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Just Us: An American Conversation: Incisive, brilliant and necessary

Claudia Rankine digs into the dialogue beneath easy language and interrogates reality

Just Us: An American Conversation
Author: Claudia Rankine
ISBN-13: 978-0241467107
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

With Just Us: An American Conversation, American poet and essayist 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. As she asks in the opening poem, “What if what I want from you is new, newly made/ a new sentence in response to all my questions”.

As with her groundbreaking Citizen, Rankine’s latest work blends essays, photographs, poetry, erasures. What should be noted, though, is the shift in focus in her titles: whereas Citizen (2014) and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) were each subtitled “An American Lyric”, Just Us is “An American Conversation”.

Rankine is at her most generous, empathic and radical, seeking to open up a dialogue beneath the veneer of easy language. The emphasis is on conversation: what happens when white people talk to each other? What lurks beneath the stock responses and learned language of those who know how to toe the non-racist line, but still harbour biased modes of thought?

White friends

When I say “radical”, I don’t mean that Rankine’s position is radical per se. As she argues herself, when a friend tries to defend her against white friends who call her a radical: “Why? For calling white people white? For not wanting unarmed black people to be gunned down in our streets . . . Don’t defend me. Not for being human. Not for wanting others to be able to just live their lives. Not for wanting us simply to be able to live.”

But 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. In this book, Rankine is less interested in being right than in committing to a constant questioning energy, examining the pre-verbal as much as the verbal.

In the opening poem, Rankine repeatedly asks “What if”, using the silence of the poem and page as a corruption of the “call and response”. This poem calls, but the response doesn’t come. “What if you’re the destruction coursing beneath/ your language of savior?”

what if
in the renewed resilience, what if in the endlessness,
what if in a lifetime of conversations, what if
in the clarity of consciousness, what if nothing changes?

Prose and poetry

Investigating the boundaries of limits of language, of prose and poetry, Rankine takes as her subject the idea of being a subject. How does it change us to be seen in certain ways? What do white people think of being white? How do they imagine themselves, and how do they imagine those who are not themselves? How, in short, are white people socialised, and how does that socialisation affect both them and people of colour? Through a series of conversations (at airports, with strangers, with friends, with therapists), Rankine is both courageous and meticulous.

This is also a bravely vulnerable book. It invites the reader into Rankine’s personal life; her life as a cancer survivor; the strains of her marriage. Throughout, Rankine never lets herself off the hook: she examines her own thought, her own motives, with the same rigour as she invites us to examine our own.

Just Us left this white reader with the sense that I had witnessed the raising of the moral and intellectual standard. When the most functional conversation occurs in Just Us, it is through people being able to “carry the disturbance” of another’s reality.

What would happen if white people extended this empathic generosity beyond their own racial group and experience? Rankine’s work becomes a challenge to be risen to, and she leads by example.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic