On the Path to Understanding?
A Conversation with Claudia Rankine

Catherine Barnett Talks to the Author of Just Us

Surprisingly, the etymology of “reproach”—a word that shows up on the first page of Just Us, Claudia Rankine’s new collection of essaysincludes a notion of coming closer, of approaching. I have been changed and moved and reproached (in all senses of the word) by Rankine’s work since I first encountered it as a graduate student more than twenty years ago. Claudia Rankine has transformed the literary and sociopolitical landscape with her three most recent books, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Citizen, and Just Us, published this month by Graywolf Press. She continues to reimagine and revitalize invitations and exhortations to confront racism and white supremacy. Just Us is an urgent, brilliant, and necessary call to justice from a writer profoundly alive to both feeling and erudition. And it’s a departure and continuation of Rankine’s previous work, filled with a deeper intimacy and a humility accompanied by wit: “If I am to get things wrong,” she writes in an essay where she challenges her own mistakes (giving us a model for challenging our own), “I want them to be different from before.” At the heart of this new book is the question: “How far away can I get from confrontation by using the language of inquiry?”

This interview was conducted via email during the last few weeks of a summer filled with protest, racial violence, the virus, and pre-election anxieties, all of which will, I hope, compel us to take part in what Rankine calls “conversations on the path to understanding.”

*

Catherine Barnett: The opening text of Just Us asks “How does one say // what if // without reproach?” This book feels charged with that hypothetical “what if” even as it is stuffed with irrefutable and haunting facts from our history and our current moment. What kinds of “what if” questions do you find yourself asking in this moment? How have they changed since your first ?what if”?

Claudia Rankine: The phrase “what if” first got caught in my craw as an irritant when I attended Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview at the SOHO Rep. The actor’s question before the close of the play was, what if white people gave up their seats and let people of color hold the space of the audience for a few minutes? She posed the question directly to the audience. Could they do that? Would they do that? The ask’s conditional state was oddly poignant for me.

Maybe that was because for able-bodied individuals the stakes were so low within the theater, but the real world consequences of whiteness’s inability to share resources, housing, jobs, space and on and on are profoundly devastating and generationally corrupting on every side of our racial divide. For a thing to be broken in white people’s mind means it includes blackness—children, neighborhoods, schools, for example. But when their own desires for segregation were turned on them for a nanosecond in the greater scheme of things, the answer was, for some people, no. So, as is usual with me, Just Us began its artistic life in both an irritation and in an imagined space of openness and exploration.

For a thing to be broken in white people’s minds means it includes blackness. Children, neighborhoods, schools.

The questions that are primary for me now at the end of a rough summer of quarantine and protests ignited by the brutal killing of George Floyd relate to what and how will white American women respond in our upcoming election? What if they understood that they more than any other demographic could change the course of history? When I began the book I wondered if a woman and POC could be a contender for president in 2020, so I have had to adjust. I am heartened that Heather Hayer, who was killed by James Alex Fields Jr., did not die in vain in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. I now have a visual data base of white women joining forces with grass-roots organizers protesting white nationalism, a failing democracy and anti-blackness in this country. Will it amount to real systemic change? Will they break with their white husbands and do the right thing? What if . . .

CB: Celan says some poems can be, or become, “desperate conversations.” Would you say Just Us is a “desperate conversation”? The word “help” runs through it, as a kind of refrain and punctuation, and yet the tone is measured, controlled, informed and gracious.

CR: Just Us might be a desperately seeking conversation. I don’t want to suggest these interactions are conversations seeking answers but rather something more like conversations in search of a shared place for understanding, a shared reality, shared recognitions. The desperation has to do with a kind of historical misalignment before the conversation begins. The question becomes: Can we get aligned so we can actually have the conversation? Just Us, for me, often feels like the conversation to the conversation.

