Three quarters of the way through Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine considers three different understandings of the word “conversation.” The first, from a Latinx artist (unnamed) discussing her reluctance to play oppression Olympics with people of other races or ethnicities, is that conversation describes a “reciprocation of understanding.” Rankine balks at the impatience implied by a demand to be understood, but nonetheless acknowledges that at least this definition is immanently achievable.
Another definition, offered by a philosopher friend (who, though also unnamed, may be the activist Lori Gruen), seems decidedly less so. This model, “entangled empathy,” suggests that the interlocutor recognizes herself in a “complicated set of relations.” If this philosopher friend is indeed Gruen, this concept was born of an interest in improving the relationship between humans and other animals, and is about attending to another’s sense of well-being. Indeed, knowing how to recognize well-being in the other, let alone actively pursuing it, is certainly be a higher bar.
The third definition comes from Samuel Beckett, who described his play Waiting for Godot as a way of finding “a form that accommodates the mess.” Rankine doesn’t choose between these definitions before moving on in her reflections, which is in keeping with the mode of her trilogy: a project less interested in providing answers than in asking questions. To follow her lead, then, a reader might ask what, if her work is a conversation, is that conversation really about?
Just Us is the final installment of a trilogy that also includes the best-selling, multiple prize-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, published in 2014, but began over fifteen years ago with 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. A reader coming from Citizen or Just Us might be surprised at the subject of that first book—or at least, what the subject is not. This was a decade before Black Lives Matter put race relations back on our culture’s center stage, when America was still in shock over 9/11 and focused on the War on Terror. People were coming to terms with death, both literal and metaphorical (e.g. that of innocence), and a sense of mourning pervades this first volume, in which Rankine examines both personal and public grief. And yet, unlike in the following two, which explicitly center racism, here racism plays a decidedly smaller role. One consequence is that when she does raise the topic it takes on a strangely resigned, matter-of-fact quality, like a voice pointing out atrocity it knows will be ignored. Here is Rankine describing how, for all the attention being paid to how Bush won the 2000 election (decided by the Supreme Court), she still knows him for another reason:
All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who can’t remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a Black man to his death in his home state of Texas.
In this way racism percolates up throughout the text, and because of the nature of her subject matter, it takes fairly gruesome form: a Black man being dragged to death, a Black man being “sodomized with a broken broomstick while in police custody.” These episodes do not cohere into a theme, and are instead left as part of the general fabric of the author’s experience. The form that would come to characterize Rankine’s trilogy, however, is in evidence from page one: a hybrid of image, poetry, memoir, reflection and philosophical musing that manages to be at once thoughtful, soulful and accessible to even lay-readers of poetry. More specifically, she devised a way of reporting on the interactions she has with friends and family that feels raw and vulnerable but not exploitative. When she visits a friend who is suffering acute depression, her language is somewhere in between sympathy and an almost detached curiosity:
He had to take a medical leave from his job as a speechwriter. He could barely get out of bed. That’s what he said so he might have meant he wasn’t getting out of bed. He said he felt like an old man dying, the old man dying. The leaves on the trees outside his window rattled within him.
By the time Citizen was published a decade later, the United States had shifted its attention. We’d elected a Black president, and we’d been thrust forcefully into open debate about the value of Black life by the murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his murderer. Rankine’s relationships are given a similar treatment in this volume, where encounters with friends are presented and analyzed, worried over and reckoned with. But as her subject veers toward racism, these interactions become more charged. Particularly when the friends are white:
After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her Black housekeeper?
You are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood of Santa Monica. This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho.
By putting her own experience as an upper middle-class professor at an East Coast Ivy League university (Yale) on display, she further dismantles the assumption that anti-Black racism only exists within low classes or conservative circles. Yet her goal is not to chastise these people. She shows that friendship alone is not sufficient illumination to expose the ways in which our historical selves—those parts of us inheriting generations of racist power imbalance—are very much present and sometimes even in command of our private selves.
One minute a well-meaning liberal white person is waiting for a good friend to show up, a good friend who’s late, and who’s Black, and the next minute she is calling that friend a “nappy-headed ho” and being completely unable to explain the outburst, as though someone else has reached into her white mouth and made it emit hurtful sounds. Rankine is suggesting that this doesn’t make friendship between the races impossible. It just often makes that friendship painful. And this ugliness is some of what being an American citizen means.
Nor are the higher echelons of the academic and literary worlds any insulation against such behavior. And long before Citizen was published, Rankine had become highly vocal in her insistence that the academy take stock of its unexamined intolerance. In 2011, Claudia Rankine began her talk at a writing conference with a recitation of poem called “The Change,” by the white male poet Tony Hoagland. The poem, from Hoagland’s 2003 volume What Narcissism Means To Me, describes a televised tennis match between a white woman and a Black woman in which:
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—
Undeniably a prejudiced perspective. Compared to the relatively brief description of the white woman, we have not just an American Black woman, but a “big black girl” with “Zulu” jewelry and an “outrageous name.” One of the questions raised by this is, of course, whether the narrator of this poem is the poet himself. Those familiar with Hoagland’s work might know it to be frequently confessional in nature. Is it in this case a fictional persona? And how would it change the way the poem is read?
