Type to search

Arts & Culture Editors' Picks Opinion

Unanswered Questions: In Claudia Rankine’s “Just Us”, a Call for Conversation

“Is she going to ask me?” I wondered, before I sat down for an interview with Professor Claudia Rankine. “Is she going to ask me how I, a white man, understand my privilege?” 

I had just finished Rankine’s newest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, a collection of essays and poetry. The first essay, “liminal spaces i” centers around Rankine’s hesitant desire to ask white men that very question. I was not sure how I would respond. 

When Rankine picked up the phone, a few minutes after she responded to my email request and a half hour before she was supposed to appear on National Public Radio, Rankine did not ask me her question, and I did not volunteer an answer. I wondered if I might have disappointed her. 

That fear of mine—that my questions might have been misguided and my responses unfitting—arose from reading Rankine’s candid, personal questions about race and racism, and finding myself without answers. In Just Us, Rankine, a Black woman, examines race through dialogue, trying to pin down exactly its role in her life and in our country. She challenges us to enter into her discussion, to scrutinize our own lives in the light of her accounts. 

By focusing her attention on small, intimate conversations, Rankine passes by the calls for popular uprising that have swept millions of people onto the streets across the nation. Her worries and confessions are never extracted from the personal experiences from which she draws: she resists universalizing the discussion she engages into a political agenda or a roadmap to progress. 

Instead, Rankine demands that we ask again what race and racism do to our lives even when others (including, sometimes, myself) wonder whether we had better act first and ask second. As she takes time to reflect amidst the chaos and violence of our world, I found Rankine trying to talk to me.

Rankine’s essays, all written in the first person, tackle questions of racial inequity from her unvarnished experience. 

“This book is about my conversations, specific people in my life or people that I have approached who are strangers,” Rankine told me. In one essay, Rankine recalls talking to a white man whose son was not accepted early to Yale. 

“It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card,” he said. Immediately, we read her unspoken responses: “Was he yanking my chain?…. Should I have asked how he knew a person of color ‘took’ his son’s seat and not another white son of one of these many white men sitting around us?” 

Reading Rankine’s questions, I thought again about how the privileges of being a white man who also happens to be Jewish and from rural Pennsylvania (do those count as “diversity cards?”) factored into my own admission to Yale.

While we witness Rankine’s conversations in her essays, the poems in the work speak directly to us. They are Rankine’s opportunity to ask each of us, in her words, “what is getting in the way of [our] conversations.” The first lines of the book read:

What does it mean to want

an age-old call

for change

not to change

and yet, also, 

to feel bullied

by the call to change?

The question does not propel us toward a single answer. Instead, Rankine conjures the fear, anger, and yearning that surround change, perhaps with the hope that by clarifying the resistance to and the desire for newness, we might find a way to respond to her. 

Rankine’s questions do demand answers; they are the ones we have tried to answer time and time again, unsatisfactorily. When I read these lines, I thought of my hometown, the swastikas and profanity that recently marred the intersections of our main highway, and I felt Rankine’s unfulfilled longing even while I struggled to see a way to realize it.

Together, her essays and the poetry reconstruct the unity—the “we”—in our country and our lives. Rankine’s “I” often finds herself alienated from an imagined “we.” While talking to a white female friend, Rankine casually comments on their similar economic status, but regrets the comment immediately. 

She writes, “I’m stalled by the thought that I have no inherited wealth; I didn’t have a choice about whether to work outside the home while raising my child as my friend did, and, and….” 

The “we” that she referenced in her comment to her friend does not exist, at least not how she conceived it, so she recants it. Yet how to account for the unity in their friendship? Rankine asks, “If similarity and sameness are essentially impossible, how is ‘difference’ recouped and aligned with closeness?”

The reconciliation comes by reconstructing a “we” that “allows us to fall away from the ease of intimacy without falling…the two-step, just us, no, you and I.” Rankine thus reforges a “we” that encompasses difference without fracturing beneath its weight.

What if that “we” is fantastical? That question haunts Rankine throughout the text. Even after she rights the misstated connection with her friend, Rankine must confess that she does not know how her friend really feels about the moment. In the book, when Rankine’s white friends are put to the test, they too often back down from discomfort at the pivotal moment.

A glance at this month’s headlines only deepens my doubt about forging a new “we” in this country. One of the police officers that broke into Breonna Taylor’s house and murdered her was charged with endangering her neighbors; President Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power—or any transfer at all; after the Republican Senate majority refused to confirm a Supreme Court Justice in the final year of Obama’s presidency, 51 Republican Senators announced that they will break that precedent without hesitation (43 of them were in office in 2015).

Near my home in Pennsylvania, police officers murdered a Black man and then arrested medics as they tended to protesters whom the officers had tear gassed. These were the headlines for the week of Monday, September 28. There is no indication that such tragedies will abate any time soon. In the face of these events, I worry that the call to conversation that Rankine labeled as “the very heart of the book” falls on too many deaf ears.

