Just Us: An American Conversation
Claudia Rankine is back. The rapturous reception accompanying Rankine’s 2014 multiform poetry book Citizen: An American Lyric established Rankine as a leading artist dealing with the subject of racial injustice in America. Citizen was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, won the PEN Open Book Award, NAACP Image Award, and the L.A. Times Book Prize, and was named as one of the best books of the year by, among others, The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, and The Boston Globe. These awards create high expectations for Rankine’s new book, Just Us: An American Conversation (2020), another multiform blend that includes photographs and video stills alongside prose and poetry, and that most closely resembles an essay collection. Just Us elegantly communicates aspects of anti-racist thinking to a mainstream left-wing audience that is increasingly conversant in anti-racist discourse. Although Just Us does not break ground, it can nonetheless be judged a success. The contribution that Just Us makes consists less in articulating an original vision than in elaborating in a thoughtful way upon an efficacious pre-existing framework.
The theoretical standpoint of Just Us resonates with the identity-conscious anti-racist insights that have achieved widespread circulation through left-of-centre American media outlets: “Whiteness is a way of seeing.” The aporias will find purchase with book club members who have been dutifully working through DiAngelo and Kendi: “How does one combat the racism of a culture?” One might expect an artist with Rankine’s reputation to speak on these subjects in a voice that is distinctively her own, thereby inviting us to describe her work using a phrase like “Rankineseque” or “Rankinian”. But while Rankine provides eloquent and convincing reflections on race and racism, she does not craft her own variant of an American left-wing racial justice idiom. Still, it is not clear that a new idiom is what is needed in a country where the two white police offers who shot Breonna Taylor will not face indictment. To those who are struggling with a renewal of what feels like a never-ending process of mourning, an added voice need not be less powerful in virtue of its familiarity. Meanwhile, there are likely many who find themselves convinced by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s explanation for the lack of indictments on the grounds that “if we simply act on emotion or outrage, there is no justice”. Those people might find that Rankine’s words render them less susceptible to any effort to separate “emotion” and “outrage” from “justice”. The subtitle “An American Conversation”, like “An American Lyric”, announces an ambition to contribute to a national mode of thinking and speaking — a mode whose widespread recognisability and impact could eventually rival that of Cameron’s pseudo-reasonableness.
It might seem natural to expect that a writer who is radical in the sense of being steadfastly left-of-centre will produce works that are radical in the sense of being avant-garde. There is a long history to the intermingling of political radicalism and aesthetic radicalism. And yet, the expectation that the two come as a matched set is one that deserves interrogation. Although it is exciting when someone proposes a radical new framework for making sense of the world (consider, say, the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw in developing intersectional feminism), there is also important intellectual and political work to be done in filling out, extending, and applying those frameworks. Indeed, one reason to articulate a new framework is to make it possible for others to formulate their own further questions and investigations without needing each time to go through the time-consuming process of crafting the very vocabulary within which such questions make sense. Moreover, an endless series of radical new frameworks that never achieve uptake or surpass the mere feat of being articulated risks constituting an impressive spectacle with little political point (while conversely, left-wing politics detached from radical imagination is just conservatism in more fashionable dress). When it comes to radical politics, avant-garde and mainstream discourse need one another. Just Us is not an avant-garde book, but it does not have to be one, either.
Rankine’s distinctiveness appears in her fine-grained reflections on the possibility of personal connection across racial difference within the United States’ racially stratified would-be democracy. Tense interactions and non-interactions between Rankine and her colleagues, family, and friends provide the anchoring point for Rankine’s investigations into whether there is any reasonable possibility of continuing to work and hope for an “American conversation”.
In one piece, Rankine and her white husband visit a white marriage counsellor who seems unable to comprehend how the personal is political for Rankine: “Do you not value yourself? The counsellor asks this as if she had never seen how black women are treated in the world.” The fracture worth caring about, however, is not the one between Rankine and the counsellor so much as the one between Rankine and her husband: “But isn’t my husband, whoever else he is, also white America?” Twenty years of marriage and collaboration on anti-racist art do not fill in the fissure from which emerges a historically-inflected sense of being disposable. Nor do they prevent those closest to Rankine from inadvertently creating a reflective space that structures itself around the implicit encouragement for Rankine to be a bit more reasonable.
In another fractured interaction, a white friend writes to Rankine about her memory of reporting a burning cross set up outside a Black Student Union party around the time when she and Rankine were college students. Although Rankine’s white friend at first seems to say approximately the right things in her message to Rankine, her reflections close with musings on whether the perpetrators feel regret for their actions, or whether they are instead now “cheering on” white nationalism. Rankine feels jarred by her friend’s implicitly optimistic framing of the perpetrators’ racism — as something that might be merely a symptom of their youth rather than a deeply held conviction, and as something that in the worst-case scenario would lead to the perpetrators eventually “cheering on” white nationalism instead of being white nationalists themselves. Rankine then turns her attention to her own “melancholic reactions” to her friend’s message, whose content she finds “strangely disheartening and distantly alarming”: “Even here. Even her. I don’t want these thoughts to intrude on a friendship I value. Even here. Even her.”
