Claudia Rankine's 'Just Us' Is A Conversation, Not A Prescription

Sep 3, 2020
Originally published on September 8, 2020 9:31 am

Claudia Rankine's award-winning poetry collection Citizen came out in 2014 — the year of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown.

Her latest book arrives as the same problems afflict the United States. It's called Just Us: An American Conversation, and it's a collection of essays, photos, poems and, yes, conversations, that she has been having with friends and strangers alike about race.

The title comes from a surprising place, the late Richard Pryor and his stand-up bit on the criminal justice system: "You go down there looking for justice. That's what you find — just us."

"Comedians like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes — these people are able to hold the good and bad of it," Rankine says. "They're the people I go to who can both see it and hold it — and move through it. And they don't abdicate; they really stay in there."


Interview Highlights

On not just listening to others, but reflecting on herself

I'm really interested in what other people say to me, but I'm also really interested in why I say the things that I say, because we are all socialized inside a system that was shaped with the tenets of white supremacy. So how is that affecting my behavior? How is that affecting the amount of patience I have in conversation with you? What am I hearing when you speak to me? Why am I saying the things that I'm saying to you? So all of those questions were the guiding questions in the making of Just Us.

On her lack of interactions with white men

I have interactions with white men in terms of work — and I am married to a white man — but I don't have conversations, long conversations, exploring a subject without a destination, in a sense, with white men in general. And so the task I gave myself was to approach white men in the way that I might have a conversation with a white woman just because I'm sitting next to her, but really to push the moment so that these white men would talk to me about this idea of white male privilege. And if I could move the conversation to that subject, I did.

I'm not offering a prescription. 'Just Us' is a book that says, look at this. Let's see what it means to be in conversation. -

On starting to approach white men

Well, I think initially I thought I would just wait for somebody to give me an opening in conversation, you know — so you're sitting next to a guy, you're waiting, the plane is delayed. He asks the time. He asks what did the gate agents say, and then that leads to something else and leads to something else. And in one of the situations recounted in the book, eventually he asked me what I did and I said I taught at Yale and he said, you know, his son didn't get in on early decision. And even then I wasn't willing to say, let's talk about white male privilege. But then when he said his son didn't get in because his son's friend, who was a person of color, got in, then I thought, OK, he is in my wheelhouse and we can start this conversation.

So that's sort of — I didn't want to feel like I was pressing because I didn't know these people, you know, and it didn't always work out. There was one occasion where a white man, I was waiting on line to board the plane, and the two of us standing there, and he says to me, you know, I love airplanes because you don't have any news. You don't have, you know, this constant chatter around the news. I said to him, you shouldn't have voted for him. And at that point, he turned to me and he said, it's not just him. And that was the end, but that was the sort of project of the book was to push these moments to their crisis.

On a friend's comment that her book has no strategy

Well, because there's no strategy, because I'm not interested in telling people what to do. I'm not offering a prescription. Just Us is a book that says, look at this. Let's see what it means to be in conversation. Let's see what it means to try to apprehend the same reality. When you see a man put his knee on another man's neck until he dies and has to call out for his mother — what is behind that? What allows us both to be able to hold that as part of America? You know, it would be in a different category. What are those categories, self-help books or something? ... That's not — that was never my intent. My intent was to look at a thing.

This piece was produced for radio Art Silverman, edited by Justine Kenin and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Claudia Rankine's award-winning collection of poetry, "Citizen," came out in 2014, the year of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown. Her latest book arrives as the same problems afflict the country. It's called "Just Us: An American Conversation," and it's a collection of essays, photos, poems and, yes, conversations that she's been having with friends and strangers alike about race.

The title comes from a surprising place, the late Richard Pryor and his standup bit on the criminal justice system where he says, you go down there looking for justice, and that's what you find, just us.

CLAUDIA RANKINE: Comedians like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes, you know, these people are able to hold the good and the bad of it. There are the people I go to who can both see it and hold it and move through it. And they don't abdicate; they really stay in there.

CORNISH: Claudia Rankine says this book was not just about listening to what she heard, but reflecting on herself.

RANKINE: I'm really interested in what other people say to me, but I'm also really interested in why I say the things that I say because we are all socialized inside a system that was shaped with the tenants of white supremacy. So how is that affecting my behavior? How is that affecting the amount of patience I have in conversation with you? What am I hearing when you speak to me? Why am I saying the things that I'm saying to you? So all of those questions were the guiding questions in the making of "Just Us."

