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.
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.
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.