smaller in scope and less agile in its reach. There is again the vulnerability of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, but less of its precision in rendering her own emotions, its boring down into Rankine’s heart. And while she’s retained the variety of Citizen—its magpie materials and techniques—they less often feel like a product of necessity this time around, gathered up in an urgency they therefore reflect, and more like a pastiche. 

In a recent interview with Audie Cornish of NPR, Rankine explained that she rarely has conversations with white men “exploring a subject without a destination,” and it may be that that ideal of conversation as aimless is part of what leaves this book feeling less complete. In the first two books, the obstacles to freedom were a major part of the shape Rankine gave to her materials; she scored the American Lyricsagainst the lyricism they were most often denied. One could imagine a concluding volume that either moved with more freedom—that would feel more spontaneous, more lyrical, more capable of imagining and embodying joy and anger—or one that went deeper into the human bodies, including the less privileged ones that were more prominent in Citizen, that American unfreedom continues to break. But Just Us, with its lack of a destination, with its frequent approach of “what if,” sometimes lacks the charge of either of those—or of some other destination that might stand in their place.

At times, in Just Us, Rankine articulates an ambition that seems simple yet remains out of reach. “The thing that brought both my husband and me to the gymnasium,” she writes as they visit her daughter’s mostly white school, “is the knowledge that though the deep-seated racist systems are reaffirmed and the evidence is there for us to see, I still want the world for my daughter that is more than this world, a world that has our daughter already in it.” That wanting, that hunger for life and honesty and the surprise of recognition, the surprise of change, change here, animates Just Us at its best, and it’s in that aspiration that the book most often achieves the vitality of conversation, the ongoingness that is its own image of hope (keep talking) even as it describes this world and all that it destroys.

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