As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another? Claudia Rankine, without telling us what to do, urges us to begin the discussions that might open pathways through this divisive and stuck moment in American history.
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.