The point of these anecdotes is not to supply especially egregious examples of racism. Rather, the point is to demonstrate how communication and understanding across racial lines is fraught even in putative best-case-scenarios, when the white people in question are well-meaning white liberals or even white radicals, and the settings are dinner parties, intimate exchanges between friends, or Ivy League classes on whiteness. The very strength of Rankine’s desire for connection and mutual understanding amplifies the alienation inherent in realising that those closest to her have once more let her down in a way that is no less painful for being subtle or socially acceptable. Upon first reading Just Us, I was inclined to see the many blank pages that Rankine includes in the book as a hopeful symbolic gesture toward an open space from which unexpected responses might emerge. Rereading Just Us in a more pessimistic mood, I saw Rankine’s words as engulfed by an all-encompassing and uncomprehending whiteness.
Rankine’s essays are heavily weighted toward the intimate and the personal. Although one underlying premise in the genre of identity-political writing to which Just Us belongs is that there is no neat separation between the personal and the political, many specific topics that Rankine takes up, such as the cultural valuation of blondness or micro-aggressions in first-class lines at airports, can feel small-scale, even as Rankine skilfully reveals how personal experience is rooted in entrenched patterns of domination. The title of the book, which plays on a verbal slippage between “justice” and “just us”, signals an interest in exploring how a brutal history refracts through intimate encounters. The intimate quality that marks both Rankine’s topic choices and her writing style can feel distant from the present political moment, when dynamics playing out in courtrooms and in the streets are occupying more public attention than micro-aggressions, implicit bias, or twisted personal interactions. Still, renewed focus on public settings and institutional problems does not mean that the other problems have been solved or that there is nothing left to say about them.
The mix of media modalities in Just Us enables Rankine to balance her human-scale essays with references to racism’s large-scale and institutional dimensions. The essays that make up the bulk of Just Us are printed on the right-hand side of the page and are annotated with images, screenshots from Twitter and Facebook, film stills, and “fact checks” on the left-hand side. The graphs, “Fact Check” sections, and “Notes and Sources” sections in particular all enable Rankine to provide a more systemically oriented setting for the essays. These sections, like the accompanying images and video stills, largely serve to substantiate, reinforce, or expand upon the accompanying points being made. Although American public discourse has slackened to the point where one can make a statement by drawing attention to the very fact of having a credible source, it is nonetheless somewhat disappointing not to find more playfulness or subversion in the interplay between main text and annotation.
This is one case in which political and aesthetic efficacy might stand in tension. While a more complex interplay between the main text and the annotations would have been more aesthetically stimulating, Rankine’s predominantly straightforward approach to supplementing the main text enables her to substantiate claims with specific and striking visual evidence, and to provide readers with concrete and important information about topics such as political representation, immigration history, and wealth disparities. Many will have encountered this information before, and those readers may wish Rankine had done something more unusual. Nonetheless, there is a high political payoff to ensuring that there is widespread knowledge about the injustices to which Rankine speaks. Here as elsewhere, Rankine largely prioritises communication over innovation, and political efficacy over provocation.
Just Us is a book that I would give to my parents. When I wrote that last sentence, I deleted it because it seemed unfair both to Rankine and to my parents. But then it began to remind me of one way that radical thought can lead to concrete political change: by infiltrating the mainstream, wearing a guise under which it no longer appears to be radical or upending, so much as the expression of a widespread and perhaps even increasingly default set of sentiments (or at least, sentiments that are becoming default among American leftists).
There are well-known dangers to mainstreaming what was/is radical. Rankine herself notes that knowing the “right terminology to use”, such as “white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation” can “prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition”. But just as it is probably for the best that concepts such as “human rights” and “human dignity” no longer strike anyone as avant-garde, perhaps the very familiarity of the discourse and viewpoint employed in Just Us is part of its power. If this book were given to people who are not yet sure about how to position themselves in relation to an increasingly mainstream anti-racist ideology, the language of Just Us could move them. Those who read Just Us might write a check, attend a protest, or sign a petition. They might tell their friends why they think defunding rather than ‘reforming’ the police is an important step towards justice. Others who read the book might consider it a relatable articulation of aspects of their own experience and feel comforted in the knowledge that they are not the only one who has encountered some particular psychological sinkhole or interpersonal impasse.
Just Us sounds all the right notes in all the right ways. This would be an ambiguous compliment for any book that aspires to being avant-garde. But to the extent that Rankine’s goal in this book is to connect rather than provoke, she has succeeded.
Maya Krishnan  is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at All Souls College, and is Essays Editor for the Oxonian Review.