SEPTEMBER 21, 2020
CLAUDIA RANKINE’S Just Us: An American Conversation completes a vital trilogy that includes Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Rankine’s fluid artistry is complex and human. Twenty-one intimate, and collaborative, essays, in verso and recto format, swerve and fuse poetry, visuals, scholarship, analysis, invective, and argument into an informed examination of race in America. Her conversations with strangers, friends, and family were not calculated exchanges. They were everyday interactions. She engaged a psychiatrist to deconstruct her reactions to discussions that triggered curiosity or unrest and fact-checked the material. What unfolds is how American history has been assembled from a punitive and systematic white bias.
Rankine is front and center of her work: I can’t ask other people to show up if I’m not going to show up. She recognizes that too much is at stake to stay silent, or to leave. Challenging conversations need to happen, she argues, at a dinner party, in the theater, school gymnasium, or elsewhere. In the essay “liminal spaces i” when she sings the lyrics of Commodores’ “Nightshift” with a complete stranger on a plane, there’s no doubt that they are in harmony.
Rankine is a poet, playwright, essayist, wife, mother, friend, teacher, and more. During our conversation, she laughs, maybe more than talks, and her joy is contagious. There’s a moment when I’m like the guy on the plane, her singing companion, who, in a different way, expresses, “I don’t see color.” Her ease, and a bit of a chuckle, recognizes my moment of shame and creates an empathetic opportunity to continue talking and listening. Rankine addresses discomfort as a state in which we survive — where historical racial injustice and the part played by each of us is identified.
YVONNE CONZA: I’ve never heard you talk about your marriage or your daughter in your work. This is your most personal book. What made you put yourself, more so, onto the page?
CLAUDIA RANKINE: In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the “I” was a constructed device to allow me to roam around in different ways of seeing post–September 11 America. What did it mean to live in a country where fear was being weaponized against certain people in our society, and where I myself was both at risk of performing this mode of racial profiling, even as I am a target of this same form of projected and weaponized fear? Lonely was driven by that line of inquiry. I wanted it to be a public chronicle of a specific moment in time. The voice in the text was more a gearshift than a subject.
The prose poems in Citizen were collected encounters told to me, because I wanted people to understand the moments of aggression in certain encounters as belonging to everyone. The use of the second person, the you, was a site to enter where the reader had to decide if they were the one who caused the harm or received the one who was harmed in the space of the encounter. People of color, in their relationships with white people, are all having these kinds of interactions; and this mode of assault is free flowing in our American public. The book would have failed if the moments described were not already known by everyone.
In Just Us, I thought it would be interesting to come forward as myself, since this book seeks to be accountable in the space of conversation. What does it mean to have a conversation? What does it mean to understand that my race is at play no matter my interlocuter? In terms of myself as a subject of inquiry I wondered: What am I thinking? Why am I saying what I’m saying? How am I understanding what’s being said to me? What’s my historical positioning? What facts am I bringing to bear with my responses? How do I feel emotionally? It was a conscious decision to show up as fully as I could muster in these essays. I can’t ask other people to show up as readers if I’m not going to show up as the writer.
You showed up, and it makes the reader have to respond. I started fact-checking things in the book and discovering that the history I’d been schooled in was missing facts and was told through a partisan lens of white-centrism.
Yes. We managed to get through all this schooling without learning very crucial history.
That’s an interesting question — discoveries? I think it’s the same discovery you had. As I was pulling apart the assumptions I had, I was saying this and that; but what are the facts behind the statements? The more I would research, the more I would find. And then it became really difficult to decide — the book is a finite thing — what single fact could represent the overwhelming evidence of this or that repetition in the culture. It was a little humbling in terms of how much we haven’t been told, how much has been left out in the name of — I don’t know what. In the name of what? It’s not in the name of education. In the name of white supremacy, I guess.
What’s the emotional cost of this work for you?
Interesting question. I think that, in an odd way, the question isn’t the emotional cost of the work. But, rather, what’s the emotional cost of not doing the work? I feel that the ability to be able to process these interactions is a kind of gift to myself. Otherwise it would just sit there, and do a different kind of work in me.