Yet here I am, doing my best to continue her conversation. I wonder if I am doing it wrong. I worry because I am partaking in and reinforcing the limits of our world in the most elite academic (not to mention economic, political, etc.) circle in America, if not many parts of the globe. 

The book’s title, Just Us, troubles me when I imagine it circulating through our closed institutions. By coming to a place like Yale, by reading (and writing for) one of Yale’s magazines, we commit to sustained, rich discussion as an imperative for our world, even though that discussion is located in small or explicitly closed venues. 

I will return to Yale to speak with people about the burning issues of racism and inequality, among others. I will do that in no small part because I believe that our discussions—though limited—are important. I will also return to Yale with lingering doubt. We cannot always be talking, or perhaps better, we should not, especially not just amongst ourselves.

Rankine herself is not absolved of these questions. Given the all-encompassing topic of conversation, that Rankine’s own work does not include everyone is inevitable. Her descriptions of elite universities’ admissions processes, her art critiques, and even her various discussions on airplanes reflect her own orientation to her subject. Rankine herself immigrated from Jamaica as a child, but in Just Us, she focuses on only the past three years of her life.

Given this positionality, Rankine cannot always directly address some of my own questions about my home in rural Pennsylvania and the hatred, fear, and longing that festers there. But Rankine did not write Just Us as a manual to revitalize our nation. As much as the book is a guide to understanding each other, it is also Rankine’s reflection on her own experience. 

Rankine said to me, “Just Us could be a memoir in a certain way, but narrowly focused on conversations.” When her friend told her that her book had “no strategy,” Rankine replied,  “response is my strategy…to forfeit the ability to attempt again, to converse again, to speak with, to question and to listen to, is to be complicit with the violence of an unchanging structure contending with the aliveness and constant movement of all of us.”  

Rankine’s strategy is not a strategy for everyone. She knows of the desperate need for immediate change in the foundations of our country, and that discourse is insufficient for that project. 

The first thing Rankine said to me was, “I have often wondered what it was like in 1933 Germany. It’s crazy.” November’s election weighs heavily on her shoulders. Nonetheless, Rankine wants to think outside November, outside every crucial consecutive moment that consumes our lives. She insists that conversation ought to be someone’s strategy—that it ought to be hers.

Rankine will not relinquish her hope for newness, for an answer that we have not yet found but still might. In the opening poems of the book, titled “what if,” she writes:

Whatever is 

being expressed, what if, 

I am here awaiting, waiting for you 

in the what if, in the questions,

in the conditionals, 

in the imperatives—what if. 

When we talked, Rankine described herself imagining “what it would mean to have something new, a new sentence in response to my questions.” Rankine shows the depth of her fortitude and faith, her willingness not only to participate in but actively to seek out exchanges that range from unsettling to downright painful in search of that one new sentence.

By the end of our conversation and her book, I did not have that sentence for Rankine, but I had begun to suspect that she might be looking for a joke. It would be wrong to call Just Us funny. It is not. Yet humor surfaces and resurfaces, a motif hovering just around the edges of the text. Rankine discusses bad jokes—what mostly white teachers called a scenario in which a student compares a carving of a Black person to a “monkey”—and bitter laughter—how she erupts upon hearing a white colleague tell her, “I’ve been doing antiracist work since the ‘80s. I’m here to tell you it makes no difference.”

While we spoke, we laughed about nothing funny at all: Hitler’s rise to power, Trump’s equivocations after Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville. Our laughter gave voice to the things that words could not, another kind of “two-step,” perhaps, acknowledging the wrongs that cannot be righted without succumbing to them.

The joke that Rankine seeks is not funny, or, if it is, it has a kind of humor that magnifies communication rather than reducing it, that works to acknowledge and elevate the impossibility of verbal expression rather than brushing it aside. When I asked Rankine about the role that humor plays in the world today, she said (after complimenting the “Trevor Noahs of the world”) that humor is “another way of creating discourse…another way of creating connection and intimacy.” 

As example, she referenced Dave Chappelle’s special after the murder of George Floyd, 8:46, calling it “a sharing of recognition, a sharing of the absurdity and violence and mourning that has determined our present lives, our present world.” This sharing through laughter might open a door to a kind of unity that we lack as a people right now. Though Rankine’s humor offers us neither escape nor unearned comfort, perhaps it does offer something new.

Claudia Rankine wrote Just Us: An American Conversation about talking to people, questioning people, laughing with people. Reading it, each of us gets a chance to talk to her, too, to unsettle our lives and to enter them anew. The book is a portrait of Rankine—her life, her thoughts, her identity—but it, too, is a mirror, so that to gaze upon her face, you must confront the faint reflection of your own, staring back.