The subtitle of Claudia Rankine’s “Just Us” is “An American Conversation,” singular because Rankine aims to encourage dialogue on what she calls “reimagining agency.” “How do all of us,” she asks, “believe again in our inalienable rights?” I want to challenge that “again,” but mainly in the spirit of a conversation I feel invited into by Rankine.
“Just Us” is also built around conversations, plural, and the structure is supported by three essays on liminal spaces. “liminal spaces i” focuses on a conversation Rankine had with a white passenger on an airplane. “liminal spaces ii” examines Permit Pattys, Barbecue Beckys, and Airbnb Amys — the white tendency to police Black conduct. “liminal spaces iii” summarizes Rankine’s thesis and offers a quiet and keen reflection on this transitional moment in our nation’s history. The nation itself is up in the air.
In her formulations, Rankine converses with strangers on the street, close friends, fellow academics, artists, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fred Moten, Thomas Jefferson, and, most notably, herself. Everyone gets the benefit of her intense gaze and relentless scrutiny. For the longest time, I intended to pass along two critical notes. First, the title felt too casual for this discussion. Second, the publication of private conversations in a book that will receive richly deserved attention and praise might make some readers (read: me) feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to see other people’s business put out in the street like this.
As I read along, I caught up. “Just Us” is about intimacy. Rankine is making an appeal for real closeness. She’s advocating for candor as the pathway to achieving universal humanity and authentic love. In the essay “ethical loneliness,” Rankine examines a Jackie Sibblies Drury play, an Audre Lorde lecture, and a fiery conversation with a friend ignited by the play. I caught up. We are meant to have difficult conversations with each other. The title is clever; the uncomfortableness is essential.
This is the part of a review where I usually share critical notes.
Rankine is vulnerable, too. In “lemonade,” an essay about how race and racism affect her interracial marriage, Rankine models the openness she hopes to inspire. “lemonade” is hard to handle. It’s naked and confessional, deeply moving and, ultimately, inspirational.
“Just Us,” as a book, is inventive. You read the right page first. Dots cue you to side notes on the left page where Rankine sometimes fact-checks her own ideas. “Just Us” also includes quite a few blank pages. This space invites your contemplation and reactions to the text but not as marginalia, as full dialogue.
Claudia Rankine may be the most human human I’ve ever encountered. Her inner machinations and relentless questioning would exhaust most people. Her labor should be less necessary, of course. Rankine’s mission — save humankind, achieve full humanity for every person — might seem like work for superheroes. But the model where people are powerless victims waiting for someone to save them isn’t what Rankine is proposing. That isn’t what she’s proposing at all.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
Just Us: An American Conversation
By: Claudia Rankine.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 340 pages, $30.
Virtual event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Sept. 22, MPRevents.org.