An American Conversation
By Claudia Rankine
“Fantasies cost lives,” Claudia Rankine writes in her new book, “Just Us,” a collection of essays and poems (and accompanying data graphs, photos, screenshots of social media posts and video stills) regarding all the ways preconceived notions of race take up residency in one’s thoughts. The book, fittingly, feels utterly of the mind, with its anxious inquiries and connections and diversions, not to mention all of Rankine’s brilliance — but for that same reason it can feel incoherent, insulated and disconnected from the world it depicts.
“Just Us” starts with an epigraph, a Richard Pryor quote from which the book takes its title: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” And the dedication follows, saying, “For Us.” It’s an interesting, though unintuitive, entry into this collection, because it seems to imply a book for and about Blackness — a book of solidarity. But there isn’t really a Black “us” at work in Rankine’s book, only the space carved out and defined by whiteness. That is, seemingly, Rankine’s point: Whiteness is dominant, so the question of “what is Black” must always follow “what is white?”
In one of the few sections of poetry in the collection, Rankine provides a stringent series of definitions of whiteness that is as emphatic and unrelenting as whiteness is in our cultural consciousness:
White is living within brick-and-mortar, walling off
all others’ loss, exhaustion, aggrieved
exposure, dispossessed despair—
in daylight white hardens its features.
That’s not surprising: Rankine is, after all, a scholar of whiteness, who teaches a class on the subject at Yale and is the founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute. And more than anything, with the text’s dogged transcriptions of events — her interactions at parties or in airports, her talks in her classes — and statements from her white friends and vast compendium of source materials, the book feels like a sociological study meant for the classroom.
In the book’s first section, Rankine introduces her hypothetical approach with a nagging sequence of “what if”s. As much as her previous collection, the groundbreaking “Citizen,” was a declaration about microaggressions and brutality against Black people in America, “Just Us” is an interrogation, constantly unwinding a spiral of questions.