In her new book, the poet tries to interrogate race in America through conversation.
A review by Katy Waldman for The New Yorker.
In her book-length poem “Citizen,” from 2014, the writer Claudia Rankine probed some of the nuances and contradictions of being a Black American. Her focus fell on what it means to be erased, projected upon, or politicized, and how the cumulative effect can shatter one’s sense of self. Rankine has said that she wanted to “pull the lyric back into its realities,” and “Citizen” struck a delicate balance between the world that Rankine dreamed about and the one that she saw. The book’s narrator found words for the pain of racism, and little seemed lost in the translation; but there was, too, an aura around that pain, a ripple of reinvention. Rankine wrote poetry that was always slipping toward the next shape, the one that only she could see.
The subtitle of “Citizen” was “An American Lyric.” Rankine’s new collection, “Just Us,” is subtitled “An American Conversation”—the transparent eyeball has acquired ears and a tongue. “Just Us” describes a series of racialized encounters with friends and strangers. Rankine attends a lot of dinner parties (perhaps too many, it must be said) and is repeatedly subjected to white people stepping in it, thanks to a combination of willed oblivion and condescension. At one gathering, Rankine challenges a man about the 2016 election: his theory of Trump’s win seems to elide the role of racism. “I was sailing closer and closer to the trope of the angry black woman,” Rankine recounts. A female guest interrupts, cooing over a tray of brownies. The redirect is so obvious that Rankine blurts out, “Am I being silenced?”
The technologies of whiteness—silencing, surveilling, policing—are supposed to be frictionless for the user. Rankine exposes and disrupts them, but not for long. In this case, the other guests, like a fleet of Roombas, clear away the awkwardness, and a defeated Rankine pushes food around her plate, absorbing the discomfort back into her body. Her book’s title comes from a Richard Pryor quote about the courthouse: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” Those two terms—justice and just us—provide some of the work’s animating tensions. In Pryor’s skit, “just us” referred specifically to Black people, but Rankine’s primary “us” is cross-racial, a seed planted in the dead land between Self and Other. When Rankine wonders how individuals, much less community, can survive in our system, the question is intimately tied to justice—to whether “just us” is possible without the acknowledgment of inequity. At one point, Rankine considers a white friend, whose ancestry dates back to the Mayflower. Rankine loves this friend; love urges her to tend their closeness beyond the reach of history. But that’s impossible, Rankine finds. To ignore her friend’s “innate advantages,” she writes, “is to stop being present inside our relationship.”
Rankine’s interest in the white part of “us” turns her into an anthropologist. Several sections of the book are given over to masochistic exchanges with white men in airports. (“After a series of casual conversations with my white male travelers, would I come to understand white privilege any differently?”) This goes neither well nor cartoonishly badly. One man, upon learning that Rankine teaches at Yale, complains that his son’s inability to “play the diversity card” sank his early-admissions chances. Another interlocutor suggests that he doesn’t see color, and then characterizes his own comment as “inane.” The exchanges, even the positive ones, inspire a nervous excitement, somewhere between dread and hunger. The reader fears for Rankine, although that doesn’t quite make sense; she waits for catharsis, which is denied. The book’s lack of resolution can feel like a concession to the limits of the white men whom the narrator meets. Even as Rankine stages scenes that touch the third rail of “American conversation,” she is only ever speaking indirectly, through questions.
This dynamic can make Rankine’s goal—what, in the end, she hopes to get out of these exercises—somewhat blurry. After a white man cuts her in a first-class line, Rankine claims, “What I wanted was to know what the white man saw or didn’t see when he walked in front of me at the gate.” Elsewhere, she writes, “I felt certain that, as a black woman, there had to be something I didn’t understand.” If this is an accurate account of Rankine’s feelings, it is also a strange one. Rankine teaches a class at Yale called “Constructions of Whiteness.” In 2016, she founded the Racial Imaginary Institute, an “interdisciplinary cultural laboratory” that studies how “perceptions, resources, rights, and lives themselves flow along racial lines that confront some of us with restrictions and give others uninterrogated power.” “Just Us” invokes the race scholarship of Édouard Glissant, Whitney Dow, Fred Moten, Frank B. Wilderson III, and Orlando Patterson—in the space of two pages. Exactly what does Rankine think the entitled guy in D-14 is going to clarify that she doesn’t already know?
