Just Us is about intimacy. Rankine is making an appeal for real closeness. She’s advocating for candor as the pathway to achieving universal humanity and authentic love ... Rankine is vulnerable, too. In 'lemonade,' an essay about how race and racism affect her interracial marriage, Rankine models the openness she hopes to inspire. 'lemonade' is hard to handle. It’s naked and confessional, deeply moving and, ultimately, inspirational ... Just Us, as a book, is inventive ... Claudia Rankine may be the most human human I’ve ever encountered. Her inner machinations and relentless questioning would exhaust most people. Her labor should be less necessary, of course.
If Just Us extends Citizen’s effort to “pull the lyric back” into reality, it may succeed too well. Rankine cedes large swaths of her imagination to mourning the constraints placed on it, and her self-subordination—to white people, especially—hardens many of the certainties that her art aims to unsettle. The book returns often to the phrase “what if,” but it feels besieged by “what is”: unfreedom is the point, as is a shift in the “American conversation” from hope to a kind of dignified resignation ... As a study of what it’s like to operate within society’s limits, Just Us is exactly the mixed triumph that Rankine has permitted herself to hope for.
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 ... there isn’t really a Black 'us' at work in Rankine’s book, only the space carved out and defined by whiteness ... the book feels like a sociological study meant for the classroom ... an interrogation, constantly unwinding a spiral of questions ... Rankine’s interior world is often suffocating. For paragraphs on end we’re stuck in her mind, her internal search for answers and clues ... there’s less sense of balance here between Rankine’s two prominent modes, poetry and criticism; her lyrics get short shrift. There are times when Rankine gets so mired in her sociological study that when she suddenly uses figuration and repetition to break a prose section out into a more poetic space, it’s welcome but jarring ... Not all of her ancillary materials are necessary; in fact, many are gratuitous, simply reinforcing the book’s function as an advanced thought exercise, plucking references to replicate the wanderings of Rankine’s mind ... even in Rankine’s inarguable genius, Just Us feels as if it skips a small step in the progression of the book, the movement from start to finish among the separate chapters ... Just Us is no doubt a work of acuity and insight. But ...Just Us can’t always overcome the bounds of its own imagination.
Claudia Rankine solidifies her position as one of our time’s most incisive, brilliant and necessary intellectuals. We often hear that a book is necessary; but Rankine redefines that term. Just Us is a work that challenges binary thought to such a degree as to break the world (and the reader) open in new ways, allowing space for real, considered transformation ... Rankine is at her most generous, empathic and radical, seeking to open up a dialogue beneath the veneer of easy language ... what is radical about Just Us is the range of Rankine’s empathy, which refuses dismissal in favour of conversation, rooting into the substrata of thought that exists behind everyday racism ... Just Us left this white reader with the sense that I had witnessed the raising of the moral and intellectual standard.
Employing her signature collagelike approach, she avoids polemics, instead earnestly speculating about the possibility of interracial understanding ... In Just Us, Rankine the poet becomes an anthropologist. If her mode of discomfiting those whom she encounters strikes readers as unexpectedly mild, it might be because the strident urgency of racial politics in the U.S. escalated while her book was on its way toward publication. She chooses her words carefully as she engages, positioning herself in the minefield of her interlocutors’ emotions so that dialogue can happen ... the notion that racial inequality can be challenged by fostering social intimacy and uncovering the reality of white privilege—risks seeming somewhat regressive ... this Rankine can often sound—at least to someone who’s followed, and felt, the anger of the spring and summer—as though she’s arriving on the scene of a radical uprising in order to translate it into language white readers will find palatable ... But Rankine’s probing, persistent desire for intimacy is also daring at a time when anti-racist discourse has hardened into an ideological surety, and when plenty of us chafe at the work of 'explaining' race to white people ... Just Us is most interesting when Rankine leans into this self-examination. In these moments, she suggests that the myopia of 'whiteness' is not necessarily an attribute limited to white people. It becomes a circulating ethos of willful ignorance, the right to live a life whose fundamental assumptions go unobserved ... But tireless questioning is never out of date, and she freely faces up to the limits of her own enterprise, embracing a spirit of doubt, mingled with hope, that we would all do well to emulate.
