Mixing essays, poetry and images, Claudia Rankine’s new book, Just Us: An American Conversation, asks how our notions of whiteness play out in these United States. In the book’s meditative opening poem, she asks what if: “What if what I want from you is new, newly made / a new sentence in response to all my questions. . . . I am here, without the shrug, / attempting to understand how what I want / and what I want from you run parallel— / justice and the openings for just us.”
The compelling essay “liminal spaces” comes early in the book. “The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to,” she writes. Rankine is a Black woman, and though her husband is white, she says, “I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.” A frequent flyer, Rankine finds these men in line for flights or sits next to them on airplanes. In Just Us, she details their exchanges alongside her private thoughts.
If Rankine’s essays are wide-ranging (blondness, police violence, Latinx stereotypes) and well researched, they’re also conversational and personal. Images run throughout the text, including photo essays, screenshots of tweets from Roxane Gay and Donald Trump and frequent side notes, in which Rankine fact-checks her own assumptions. These images and asides expand on the essays while offering a glimpse into Rankine’s process as a writer.
Rankine is best known as a poet. She’s the author of five poetry collections, including the book-length poem Citizen (2014), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s also written three plays and many essays and reviews, and she used her MacArthur “genius” grant to found the Racial Imaginary Institute, which sponsors artists responding to concepts of whiteness and Blackness. She is one of our foremost thinkers, and Just Us is essential reading in 2020 and beyond.