In this review, the author dives into the series of personal essays in “Just Us: An American Conversation” to better understand the dialogue around the personal and political when it comes to black lives in America.
Claudia Rankine is an American poet, essayist and playwright. She has written five collections of poetry and two plays, numerous essays and edited several anthologies. Born in Jamaica and immigrated to the US during her early childhood, Rankine grew up in New York and received her MFA from Columbia University. She is a recipient of several fellowships, including those from the MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. Since 2003, she has worked as a teacher and, at present, is a professor in the New York University’s Writing Program.
Her work is known to often cross genres, collaging poetry, photographs, research, essays and facts as if the effort is to try and force out a truth hidden in plain sight. Citizen, which was released in 2014, was book-length and went on to be featured in the bestseller list of the New York Times nonfiction list. The precarity of our times and how nothing is just one thing or can be put into one specific box mimic her books.
Can the Personal Exist Without the Political? If yes, when?
In her latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, Rankine digs deeper to inspect whiteness and what it means for Black Americans. It is as much a public conversation as it is an internal dialogue. And that is not all. The book goes on to explore the in-betweenness of thought and action that could lead towards a better understanding of white complacency, denial and disinterest in partaking in positive discourses of race and where that stems from. It asks – What does it mean to have the personal always tangle with the political? What does it mean for those who do not have to carry that load?
Rankine foreshadows the book with the poem ‘what if’ to push the boundaries of the reader’s imagination despite their race, ask an alternate question, imagine a different outcome, and think of another possibility. This stream of thought birthed from a ‘what if’ sets out to challenge the realities of ‘what is’ and our understanding of it.
The first section of the poem asks –
What does it mean to want
an age- old call
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
without reproach? The root
of chastise is to make pure.
The impossibility of that—is that
what repels and not
the call for change?
It seems that, for the author, the real power lies in the act of questioning – the well-meaning man who says he does not see color, the man who thinks his son’s seat in Yale was taken by a person of color (attributing to the seat-taker’s success to the ability to ‘play-the-diversity-card’), the men who assume she must not be a first-class passenger, the friend who did not participate in an expected way in the play. The list of people to question is endless, and the questions too, which shows how much distance needs to be covered sociologically to even reach a point of justifiable discourse from both sides.
Structural Change vs Public Conversation – Is it an either/or choice?
In a series of personal essays interwoven with social media posts, cultural commentary, poems, research, advertisements, existing laws and historical events, Rankine delivers with stark clarity and extreme nuance a spectrum of white behavior where on one end, there are the concerted efforts of white people to look the other way every time they have been called to participate in building an equal society or speak up against racism, while on the other end, there is also an eagerness to deliberately assign blame on Black people when presented with the slightest opportunity to do so. She uses conversation as the vessel to start the process of this book as she talks about it here, but it also points a little toward the power of having that conversation, the courage it takes to position oneself in those complexities of dialogue and the reader will find that Rankine does that. She decides to become vulnerable in those conversations.
The reader can see Rankine structuring her way through the book to reveal social, economic and political racism and the microaggressions through which it is delivered again and again so that it becomes part of a larger sub-conscious. This book then becomes an act of resistance to that, in which the author says, in a way, “I see what you are doing.”
Now, this does not mean that Rankine suggests conversations can replace the painful waiting around for structural change to kick in; what she suggests is that raising our consciousness through conversation could somewhat help alleviate that pain.
Inspecting the Flow of Power in Diverse Spaces
Throughout the book, Rankine is found contending her role as a wife, a teacher, a friend, a citizen and a person of a racial group surrounded by whiteness. She talks about the intersectionality of gender and race, the varying degrees of these two -isms that are pervasive and how one can pose as the other. She also tries to reveal how gender discrimination as a label is sometimes deliberately used by people to distance themselves from facing or admitting something as an act of racism. As if in the hierarchy of -isms, racism was the lowest rung on the ladder.
The book’s brilliance not only lies in its relevance and how very contemporary it is in a post-Trump era when the country saw racism activated into broad daylight but also in how simple it is to read through. This is mostly achieved because Rankine states it as it is, going through her day-to-day life and talking to people in airports and theatres or sitting in her own living room and watching the news. In a way, it is a meditation on her part to examine her own position in the order of things. But, in other ways, it is also an invitation to white people to contend with their whiteness and its effect on the social order, which they usually brush under the carpet.
Rankine’s ruminations in between statements and anecdotes are the connective tissue that brings the reader closer to the narrative. It positions them as the narrator and places them as much in the ecosystem in question as possible.
She defines whiteness as atmospheric. That – outside of the security stemming from social, political and economic powers attached to whiteness – there is also the sense of safety and agency that comes with the idea of whiteness, granting the wielder a different kind of choice that they could exercise with a freedom that is not afforded by everyone, therein lies the real divide. Even though segregation has ended, emancipation has been achieved, and the overall picture of the country from an optical distance looks fine, the fine print paints a different picture.
Why You Should Read the Book
At its core, Just Us: An American Conversation tries to draw attention to the underlying harms of not paying attention to our subconscious biases, which perpetuates anxiety and furthers feelings of otherness within marginalized groups, thus increasing the division without making any attempts to resolve. It goes on to say that while a country waits for effective systemic reform in order to support a vast majority of its citizens historically sidelined and silenced, they should not be waiting quietly. Conversations lead to better understanding, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. You will find Rankine trudging through harsh assumptions, denigrating comments and daily snubs in everyday situations; this applies to a lot of issues around the world, be it gender-related, class divides or even caste discrimination. Just Us provides a fresh view to attempt a resolution.