In her latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, she invites readers to stand in for her discomfited students ... The book begins with a troubling thought. At this inflection point in our culture of 'racial reckoning,' when privileged assumptions are being shredded and long-term structural injustices more rigorously challenged, 'What if in the long middle of the wait… nothing changes?' ... Rankine is the interrogator throughout Just Us, conducting a probing survey of attitudes by inserting herself into the text as a participating observer ... Each page offers richly rewarding anecdotes and insights into the quagmire of race and race relations in the United States ... Rankine quotes the theorist Saidiya Hartman, who argues that the task of 'educating white people about racism has failed' ... Just Us is an attempt to narrate this process, one instinctively understood by black people ... Just Us is a provocation and, if read closely, will make difficult demands on the reader. But they’re demands that Rankine is determined not to shirk from in challenging the continuing pathological inequalities of the United States.
The Yale professor, MacArthur fellow, and celebrated artist lays out exactly what it is like to be Black/female/famous/acclaimed/othered in elite white spaces. She is precise in her naming of the things that go on there...Her insights are many ... the book is fun in that way; she will make people squirm. But it reads as a compendium of complaints. What’s the calamity, in Césaire’s terms? For whom or to whom is Rankine speaking? One chapter suggests an answer ... Rankine’s book feels far removed from survival-level struggle and grotesque Americanisms like mass incarceration ... not a book about Black women shot down by the police in their homes or incarcerated for minor crimes. It’s about Black women who enter the country club through the front door. Rankine’s 360-page exposé of microaggression feels far from whatever strengthens its author. But it may be purposefully so ... Despite the irritating redundancy, Rankine is in full control. Repetition is the literary device, and the form of the poem follows its function. It frustrates. It even depresses. But that is because that place in society — You Are Not Quite One of Us! — is a dysthymic existence. It’s subtly unfree and, as Rankine reminds readers, always just one step from 'a cross burning on the lawn,' anyway. In this way, Just Us soars ... also lyrically exquisite in places, and it will be a satisfying read for people interested in one woman’s inner struggle with empowered speech. For, throughout the book, Rankine reveals how difficult it is to say what one means on the spot where one is a minority. This metacommentary makes Just Us a book on vocal agency ... However, as a book on race — as it will be hailed — it does fall short. Just Us doesn’t need to be about the struggle of super-oppressed people. But even as an exploration of the special type of discrimination faced in high places, it could be far more impactful. It cries out for the strengths of Rankine’s root tradition ... engages something — payback? — that seems beneath the author’s calling and the strength of her previous work. As such, Just Us feels detached both from this important moment in history and from the traditions of strength and creativity that will move 'us' through it intact.
With insistent honesty, Rankine recalls difficult exchanges with white friends, strangers, colleagues, and her spouse, when the weight of whiteness shifts the weather between them ... One uncomfortable truth of this book rubs harshly against this thesis, in itself an unfortunate replication of some of white supremacy’s functions, lives in that 'us.' Throughout this book, the pronoun 'us' shapeshifts quietly, obscuring the reader from knowing who exactly is implicated or included in the 'us,' and who within that 'us' must carry the bulk of the labor that is unravelling whiteness’s grip on Black Americans’ everyday lives ... the murkiness of the 'us' harmfully enfolds the responsibility of white Americans to eradicate their racism and the world it has built with the responsibility of Black Americans to do so, which is to say, it suggests that whiteness’s undoing should be at all the project of Black Americans ... Though Rankine’s questioning does rightfully disrupt whiteness’s assumption of neutrality and 'polite' glossing-over of discomfort around race and is a necessary and brave intervention that is sometimes done in the service of continuing important friendships in her life, it makes one question the implications surrounding this mode of disruption ... For this to be the road to Black and white Americans’ 'new way' of being in relation to one another would mean the martyring of so many Black people, left on the side of that road as casualties, exhausted and harmed in the pursuit of the unpaid task of conversing whiteness down to its bones with white people who may have only just discovered their own whiteness ... As one piece flowed to the next, I began to feel engulfed in a fog of whiteness that, by the nature of its omnipresence, erased the possibility for Black agency and self-assuredness outside of whiteness’s gaze. This erasure occurs in part through the interjection of fact-checking notes that pop up in the midst of Rankine’s commentary. Although this device appears to be a wry comment on whiteness’s habits of interruption and assumption of authority, the gesture seemed to be directed only toward the white readers sharp enough to catch it, a gotcha moment just for them that waves its arms asking to be seen, saying, look at what you do! It made me wonder who this work is for ... Another complication with the positioning of Rankine’s project is its investment in the neoliberal belief that white racism can be 'solved' through the appeal to individual white feelings, empathy, and morality ... While seeds of liberation may be planted in the space of polite conversation, I do not believe that it should be the work of Black people to plant them. Instead, I would like to see white people doing this crucial work in their own spaces, families, and communities of planting the seeds that will lead to the end of whiteness itself