After reciting the poem, Rankine struggled to understand why Hoagland thought his poem was okay, to understand why he might not understand it to be hurtful. She recalls having first read the poem, after which she closed the book, looked out the window:
And though my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just have to say it—what the fuck?
Was this meant to be a portrait of white thought? How broadly did he think it applied? And because the author was a former colleague, Rankine was able to reach out to him directly, which she did. In her talk, she recalls that conversation, in which Hoagland informs her that the poem was “for white people,” and that, moreover, Rankine is naïve about racism.
In the final gesture of this very public exchange, Rankine said that she wanted to embrace her naivety in human possibility. This was roughly three years before Citizen was published—a book in which several painful conversations with white people are recounted. Since it isn’t mentioned in that book, it makes one wonder how many more the book could have contained, how many insults and injuries were left, for one reason or another, on the cutting room floor.
Still, attitudes have been changing quickly. One might fairly ask whether white people are becoming more attuned to what is needed of them as work by writers like Ibram X. Kendi and Ijeoma Oluo push the conversation about race further into the mainstream. One can easily become disappointed by such a line of inquiry. In August of 2019, the Utne Reader republished an essay on inclusiveness in poetry by the straight white male poet Bob Hicok. Hicok makes an attempt to welcome and celebrate the increasingly diverse landscape of American poetics—but his report is not unequivocal. He mourns the loss of his own place in the hierarchy, in the geography of the poetry scene. His essay turns on the question: what are we willing to sacrifice? He remarks on a lessening of interest in his own work, just as he sees a growing interest in the work of “a broader swath of Americans than ever before.” The quandary, in his eyes, thus becomes: how do I support this movement that inherently takes something away from me?
In a response to Hicok’s essay, Chinese American poet Timothy Yu points out that beyond whatever you may make of Hicok’s moral agenda, he simply gets the basic facts wrong. Hicok writes that the most discussed books of the previous couple years had been by people of color (a list which, given the dates, is likely meant to include Citizen), and goes on to cite as evidence that the top awards have not been received by white men. The first observation is of course subjective—who is doing the talking that he’s talking about?—but the latter claim is simply wrong. Most literary awards are still won by white people, and of that group, most are men.
If Hicok has noticed a down-tick in interest in his work, one can be happy it led him to a reckoning with his privilege. It also might be time for him to take a hard look at the quality of his recent output. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. And so for Ross Gay or Jericho Brown or Morgan Parker or Claudia Rankine to be published does nothing to suggest that it takes those spots on the shelf away from a white male writer like Bob Hicok. If there are more books put out in a given period of time that people want to read, more books will be read.
Rankine seems to suggest that the problem may be one of imagination. In Citizen, after a list of Black people whose names have appeared in the news for having been murdered at the hands of white people, she writes:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black people are dying
But the question remains: why? What do white people imagine? And just what is whiteness, after all? In both Citizen and Just Us, Rankine circles around these questions, at one point in the latter lighting on the line: “A force within the whiteness is forcing the whiteness.”
If whiteness is a “force,” what kind of force is it, and from where does it draw power? The idea of white power, or white people, as a force of nature comes up in the work of many great Black authors. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, we encounter the following sentence after the protagonist, Bigger, has killed a white woman named Mary: “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark.”
This natural force comes to mind when reading all the weather-related imagery in Rankine’s Citizen. At one point she speaks to a novelist with “the face of the English sky,” a face that’s “always shifting.” She writes about Trayvon Martin being “completed by sky” and says that the “sky is his silence.” What is the sky, or what is in it? Who owns it? People look up to it, they’re always looking up, to see the sunrise, to get rain on their faces, to see the sunset, to see the clouds or like Bigger and his friend to see sky writing and fantasize about being a pilot—yet another door closed to them. The freedom of the sky taunts them by being out of reach, exclusive, and they remain always beneath it, overwhelmed and powerless.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at length about this idea of whiteness. It begins very early on in the book, where Coates sites the presumption made by Americans that race is a “feature of the natural world,” these same Americans, ostensibly good-hearted or at least not sociopathic, “deploring” racial atrocities of the past the same way they might deplore a natural disaster—so terrible what happened! It’s hard not to think of Hurricane Katrina here, since that particular natural disaster has an unmistakably racial dimension, both in the immediate impact and in the aftermath of displacement and the hostility voiced by people in neighboring states whose communities were “forced” to absorb large numbers of Black families.
