Super chill book review: Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Apparently Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book (or, more precisely, book-length poem, although a lot of it is fairly prose-y) Citizen: An American Lyric is pretty well-known, at least in some circles, but I hadn’t heard of it until recently. When I went to check it out from the library, I saw that Rankine also wrote a more recent book, published in 2020, called Just Us: An American Conversation. I checked that one out too and ended up reading most of it on the airplane this last weekend.

Here’s a random set of thoughts about Just Us. I really liked it. (I guess I haven’t blogged yet about any books I haven’t liked. I’m sure we’ll get there someday.)

1. If Citizen is a kind of prose-y poem, then Just Us is a kind of poem-y bunch of prose. I appreciated Rankine’s often poem-like writing, in its attention to detail, and its attention to sound and rhythm. She has kind of a cool style. It’s pretty easy to read, too, which I appreciated. Especially on an airplane.

It was also kind of funny reading it on the plane because a lot of her stories happen in or around airports and airplanes. I guess it’s one of those places where you find yourself in close proximity with a lot of strangers. 

Rankine travels first class a lot, and so she finds herself, in that space, often bumping up against white people’s expectations around race, and class, and who does or doesn’t travel in a particular way. It made me look around at the first class section on the planes I was on and contemplate the whiteness of it all, which I hadn’t really thought about before—you know, because I’m white. 

(And because normally I don’t spend much time looking around at people in the first-class section, because I think it’s gross that they paid so much for their seats. I know people’s work often pays for it, and I probably shouldn’t judge, regardless. But it’s hard not to.)

I don’t travel first class, but if I did, I don’t think I’d have to worry about people ignoring me, or cutting in front of me in line, or generally assuming I don’t belong there. Rankine, as a Black woman, encounters all of these things regularly.

2. Throughout Just Us, Rankine includes lots of “fact check” and “notes and sources” sections on the left side of the page, referencing statements she makes in her writing on the right side of the page. 

It’s kind of cool, as a reader, because you can choose to read more about any particular statements that interest you, or any details you hadn’t heard before or aren’t sure about. And you can skim or skip these sections for statements you’re already familiar with or don’t need to be convinced of. It lets Rankine offer a lot more detail where she wants to, without interrupting the flow of her stories and her writing.

I wonder if Rankine feels a need to include these “fact check” sections, more so than a white man would in her place. I wonder if she got so sick of her students (she teaches poetry at Yale) questioning everything she says, that she decided to preempt some of that doubt by including “fact checks” throughout her book. 

Maybe sometimes even being an actual genius—that is, more precisely, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as a ton of other very prestigious-sounding awards—doesn’t protect you from these things.

3. It took me a minute to realize that this is a book about whiteness / white supremacy in particular, not a book about race in general. Maybe as a white person I just tend to expect stuff to be about me, so I didn’t really notice for a while that all the examples and stories were about white people and whiteness, and about Rankine’s reactions to these people and their words and actions?

I think this kind of candid reflection on whiteness is really important. Rankine reflects deeply on so many different kinds of everyday situations in which whiteness rears its head, even if many of us, and especially white people, might be blind to it. 

It’s helpful, too, that the book is from 2020, such that Rankine’s reflections feel very current in a world (and a country) that is changing quite rapidly in some ways even as it remains all too stagnant in others. Because it’s a pretty recent book, we get to hear Rankine’s thoughts on things like Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, white supremacy in the era of president Trump, and, just in general, all sorts of facts and figures from the last couple of years. 

4. I think Rankine is a brave woman. A lot of her stories involve her speaking up to disrupt something racially toxic that’s going on around her. I know this is not an easy thing, and it can be even a dangerous one. I appreciate her courage, even as I wish things were such that she did not need it.

This book helped draw out, for me, the tug-of-war between my interests in niceness, politeness, and social smoothness, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my interest in justice and equity (along lines of race, gender, and more). 

I feel like Rankine is a role model of what it could look like to stick out one’s neck a little more than I am often willing—perhaps asking pointed questions that invite people to think twice about what they’ve said, or pointing out racist implications that others might not see or want to acknowledge.

5. Did you know that “critical whiteness studies” was a thing in a lot of universities back in the 80s? I didn’t. 

Apparently, after white people overwhelmingly supported Reagan for president, people got interested in understanding how that could have happened and why that was the case. And so we got a whole area of study, “aim[ing] to make visible a history of whiteness that through its association with ‘normalcy’ and ‘universality’ masked its omnipresent institutional power” (p. 17). 

Sound familiar? Like, from all the analysis we’ve been doing and questions we’ve been asking since the 2016 election? I continue to be mind-blown by all the ways in which a lot of Trump-y stuff is really not new at all, even though it certainly felt that way to me in 2016.

6. As a white woman, I appreciated hearing Rankine’s reflections on some of the things her white female friends have said and done. She even includes in her book some extended reflections they’ve written to her when asked. 

I liked this because I feel like Rankine’s white female friends that she writes about are often both really thoughtful and also really blind. I appreciated that they didn’t feel like caricatures, or like obviously bad examples of white supremacist ways of thinking. It was more subtle and nuanced than that. 

If Rankine is friends with these white women, they’re probably well-intentioned people who aren’t openly, outwardly racist on a regular basis. They were people I could kind of see myself in, at least at some points, and because of that, it was interesting and helpful for me to hear Rankine’s thoughts on where her white friends got it really right, and what they were missing.

Curious to hear if you’ve heard of and/or read this book, and what you think!

2 thoughts on “Super chill book review: Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)”

  1. Thanks for these reviews. These are good recommendations. I think I must have heard Claudia Rankine on a podcast or somewhere because I recollect hearing the story of her experiences on flying first class. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on these books!

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