... necessary and maddening. As anyone who has read her would expect, screenshots, tweets, historic civil-rights photos, demographic charts, and many other types of images are strategically interspersed throughout the text. What sets this book apart from her past work, though, is its overwhelming emphasis on straight prose instead of poetics ... What dominates these pages is Rankine’s personal narrative, smeared with America’s mess—leaving scant room for the stanza-like spacing that normally governs her pace. Her deployment of images that serve both as symbols and pieces of evidence is left to handle most of the dramatic tension, with an assist from real-time fact-checking. Situated next to many passages throughout the book are red dots that direct the reader to notes on the opposite side of the page. Often, the notes take on the structure of Hemingway’s iceberg—a slither of clean prose under which lies a massive body of feelings. What we are left with is the exhaustion of having to carry around reams of data in order to prove that racism still exists ... It’s not that Rankine doesn’t have an opinion about what individuals should do regarding their racism, just that she is more interested in showing what that racism looks like. All she is willing to propose is that people have difficult discussions, which is so deflating, yet so smack-your-forehead obvious, that one wonders whether the book will survive in the hands of anyone besides readers who already recognize themselves in those discussions ... Comfort, when so much in our vantage is in shambles, seems a luxury that should collectively be left on the shelf until civilization has worked hard enough to afford it. Which makes a strong case for Just Us as not only the most comprehensive articulation of the racial imaginary Rankine has ever put on paper, but as her magnum opus.
... an unusual mix of essays, narratives, poems, pictures and musings ... Rankine offers compelling stories that illuminate, often through conversations with white people, how they have benefited from their skin tone since birth ... Some of these talks are emotionally painful ... It’s impossible to read Rankine's book and not conclude that we must address, as Rankine writes, the elaborate 'set of assumptions, privileges and benefits that accompany the status of being white' ... To these and other truths of a past we have avoided reckoning, Rankine will be helping America understand itself, one conversation at a time.
If these anecdotes illuminate nothing new, at least, for Rankine, they affirm the possibility of interacting with strangers ... The invocation of the power of conversation above more directly transformative mechanisms such as confrontation and refusal places the book within a liberal framework in which political stances are opinions, political education is information, and politics is policy ... Liberal thought on the subject of race exerts massive energy without forward propulsion, like a spin class, producing the same realization over and over again ... In Citizen, the pedagogical imperative with which all black writers have to contend felt secondary to Rankine’s powers as a writer, to the capacity to use language to irradiate the particular, contingent facts of a person’s life with shared meaning. By confining the problem of social change to dialogue between individuals, the type of anecdotal race-work foregrounded in Just Us tends to fillet out mass struggle and is left with a series of microaggressive vignettes floating in blank white space ... Little good comes of constantly questioning what you already know to be true, but doubt has its secret advantages. Just as indecision is the superficial appearance of a decision that you are not yet ready to own, Rankine’s ever-present uncertainty is a defense against unbearable certainties, against a white indifference ... Apparently 'American conversation' is, like American cheese, an ersatz of the original. At times it is hard to distinguish between outer and inner question, between a question demanding an answer and a question that Rankine has asked only herself ... The race-educational genre to which Just Us makes a contribution can only do so much to domesticate the wild strangeness of race, which is the experiential mode of the strangeness of history ... transgression and hypocrisy can be taken as given rather than exposed; their ubiquity is banal because we live in an extraordinarily violent society whose racial terms, however abstract, are enforced by police, poverty, and prisons. If Rankine could allow that, perhaps she and her work would once again become more savage and more joyful.