I remember watching news of the flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans, the footage taken from helicopters, news helicopters, government helicopters—President Bush took heat for his response, for both arriving late and for just flying around overhead in Marine One—and this footage inevitably showed people on their rooftops, water submerging their entire first floor. These people, mostly Black, waved their arms, calling for help, some standing, some with signs, others just sat there as though dazed, looking up at the passing cameras in the clear blue sky.
Flight comes up frequently throughout the text in Just Us, in part, as she points out, because her business class tickets provide ample opportunity to interact with white people. Early on in the volume she introduces the challenge she made for herself: to ask white people what they think about their privilege. After a few false starts (she finds it difficult to broach the subject), she does manage to have conversations with white people willing to “go there,” and they are reliably frustrating. One man, learning that she works at Yale, explains that his son hadn’t made it in during early-application. “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card,” he adds. Another man, who claims to have been “working on diversity inside his company,” nonetheless expresses that most hyped and debunked of white liberal myths about race, “I don’t see color.”
To which Rankine responds, “Ain’t I a Black woman?”
As befitting an inquiry into the nature and meaning of American pain, Just Us is shot through with questions, sometimes in long sequences that bend the interrogative mode near to breaking. This passage also serves to introduce other metaphors for conversation:
Are conversations desire projected? Is conversing a dance? The back-and-forth, a chance? To take? Or be taken? To be taken away? Taken out?
What is being threatened? What is being defended? What is being taken away? Is everything being taken away? What is it?
What is offended? Offensive? Is it simply because I am? Or, because you are? Am I in your way? That you step in my way? Do I know you? Can I know you? In your ways? Anyways?
At one point Rankine seems to poke fun at this tendency by asking, “How far away can I get from confrontation by using the language of inquiry?” But she doesn’t use questions to escape, nor for purely rhetorical purposes. Rather, they appear as flags planted in the ground of her understanding as she pulls herself through murky terrain, as though to say (to herself, her interlocutor and the reader), This is where I’ve come. I’ve made it this far. Now: onward.
And yet there’s a certain sadness to this inconclusiveness—if one can ever call poetry conclusive—because it’s due at least in part to the inability of white people to fully account for their own thoughts and actions. It’s this fundamental denial that Rankine believes must be overcome, but that ironically in fact defines whiteness. White people want their privilege, and if they have to surrender it, they even want to call the shots on how it is surrendered (i.e. with as little discomfort as possible.) They want to acknowledge that racism and injustice is real without having to make any changes themselves, and without accepting personal accountability. “Because,” as Rankine writes, “white can’t know what white knows.”
Whiteness is not able to admit the lie at its root: it’s a fiction that only exists as a function of what it excludes. As James Baldwin said, “I’m only Black because you think you’re white.” To acknowledge this would be to admit that one’s inherited privilege is baseless, unwarranted, the very real consequences of that lie. That it is stolen and must be returned. But it is more than this. If it were simply a matter of returning stolen goods, the Bob Hicoks and Tony Hoaglands might be right in their self-centered, white-centered attempt to understand their place in “the change.”
The deeper conclusion however is more problematic: that one was never judged fairly to begin with. That one’s worth was always already inflated. Yes, it is tough to get into Yale. But to suggest that “non-whites” have it easier is to indulge the original lie. Since white talent is exaggerated, taking away the exaggeration simply means you’re viewed honestly, inevitably left with your son’s average ability. Your mediocre poems. Knowing whiteness means knowing that this “great natural force” was never really all that great.
It’s this brutal honesty that Rankine’s conversation is ultimately about. But for that honesty to be achieved, all voices must be allowed room to breathe. And so what in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely appeared as solitary missives, and in Citizen developed into more focused reportage, in Just Us finds its final form as reciprocal exchange. Here not only are conversations reported on and examined, but Rankine’s interlocutors are given real estate on the page to explain their own actions, voice their opinions. This is how a friend whose behavior Rankine first understands as intolerant is shown to be full of feeling and aspiration. How the man who believes his son deserves Yale can be seen coming to a deeper understanding of the inequality to which he was unaccountably blind.
Following Beckett’s line of thought about conversations as accommodation, Rankine muses in Just Us:
Perhaps words are like rooms; they have to make room for people. Dude, I am here. We are here.
This echoes a comparison made by Paul Celan that Rankine considers at the end of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Celan compares the poem to the handshake. Fundamental to both gestures is the statement of presence. Both say, “I am here.” In the acknowledgements to that first volume of her now-complete trilogy, Rankine thanks fifteen people for “turning this work into a conversation.” Did she know where it would lead? Certainly not. But the conversation they helped her start is a poem, is a handshake, is an accommodation, is a dance. And though the trilogy has come to an end, if anything is going to truly change we must keep dancing.