When I think about Celan’s profound loneliness after the loss of his family during the Shoah and the fact that though he moved to France, he continued to write his poems in German, the language of the architects of genocide, which was also his language, I understand how his poems would feel desperate to him. The worst has already happened. They have taken the words, the breath out of my mouth. I can’t breathe. Help.

I quote Fred Moten in Just Us because his definition of blackness ends with “the analysis of our murder, and of our murderer, is so we can see we are not murdered. We survive. And then, as we catch a sudden glimpse of ourselves, we shudder. For we are shattered. Nothing survives. The nothingness we share is all that’s real. That’s what we come out to show. The showing is, or ought to be, our constant study.” Perhaps, the conversation in Just Us is the constant study, a constant study.

CB: Three of the chapters in Just Us are called “liminal spaces.” What is a liminal space and why do they figure so prominently in your book? What other liminal spaces should/could we be paying more attention to?

CR: Liminal space has been defined many ways but essentially it’s an in-between space. You don’t expect to be there forever. The space belongs to neither here nor there and therefore allows for new terms of engagement or no terms of engagement. You could sleep through liminal time or work privately or engage or not with those around you. Whether the new encounters maintain themselves when you arrive where you are going is up in the air. For me, the conversations that happened on planes or in hallways or waiting areas with strangers allowed for a sort of experimentation in the act of conversing—experimentations in directness, mostly.

Race, even more so when I began the book four years ago, wasn’t something that people in chance encounters discussed. In fact, it was something people didn’t discuss overtly if you included the construction and investments of whiteness, white people. But racialized assumptions and bias were in play nonetheless. In thinking about and utilizing the concept of liminality I was trying to push a mode of discussion relating to race to its crisis point—white people are socialized to be racist—in order to see where one could go from there.

Only once did someone contact me in my “real life” in order to continue speaking despite the discomfort he felt in the conversation we began in the liminal space of an airplane. The clarity and directness we arrived at in our original conversation about how race plays in our interactions maintained itself in spaces where we were accountable to social expectations.

One thing I have been considering is if the time in our heads between a question and answer or a comment and a response could be a form of liminal time in which we travel toward trust in a person or intimacy with a person or simply the decision to run from our interlocutor. Our retorts hold the calculations arrived at in the liminal space between utterances.

CB: You write, “If the structure that structures the scenario is itself racist, are the questions trick questions?” Can you talk a little about what kinds of “trick questions” you encounter/hear most frequently?

CR: Actually, a question I have been asked repeatedly recently is when will I write about something else? This question comes mostly from white men who seem to be asking if I am done talking about our lives yet—lives that involve their racism and my negotiation of it. I should ask if they are hoping I will start writing science fiction, except even that won’t work now that Regina King has made Watchmen and Octavia Butler has written all she has written. I hear their question as a call to write about an alternate universe without racism. What’s beneath the “done yet” question?  It’s as if I took a wrong turn on a whim and should get back on the main road if I want to keep their attention, to keep them as a passenger.

This reminds me of the now-infamous interview where Toni Morrison was asked if she would ever have white people as her central characters! Say what? The white interviewers were not comfortable with books where white people weren’t protagonists in the narrative. The irony was also that a book like Morrison’s Beloved is about slavery and anti-blackness. How is that not about white people even if they are not the central characters? Morrison’s answer to the question was: “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?…. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.” White people understand themselves as the people that matter and that what makes a thing good and essential and not broken is their presence. When I am asked a question, I first need to check that the logic of the answer is not based in a presumed benevolence and importance of white people and the institutions they control.

Other trick questions that are not directed at me as a writer that I also hear in general are: Why can’t Black people achieve like Asians do? What about Black-on-Black crime? Aren’t you going too far? Aren’t you a little too sensitive?

CB: What does it mean—what would it mean—to “reimagine agency,” for which you so clearly and movingly advocate in the last essay/notes?

CR: For me, to reimagine agency might be to enter the liminal space without a destination. It might be to open out lines of inquiry into the moment with a challenge to expectations of repetition. I think the pathways of white power and white patriarchy are so determined that the thought of a woman president, for example is difficult to imagine, even for women. I think sometimes the arts need to enter a place before the society can. The fiction creates the fact, in a sense. Maybe that’s why incumbent presidents have such an advantage. People need to see another way but sometimes you have to make a thing in the dawn, having reimagined in the twilight.

CB: Just Us is filled with word play that is play at its most urgent: from the title’s play on “justice” to one of the last doublings: “the care that carries.” Sometimes you take us right through a mind—your mind—that seems wired to use sound to uncover truths. I love these moments, as when, for example, you write, “Weirdly, I’m casting around for words that rhyme with stupid. Cupid. Suited. Polluted. Excluded. Just then…” Do these kinds of language games help you think through your ideas? What function do you think they serve?

CR: I am by nature an associative thinker and writer. In a sense, that is why poetry and hybrid forms are my preferred genre. They allow me to stay in one spot and build out associatively rather than linearly. Then all time and utterances are available to a single moment. In this particular example, I am also accountable to the possibility that I might have misheard. I am a single consciousness shaped by my experiences with words, fully aware that I am overhearing an utterance that didn’t have my full attention. In my lack of attention what he said approaches a known sound tied to a word. Until I can locate and confirm what I think I heard I am swimming in the slipperiness of language and a knowledge of my own limitations. The word game in your example was a way to communicate this. I also thought the words themselves could paint a picture of an ill-suited couple being polluted by exclusionary abusive language. A sense of playfulness and delight with words and their sounds perhaps reveals all the fun I’m allowed sitting before my computer.

CB: Which essay was the most difficult to write, and why? Which came most easily?

CR: I think the first essay in Just Us was the most difficult to write. Speaking with the men on various flights was uncharted territory. I needed to ask myself questions regarding my own positionality and expectations as a listener and human. Structurally, I was seeking the form the essay would take without understanding fully it would be the form for all the essays. If I am honest, I am my most vigilant when in conversation with white men. I usually don’t fall into random conversations with them and I don’t know many who have Black women as close friends. One expects to be challenged on every assertion. The lives we lead are so different I don’t anticipate common ground. The way we move in the world, how we are greeted by the world, what we project on each other, it’s all so scripted but so rarely challenged or tested.

The essays about an object, Paul Graham’s photograph for example, came most easily because those are conversations that are really a form of close reading. The object stays still waiting to be read even if it is indecipherable in the end.

CB: Humor runs through Just Us, accompanying all the deep thinking and analysis and narrative. How has humor been useful, necessary, dangerous in your own life?

CR: I don’t see how one can address the fantasies of whiteness, the weaponized delusions, the lies, the denigration of people of color, the systemic injustice and modes of inequity while also living within and negotiating the ramifications of all that without humor. It would all be hilarious if it wasn’t our lives.

CB: You say your way “of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating” is to remain “in the quotidian of disturbance.” I love this notion of the “quotidian of disturbance.” Can you say more about the term?

CR: Sometimes I hear the phrase don’t “take it on” or in other interviews people have asked if I am done writing about racism yet, as if speaking to anti-blackness is a side trip I took away from my work and not the work. What we are livingday in and day outis a chronicle of death either through direct murder or through the weathering of systemic racism. I could ignore my reality or I could understand it as reality and live cognizant of its disturbances. To acknowledge all the ways we are all under assault is to exist within a devastating and disturbing ordinariness. That’s true, and to ignore this truth will still kill me one way or another. I was listening to the basketball coach Doc Rivers after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police officer Rusten Sheskey. “I should just be a coach,” Doc Rivers said. His “should” acknowledges the impossibility of a Black person escaping a quotidian of disturbance.

CB: If you look back over the last 24 hours, what has most surprised you? Disturbed you? Given you hope?