... the precision remains. Thinking out each step of her reflections, Rankine demonstrates Gertrude Stein’s belief that 'sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are' ... Ingeniously, each double-page spread is in discussion with itself, offering 'fact checks', footnotes, bright illustrations and meaningful blanks. Sociology (yes) is cited, but so are literature, visual art and photojournalism ... I think Rankine is a writer of genius. But Just Us defies you — and perhaps particularly me, the white male critic — to deflect its restless questioning with resonant praise ... consummately vindicates her ambition to measure the distance between 'just us' and 'justice' in both poems and essays. To call it a 'triumph' feels wrong, though, given its recurrent despair at the possibility of deep change, as even her closest white friends fail to see what she sees. 'The indifference,' she writes, 'is impenetrable and reliable and distributed across centuries,' and the defeated, falling rhythm of her phrasing is devastating ... Read each exacting page as closely as a poem, and it will read you.
... invites and rewards attention. And it seeks out not only understanding, but the ways in which that understanding might emerge ... While narrative drives most chapters, the book insists on contemplation ... There’s a quality of vigilance that spills into the relationships and conversations she describes ... not everyone’s ideal of love or friendship, but at least for those of us who cherish close reading, it’s often engrossing to read ... even amid my initial misreading and resistance, Just Us compelled me ... Both imagine and engage their audiences in such complex networks that even to disagree is to enter more deeply, becoming more aware of our own impulses, seeing more clearly what she’s describing and—although it might take took a long time to admit it—what she asks ... Rankine struggles to move with the same clarity outside of a white/black dichotomy ... Her range is further limited by what seems like a significant blind spot. Just Us focuses primarily on the places of economic privilege where Rankine lives and moves, and yet she doesn’t say much about class outside the realm of her own affluent circles. While she does, for example, address the impacts of racial disparities in generational wealth, she concentrates on the disparities between her and a white friend who owns a house as nice as hers ... I’m not sure Just Us makes good on everything those first two books promised. It’s by far the longest of the three, but it also feels smaller in scope and less agile in its reach ... while she’s retained the variety of Citizen—its magpie materials and techniques—they less often feel like a product of necessity this time around, gathered up in an urgency they therefore reflect, and more like a pastiche ... That wanting, that hunger for life and honesty and the surprise of recognition, the surprise of change, change here, animates Just Us at its best, and it’s in that aspiration that the book most often achieves the vitality of conversation, the ongoingness that is its own image of hope (keep talking) even as it describes this world and all that it destroys.
Rankine’s commitment to conversation as the threshold of political transformation is rooted in a deep investment in the possibility of rewiring the social contract, the unspoken agreement about civility that is also a formative democratic principle ... That Just Us concentrates on white people thinking about whiteness is not surprising, but its infrequent engagements with Black people might give the reader pause, not least for their bluntness ... Taking liberties to ask questions even, and especially, when they are not welcome seems to be at least half of her goal. Yet given the insufficiency of the conversation as a substitute for politics (and given that if conversation and democracy are twinned forces, then right now they are equally impotent), evident here as elsewhere in Just Us, her methodology is hard to get behind. This summer, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, white people were encouraged to engage in difficult, discomfiting conversations about their own privilege. Just Us adopts a similar liberalism, equating conversation with political action, even as this equation strips urgency away from calls for anti-racist practices ... Impressions and impressibility might seem a small thing to dwell on from a book overflowing with anecdotes, cultural references and data (a hybridity that shows Rankine at her best) ... I can’t help thinking of Morrison’s clearing as the kind of unnamed, unsanctioned place that can foster the transformative relations Rankine dreams of. It is only in such a space, clear of a social contract built on bodily debasement and the idea of a 'them', beyond the purview of whiteness, and without the desire for either intelligibility or legibility, that we might be able to impress on each other in truly transformative ways – to just be us.
