By Claudia Rankine. Graywolf Press, 2020. 360 pages. $30/hardcover; $20/paperback; $14.99/eBook.
Claudia Rankine’s latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, addresses racism with poetry, essays, and conversations. The author focuses on many of the same issues of racist behavior and thinking that are addressed by Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility, Layla F. Saad in Me and White Supremacy, and Michael Eric Dyson in Tears We Cannot Stop, but her writing is much more grounded in her personal experience.
I appreciated her book and its layout as a many-layered work of art. Most of the pages on the right side of a two-page layout display her poems and essays. Pages on the left side have material that either provides the source for a statement on the right (performing the function of a scholarly footnote) or an illustration that elaborates on the “conversation” happening on the opposite page. Some left-hand pages can be mysterious, such as one that has two school yearbook pictures: one of Ruby Sales, who is quoted on the right, and the other of Jonathan Daniels, with no explanation of who he is. At the end of the book, the author identifies him as the man who knocked Ruby Sales out of the way of a shotgun blast in 1965. He died when the blast meant for her hit him instead.
One pair of pages is about a racially charged conversation with a White seatmate on an airliner. There is also a photo of Nelson Mandela’s datebook, where he records both his daily blood pressure readings and meetings scheduled for that day. Rankine wonders whether one extraordinarily high blood pressure reading was related to a meeting on that date with a “very important person” (probably a White South African politician).
There’s a conversation between Rankine and a White woman about her son being told by a preschool classmate that he had “ruined” his coloring book by coloring the face of Goldilocks with the same brown crayon he had used for the faces of the three bears. The child’s artwork appears, and Rankine had hoped to pair it with a traditional commercial illustration of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” but the publisher declined to give permission for her to use that illustration. Instead, the message declining permission is reprinted.
Many of the stories in Just Us come from the author’s own conversations, but others are from news accounts. Her personal stories also describe what she was thinking at the time and her thought process (and sometimes uncertainty) in deciding what to say or not to say. Some are conversations about Whiteness that she initiated with White strangers in what she calls “liminal spaces,” such as airports or on airplanes. Other conversations arise more spontaneously with White people she knows—including her husband. Whenever possible, Rankine shares her account with her conversation partner before publishing it. The responses she receives enrich the experience for the reader.
Those personal stories are intermingled with events from U.S. history or recent events reported as national news. There is a lengthy quote from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia setting out his assessment of the hopeless inferiority of Black people. She also includes events from the 1940s and 1950s, such as the Mamie and Kenneth Clark doll tests; these tests were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Rankine includes coverage of the lynching of Emmett Till and more recent events, such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.; the mass killing at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.; and another killing at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Unlike the other books mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, Just Us does not urge its readers to change their behavior or become advocates for racial justice. Claudia Rankine quotes a friend who had just finished reading the book manuscript as observing, “There’s no strategy here.” For the author, however, engaging and encouraging others to engage in conversations about White supremacy and racism is her strategy. She acknowledges the existence and need for other strategies, but she explains that keeping the conversation going is her “way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating.”
David Etheridge is White, a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), and clerk of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Working Group on Racism.