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‘Just Us’ Asks the Questions We All Need to Hear

5 Stars

Cover art of "Just Us."
Cover art of "Just Us." By Courtesy of Graywolf Press
By Maxwell A. Gillmer, Contributing Writer

It is of no surprise that “Just Us: An American Conversation,” Claudia Rankine’s sixth collection of poetry, is a beautiful work of art. Rankine, author and Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale, is known for her provocative work on themes of race, class, and gender, and her brilliant and astoundingly accessible mind has once again invited us to ask ourselves necessary questions on race that push beyond our comfort zones. This book combines poetry, narrative, interview, and visual art into a contemplation on the far-reaching nature of American anti-Black racism and belonging in American society.

Comprised of 21 reflections, “Just Us” begins with a section of six poems titled “what if,” immediately priming the reader for the contemplative nature of the book. She lays out multiple questions throughout the poems, all revolving around ideas of race, struggle, and the desire for change, and ends the last poem with her intention for the book. She asks “What if what I want from you is new, newly made / a new sentence in response to all my questions.” Her rhetorical devices transform into an invitation to participate and an imposition of difficult reflection.

“Just Us” is poetic yet understandable. In each of the next 20 sections, Rankine structures the book around interviews she conducts with various people in her life, ranging from the spectrum of quotidian interactions with strangers to formalized interviews of colleagues, the very nature of which requires a conversational analysis. These interviews, however, are not conventionally transcribed as conversations but are instead written as essays. She invites us into her own narrative consciousness.

The lack of quotation marks in her dialogue transforms the questions she asks them into questions she asks herself, and into questions she asks the reader. She creates what she aptly calls an “American conversation” in a manner that questions the complicated, invites reflection, and implicates uncomfortable participation in American racist thought all while withholding judgment upon the reader. She interrogates others, asking “Am I being silence?” and interrogates herself “Am I being silenced,” and asks us, without “Are you silencing me?” Are we, as individuals, being silenced, or are we silencing others?

She poses unanswerable questions that evade nice, bow-wrapped conclusions. When she asks these deep questions about the nature of race and racism, Rankine herself does not know the answer. She admits, “I don’t know. I’m simply exploring and not insisting.” Rhetorically, she places these ideas in the reader’s mind while giving them the information to conclude, but she does not answer them directly, because she cannot know the complete answer herself, and she knows we cannot know either. She gives the reader the opportunity to discover themselves within the fabric of our American society by implicating without accusing.

But don’t be fooled ­­— she doesn’t let the reader off the hook either. In considering the complex racial dynamic of quotidian experiences, she forces the reader to acknowledge that these interactions and reactions are unavoidable. It is impossible, as an American, to evade completely the structures and institutions that surround us — whether we like it or not. She forces us to interrogate our own actions to see how we shape belonging in this country.

Rankine employs a sophisticated inclusion of sources to beautifully represent the difficulties of speaking on race as a Black person. As if her authority is not enough and as if her experiences are not enough, Rankine interrupts the narrative to provide page-long citations in a way that challenges a person’s tendency to demand “legitimate” references especially from Black women when speaking about their lives.

“Just Us” forces the reader to face these uncomfortable realities which we, as individuals, may not want to acknowledge. But Rankine seeks to provide avenues through which we, as a society, can heal. She admits that questions like these may fall short of providing answers, but without disturbing the racial social contracts within quotidian interactions, we will never be able to reconcile with the tragedies that still befall the American public today.

Within these contemplative and sometimes difficult to read interviews, Rankine effectively includes us in this valuable practice of self-reflection. She makes us question, who is included within the polity of “us”? How do our actions harm others? How do our words exclude others? What are the answers embedded in these questions and will we ever solve them? Rankine ends in a stroke of optimism — we may not know the answers at this moment, but we do know one thing: We are here.

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