CORNISH: One of the things you do in the book is you are pursuing conversations with white men who you say, in general, you don't have a lot of interactions with. Can you help me understand that, especially to people who might Google you and say, I think she has a white husband, so what does she mean by this?

RANKINE: I have interactions with white men in terms of work, and I am married to a white man, but I don't have conversations, long conversations exploring a subject without a destination, in a sense, with white men in general. And so the task I gave myself was to approach white men in the way that I might have a conversation with a white woman just because I'm sitting next to her, but really to push the moment so that these white men would talk to me about this idea of white male privilege. And if I could move the conversation to that subject, I did.

CORNISH: This is not an easy thing to do, it sounds like. And in the book sometimes, I feel your reluctance, like, kind of getting up the nerve to do it. How did you think about approaching it? I mean, can you remember the first time trying to do this?

RANKINE: Well, I think initially I thought I would just wait for somebody to give me an opening in conversation, you know - so you're sitting next to a guy, you're waiting, the plane is delayed. He asks the time. He asks what did the gate agents say. And then that leads to something else and leads to something else. In one of the situations recounted in the book, eventually he asked me what I did. And I said I taught at Yale, and he said, you know, his son didn't get in on early decision. And even then I wasn't willing to say, let's talk about white male privilege (laughter). But then when he said his son didn't get in because his son's friend who was a person of color got in, then I thought, OK, he is in my wheelhouse (laughter). And we can start this conversation.

So that's sort of - I didn't want to feel like I was pressing because I didn't know these people. You know, and it didn't always work out. There was one occasion where a white man - I was waiting online to board the plane, and the two of us are standing there. And he says to me, you know, I love airplanes because you don't have any news. You don't have, you know, this constant chatter around the news. I said to him, you shouldn't have voted for him. And at that point, he turned to me, and he said, it's not just him. And that was the end. But that was the sort of project of the book was to push these moments to their crisis.

CORNISH: I want to ask about another one of these conversations that starts in an airport, one that starts, you describe, as having the ease of kicking a ball around on a fall afternoon, which is a lovely image. This is on Page 49. And I was wondering if you can read it to us. It begins, eventually he told me.

RANKINE: (Reading) Eventually he told me he had been working on diversity inside his company. We still have a long way to go, he said. Then he repeated himself - we still have a long way to go - adding, I don't see color. This is a statement for well-meaning white people whose privilege and blind desire catapult them into a time when little Black children and little white children are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I get it, he said. His tone was solemn. What other inane things have I said? Only that, I responded.

CORNISH: You follow by saying you refuse to let the reality he was insisting on be my reality. And one of the things that struck me is that you're having a meta conversation. Like, in your mind, you're seeing this conversation through how he would view it, how you would view it, society, history. Like, it's this, like, multilayered thing and that that's actually quite common, especially for people of color, that you're having the double consciousness in your conversation so to speak.

RANKINE: Yeah. I think Du Bois's notion of the double consciousness is a ruling metaphor for how Black people exist in the world. So you're always a little bit suspicious about the source of statements coming at you, and it's sort of sifted through all of history.

CORNISH: A friend who reads your book comments to you that there's no strategy here. Why is there no strategy here?

RANKINE: Well, because - there's no strategy because I'm not interested in telling people what to do. I'm not offering a prescription. "Just Us" is a book that says, look at this. Let's see what it means to be in conversation. Let's see what it means to try - apprehend the same reality. When you see a man put his knee on another man's neck until he dies and has to call out for his mother, what is behind that? What allows us both to be able to hold that as part of America? You know, it would be in a different category. What are those categories - self-help books or something? - it's not that (laughter).

CORNISH: That's not the section we'll find this in? That would be a serious surprise for some people.

RANKINE: (Laughter) Yeah. That's not - that was never my intent. My intent was to look, to look at a thing.

CORNISH: Well, Claudia Rankine, thank you so much for spending the time with us and really digging into this book. It's really lovely.

RANKINE: Thank you so much for having me on.

CORNISH: Claudia Rankine - her new book is called "Just Us: An American Conversation." To listen to more of our conversation, subscribe to NPR's podcast It's Been A Minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAINT MOTEL SONG, "A GOOD SONG NEVER DIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.