In the new book, Rankine tries to account for norms and expectations she worries have escaped scrutiny ... Just Us is best understood as a possible model for the kind of relations Rankine thinks we need to cultivate ... More than a profoundly disruptive social practice, recording and replying to white thoughtlessness as Rankine does is an intervention in the study of whiteness ... That Rankine finds it plausible that white people might rise to this task explains another feature of Just Us: In its invocations of theory, the work waffles. On one hand, Rankine looks to theory in order to explain the workings of whiteness in the world ... Her piece interrogates the practice of seeing with an intensity that would make Simone Browne proud. But it ends abruptly, and Just Us moves on to other, more visceral topics, less suited to intricate theory work ... while that might sound like a criticism, Rankine’s theoretical ambivalence helps Just Us enact its central tension: between reason and reality, between our notions of justice and who we are.
Rankine thinks associatively rather than sequentially, so the book is episodic rather than arranged as an argument or a narrative with a narrative arc like, say, Ibram Kendi’s polemic ... Rankine is more like a disgruntled but interesting guest at a dinner party who keeps turning the conversation back to subjects that make others uncomfortable but are well worth talking about and seriously examining ... It should be noted here that she calls the book 'a conversation,' and you may find yourself arguing with her. Aren’t there many beautiful Black celebrities, from Beyoncé to Lupita Nyong’o? She considers hair-straightening and Black women who bleach their hair blond and wonders what that might mean. She doesn’t always have answers to these questions ... Once you’ve read Just Us, order a copy of 2014’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
Rankine’s representation of loneliness was always political as well as personal ... as Rankine tells us in her new collection, Just Us, the inclusion of her words did not lead to the inclusion of her person ... Rankine’s antidote to this loneliness was and continues to be conversation—a strategy on full display in Just Us ... What separates Just Us from these historians’ work is its focus on personal experience and thought. By chronicling her experiences as a means of bringing America’s racism to the surface, she asks readers to consider those larger structures of power and violence as well as how so many of them, as individuals, have contributed to sustaining a racist society ... it should come as no surprise that Just Us delves into her ambivalence toward the nation that elected Donald Trump ... Accordingly, Rankine’s representations of racism in Just Us tend to be interpersonal. Although she has discussed unconscious and implicit bias throughout her work, Just Us is the book in which she discusses both forms of bias most explicitly and at the greatest length. It is also the book in which she turns most profoundly to the ways in which whiteness—and especially notions of white innocence—lead white people to forget the role that racism plays in enabling their success ... Her commitment to the emancipatory possibilities of conversation can, at times, make Just Us a frustrating read ... it becomes clear that Rankine sees these conversations as doing a particular kind of work.
The book pierces the abstraction of whiteness as Rankine confronts it in real, fraught physical spaces—airports, schools and suburban neighbourhoods via emergency calls to 911 operators — by asking simple, devastating questions ... Rankine’s power as a cultural commentator stems not only from her lyricism but also from her range ... Just Us is an indictment but it is also a longing for conversation, and Rankine examines deeply personal struggles of navigating her own prejudices ... It is a text for the wounded, a timely acknowledgment and communion of grief.
If Rankine’s essays are wide-ranging (blondness, police violence, Latinx stereotypes) and well researched, they’re also conversational and personal ... These images and asides expand on the essays while offering a glimpse into Rankine’s process as a writer ... She is one of our foremost thinkers, and Just Us is essential reading in 2020 and beyond.
Rankine presents another arresting blend of essays and images, perfectly attuned to this long-overdue moment of racial reckoning. In language all the more devastating for its simplicity, Rankine analyzes the overwhelming power of whiteness in everyday interactions ... Rankine once again opens a literary window into the Black experience, for those willing to look in.
[A] unique and powerful meditation on the challenges of communicating across the racial divide in America ... an incisive, anguished, and very frank call for Americans of all races to cultivate their 'empathetic imagination' in order to build a better future.
Rankine writes with disarming intimacy and searing honesty about pointed exchanges with White friends and colleagues, fissures within her marriage, and encounters with White strangers who assume some sort of superiority of rank ... potent ... A work that should move, challenge, and transform every reader who encounters it.