Claudia Rankine has been talking about race for years. Her new book invites you to push through your misgivings and talk about it, too.
"I wasn't writing the book and saying, ‘OK, this object is supposed to achieve X and Y,’" Rankine said in a phone interview. "It was more really sincerely looking at the process of these conversations and thinking about: Why do they go off the rails sometimes? What's my contribution to that? Why is there a need to silence each other when a little bit of discomfort comes in?"
These questions wind throughout "Just Us: An American Conversation" (Graywolf Press, $30). Rankine will discuss it Thursday virtually via BookPeople with University of Texas associate professor Jennifer Wilks, who directs UT’s John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.
Rankine is a celebrated poet, playwright, essayist, Yale University scholar and MacArthur Fellow. "Just Us" follows 2014’s New York Times-bestselling "Citizen: An American Lyric," an examination of racism through poetry and art that won multiple awards.
Her new book collects an array of media as well. It includes poems, essays, photographs, video stills and data tables. There are ads featuring an unrealistically light-skinned version of biracial tennis champion Naomi Osaka, snippets of warnings that appear on blonde hair-dye boxes, and excerpts from comedians’ routines.
And there are powerful recollections of conversations Rankine has had about race with strangers in airports, her friends and even her husband. She notices that when dinner party discussion veers toward a potentially fraught exchange, someone invariably intervenes with a polite distraction. She allows us into her thoughts, which interrogate her own assumptions as much as they do those of her conversational partners.
In one section, she recalls watching a play with a white friend. The Black playwright asks all the white audience members to come onstage. Rankine’s friend remains in her seat.
"I am getting tense," Rankine writes. "The playwright is a black woman, and I am a black woman, and I want her play to have what it has requested. What I assume it needs. Is my identification with the playwright because she’s black, or because she’s a woman, or because she’s an artist? It’s impossible to dissect. My tension begins to couple with a building resentment against my white friend. I feel betrayed by her."
Rankine says little that night, although she later asks her friend why she stayed in her seat. Her friend eventually unpacks her own thoughts on paper, which Rankine includes.
"The thing that I feel, especially with my friends and my husband, is that we can stand it. We can take it. The foundation of our friendship or our marriage or whatever should hold us, so that we can get beyond the discomfort and move into a place of reflection," Rankine said. That may not happen right away, but it can happen, she added.
"These moments are not deal breakers. They're just uncomfortable moments. ... We’ve been so whitewashed to believe that discomfort is going to break us."
"Just Us" models curiosity. It arrives at a crucial time, Rankine said.
"We're in this incredible moment right now where we are literally on the edge of falling into a statehood defined by fascism, where people stop thinking, stop asking questions, stop believing in their own curiosity, their ability to make their own judgments, where false news is being advocated by our leader, even as there are tapes that reveal that he knows what the facts are.
"So I wanted to create a text that brought all those things back — the facts, the work done by sociologists, the work being done by artists — and remove the illusion that any of us know everything, or know anything. I wanted to be able to rethink this. We need to have to conversations about it; we can't give in to our exhaustion around these issues ...
"If there was ever a moment for true reflection and truly meeting our interlocutors halfway, it is now, because the cost is so high."