Rankine’s humble posture may be a response to what her husband, who is white, refers to as “white fragility,” invoking Robin DiAngelo’s book of the same name. (White fragility refers to white people’s tendency to lash out under racial stress; some have criticized the theory for painting a simplistic picture of Black people.) Rankine’s thinking seems informed by DiAngelo, who blurbed her book, but “haunted” may be a more apt description. Is it the spectre of hysterical white readers that causes Rankine, who needs no instruction on oppression, to pretend that white fellow-travellers are educating her? The language that results—“I didn’t understand” and “I wondered” and “I’m just curious”—is needlessly caressing, and it gives the book a tortured, insincere quality. But Rankine is not so committed to this act that she can’t also poke fun at it. Chatting with a white man before a flight, she describes wanting “to learn something that surprised me about this stranger, something I couldn’t have known beforehand.” “Coming or going?” she asks.
Rankine realizes, then, that conversing with white people isn’t likely to yield much new information about whiteness. In fact, this realization feeds into one of her central critiques: that white society is defined by an obstinate refusal to examine itself, and that, as a result, the well of white racial imagination has run dry. Yet, once you understand this about the book, a sort of spell takes hold. The narrator rides from encounter to encounter. Scripts are recited; formalities are observed. There is an air of strange, exacting, half-understood rules, and of dangerous illusions. Bizarre as it sounds, Rankine’s path has a breath of epical romance to it: the knight says the words so that the lady will lower the drawbridge; midway through a charmed banquet, all the fruits turn to dust.
After a while, I realized that I was reading “Just Us” as a kind of grail quest. The book seeks the impossible thing, the healing thing, which is at once so impossible and so healing that it surpasses language. Like Rankine’s previous work, “Just Us” collages poetry, criticism, and first-person prose; it remixes historical documents, social-media posts, and academic studies. There’s the sense of a subject overflowing every genre summoned to contain it. There’s also a contemporary feeling, of going about one’s day—switching on the news, talking to a friend, reading an essay—at a time when all discourse seems drawn back to the magnet of race. Rankine has never not known of race, but she shows us life in a country that pretends to be newly awakened, and mourning the dream that it has just lost. “You say and I say,” she writes, as if foggy with sleep, “but what / is it we are telling, what is it / we are wanting to know about here?”
Narrating whatever “it” is will require “a new sentence,” one capable of resolving the book’s driving paradox: that “just us” is impossible without justice, but justice is unlikely to be done until a sense of “just us” is achieved. This conundrum—no transformation without identification, no identification without transformation—spurs the work forward, but not everyone will be persuaded that it matters. A hotter and blunter activism has engulfed the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Many feel that structural reform is a more effective path to justice than renovating white hearts and minds, at least partly because it does not depend on the types of conversations that Rankine wants us to have. Rankine is a humanist: she prizes empathetic connection for its own sake. If this is unfashionable, it is only because such connection can seem to crumble when asked to bear the weight of history.
And yet the ache of “Just Us” isn’t that Rankine attempts too much but that she gets free of too little. The ache is more than thirty pages, written by Claudia Rankine, on the meaning of blond hair, and many more pages, also written by Claudia Rankine, about white people who are not nearly as thoughtful, expert, funny, or compelling as Claudia Rankine is. “Just Us” includes gorgeous passages, ruminations that set the reader down on “a patch of dry grass, a median strip, between infrastructures, between lanes of traffic, between nowhere and here, between him and her . . . a necropastoral.” But the book also litters Rankine’s inner landscape with “fact checks.” “White people don’t really want change if it means they need to think differently than they do about who they are,” the narrator suggests; on the opposite page, a line of text notes that “there may be counterexamples.” Studies are marshalled to corroborate perceptions or memories. As Rankine considers the mistreatment of young Black boys in the classroom, a paper on the “eye gaze patterns” of early educators seems to license her thought. This deference to objectivity, or to its appearance, is jarring. It evokes another moment in the book, when Rankine writes that “the black person is asked to leave to vacate to prove to validate to confirm to authorize to legalize their right to be. . . .” The author’s vision, so suffused with longing, ends up impaled on facts.
If “Just Us” extends “Citizens” ’s effort to “pull the lyric back” into reality, it may succeed too well. Rankine cedes large swaths of her imagination to mourning the constraints placed on it, and her self-subordination—to white people, especially—hardens many of the certainties that her art aims to unsettle. The book returns often to the phrase “what if,” but it feels besieged by “what is”: unfreedom is the point, as is a shift in the “American conversation” from hope to a kind of dignified resignation. (One hears an echo of Michelle Obama’s Convention speech from this year: “It is what it is.”) But progress, though challenging, doesn’t need to be a holy grail; and poetry, though of this world, doesn’t need to be tied to it. As a study of what it’s like to operate within society’s limits, “Just Us” is exactly the mixed triumph that Rankine has permitted herself to hope for.