To understand JUST US: AN AMERICAN CONVERSATION one needs to get to know the author. Claudia Rankine is a college professor who 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.” She is also the author of Citizen: An American Lyric, a poetry book that contains one long poem, or a series of poems (whichever way you want to look at it) about race relations in America. Ms. Rankine is not only a black woman, she is a woman who studies race interactions. She is not only a writer, she is a teacher on the topic. This is a person who knows what she is talking about! Knowing this information about the author helped me as I grappled with the tough topics, or conversations, she discusses in Just Us.
I was excited to read Just Us: An American Conversation. I am a huge fan of Citizen: An American Lyric. It is probably the most impactful poetry I've ever read and I was ready for more. But I have to admit to my disappointment to discover there is very little of what counts for poetry in Just Us. Instead Rankine divides up the book into conversations she has had with others and herself on topics related to race. And the delivery of these conversations is a bit confusing. On the right side of the page is her thoughts on a topic, with example conversations. On the left side are her notes and references. The reader knows to check these notes because of the little red dots next to the text on the right side of the page. (See photo below.) I don't know about you, but I found this to be an extremely confusing way to read and I could never quite get into the flow with the text.
Almost all the conversations or topics were shocking to me or not what I was expecting. Though I should stop and ask myself what was I expecting? One reviewer described the conversations as a "series of radicalized encounters with friends and strangers." For example in the chapter called "liminal spaces i," Rankine wonders to herself "what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege." Then she takes the opportunity to have conversations with fellow travelers on air flights to her destinations. She is not sure if she learned much about the men, but she knows they learned nothing about what it means to be a Black woman in America. I was especially disturbed or perplexed by her revelation how many times white men (and some women) would cut in front of her as she was queued to get on the plane. When she would bring it to their attention, more than once the person would say, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you." or "I didn't think you were in line for first class." Both responses are disturbing. One says 'you are invisible to me' and the other 'a black woman doesn't deserve to fly first class.' Ugh.
Many of her conversations led her to the conclusion that most white men, heck white people in general, don't spend a lot of time thinking about their race. And when they are together their whiteness never comes up in conversation. I would guess that has changed a bit in the past year with all the Black Lives Matter protests and rallies. This past weekend, for example, it was publicized that there would be 'White Lives Matter' counter-protests across the country. I didn't hear anything about them or if they even happened. But that does imply that some white people don't want the status quo to change and are thinking about ways to preserve their whiteness and the privileges that go with it.
The Biden Administration has just formed a committee to investigate the possibly of reparations. Is it possible to make a change in this country when Whites are so darn fragile?
The book has no resolutions. How can it, since we have no resolutions on race topics in our country? But the lack of resolutions leave the reader (me) with a feeling of dangling from a height, not sure how to gain purchase or stability. There are no easy answers. But we must continue having the conversations and we must listen to the answers. The book turns often to the phrase "What if?". What if, indeed. What if we allowed ourselves to have these conversations and many more? What if we listened to one another? What if we valued all lives as much as we value our own? In the "what ifs" there is is a lot of room for conversations and for new understandings. Let's try it!