CR: In the last 24 hours I was surprised by the WNBA and the NBA’s response to Blake’s shooting. They have committed to using arenas as voting sites for the 2020 general election. This allows for socially-distant booths and sanitizing facilities. They are stepping in where the government is failing. That is hopeful. Everything else is disturbing.

CB: In these essays there’s a new kind of intimacy. You bring us into your family conversations; you bring us deeply into your thinking, which draws me close to you. It also invites me to pay attention to the ways my own mind is (and isn’t) at work. What kind of courage did this more personal writing ask of you?

CR: I don’t know about courage. I think humility might be closer to the ask. The intimacy comes about in the ordinariness and commonplace activity of my life. Nothing special happening over here. Just trying to live. Just trying to live a life that includes being disturbed by white living and its ingrained and systemic modes of violence along the way. I am not referring to white individuals here but to white living in general, as you know.

The intimacy comes about in the ordinariness and commonplace activity of my life. Just trying to live.

CB: Friendship is one of the core themes of this collection. Among the many new ideas and terms I encountered in Just Us is the word “fremdschamen,” which you translate as “shame at what a friend has done, shame at a friend’s being shamed.” What has “fremdschamen” required of you in your many friendships? What advice do you have for us when we too experience “fremdschamen” or are, perhaps, the cause of it?

CR: I too was fascinated by the term “fremdschamen” when I first encountered it in Berlin because it lives in the liminal space of an interaction. “Fremdschamen” occurs in the one who overhears. The one who sees the look in someone’s face when, for example, a racist remark has been made by someone else. As a third-party observer it’s devastating. Sometimes even more disturbing than if the offensive thing had been said to me directly because there exists the fantasy of management. What interests me about the term is that it draws attention to the observer, the one who stands next to the one who wields the harm. The term brings to light a form of collaboration and collusion that will need to be addressed in the form of another conversation, perhaps.

CB: You say you’re in your head and in your heart simultaneously. How do the two co-exist? What accommodations does the one need to make for the other?

CR: I might suggest that the head and heart is the human in me, to quote Lizzo. Metaphorically, the terms stand in for emotions that mediate the intellect. The battle is always how to stay sociable and be principled by the knowledge we have–the science, the facts, the history we know.

CB: As you know, I’m obsessed with questions, and I find Just Us is beautifully stitched together by questions. In the opening poem, you say: “so I ask questions like I know how / in the loneliness of my questioning.” Can you describe this particular loneliness? What would it mean to “know how” to ask questions of each other?

CR: Another way to think of this question is to ask what does it mean to have a conversation? What do we desire from that kind of interaction? I like to think that whatever gets built in the space of the encounter gets built through inquiry, but I know it’s not the only way. I have listened to conversations where the participants don’t ask each other a single question. One person says something, which seems to me like it’s begging for a question, for further inquiry, and the other person just goes on about something else. I’m always curious if it’s a game of avoidance or if they really aren’t listening. Then I really exist in the loneliness of my questioning. I think even when I am allowed to ask my questions, even to myself, the answers fall short of the life I am trying to touch.

CB: You say you are “anchored in unknowing.” What are the powers and dangers in this “unknowing”? And is there a distinction between “unknowing” and not-knowing?

CR: The space between “unknowing” and not-knowing for me has to do with the ability to remain open to possibility. Not-knowing might be the will toward status quo and the illusion of stability. Unknowing is the refusal to stay still. It’s the will to keep questioning the things that work against the potential for a better life, a more equitable one, a more inclusive, justice-filled one. The unknowing keeps me in conversation in life, on the page, with you.

__________________________________

Claudia Rankine, Just Us

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine is available now from Graywolf Press. 

Catherine Barnett
Catherine Barnett
Catherine Barnett’s third collection, Human Hours, has just been published by Graywolf Press. She is the author of two previous poetry collections, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award, she is a member of the core faculty of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor. She lives in New York City.





More Story
11 Great Books You Probably Haven't Read (But Should) One of the things keeping me going during the pandemic is maintaining my sense of discovery—with so many fewer ways to spend...