I didn’t go looking for these conversations in the book. All of them, with the exception of the conversations I had with the white men on the plane, where I clearly wanted to talk about white male privilege and approached them about it, occurred in the normal course of my life. The fact that these specific conversations became the subject of the essays had to do with how much residual emotional work I was doing after I had the conversation. The ones in Just Us were chosen because they stayed with me, bothered me, and asked questions of me.
Once I had the conversation with the person in the world, and I couldn’t forget it, I kept turning it over. It then became the subject of the essay. The idea was to look at the anatomy of it, take it apart. I engaged a psychiatrist to go over the essays with me and consider why I would say some of the things I said, and why my interlocutor would say some of the things they said. I was curious.
The therapist allowed me to be able to think of alternate routes and different ways of thinking about why a person would say different things. Even if it’s imaginary fear, how does imaginary fear work in a white person, for example? I feel as if the writing of the book gave me the ability to take the time to look at a dynamic I’m in anyway, if that makes sense.
It does. You sometimes call her a shrink, sometimes a therapist. Both make me still want to ask this question. How do you trust her lens?
Well, it’s not that I trust her lens. It’s just another lens. I don’t trust my lens, or else I wouldn’t go to her. She’s a psychiatrist. I slip between shrink, therapist, psychiatrist, but technically she’s a psychiatrist. When I went to her, I said, This is the project: are you interested? She came highly recommended as somebody who was interested, capable, and professionally engaged in thinking about issues of gender inequity. I was hoping her insights could apply to thinking about racism, racial inequity, and white supremacy.
Therapists scare me. I go to one like you’d go to an auto mechanic when your car needs servicing. But I always think, we’re all human (read: flawed). It’s interesting how you shape this book from that.
What I like about the therapeutic interaction is that they, as a profession, are invested in thinking about why you’re positioned in a certain way, why you see what you see. And I think that’s not far from what a close reading is or, at its very best, what writing is.
I like that. Forgive my clumsiness in this next question. Is the first step to having an American conversation acknowledging black grief? The question stems from back in May, when I was watching CNN’s Chris Cuomo ask Jasmine, sister of ambushed jogger Ahmaud Arbery, fatally shot on February 23, 2020, how her family is taking this. She responds, It’s been a numbing state for the family, because we haven’t been able to grieve. Reporters kept going into the families’ faces with microphones — not acknowledging or allowing for grief. Can you talk to me about your perspective on black grief? How do we bring this respectfully into the conversation?
I hear you about the shameless use of black spectacle and black pain in the press. Arbery’s sister is in part referring to that. Her use of the word numb might be accurate to how the family is feeling, but it also denies Chris Cuomo access to their feelings. But I do think the concept of grief right now is the most pertinent question in a way. I think one of the hardest things that we as an American public have had to negotiate in the last six months, and by extension, in the last three-and-a-half years, is the loss of all leadership around grieving. There are devastating losses happening under our current president related to the virus and to anti-blackness and to immigration and on and on. What’s happening in those camps undocumented children and in prisons regarding coronavirus? What’s happening with families who have lost their income stream or housing?
The losses are real losses, but there’s no recognition. There’s an attempt to deny, and inasmuch as there is a response by protesters, there is the militarized policing of them. I think the toll, the impact will be far reaching. I think for black people, the sustained assault of racism in this country has lasted the lifetime of the country, from its inception till now, and certainly lifetimes for everybody still alive now.
I think when we talk about underlying conditions being prevalent in black communities, that’s really what we’re talking about. Weathering all of that. We’re talking about people, whose systems, actual physical systems, are under assault; and it plays itself out in high blood pressure, and various other conditions. Consequently, we have a demographic that’s more vulnerable to the virus, as we’ve seen, even as they are being targeted by police.
In terms of the circulation of these videos of people being murdered over and over and over again, I don’t think anybody can underestimate the kind of abusive impact that has on the psyche, when you see it over and over and over again; and given that it’s not the same people dying you have to create a new space to hold the death each time. It’s different people each time. People say we get desensitized, but I don’t think so.
Even Michelle Obama, the former first lady, someone you would think would be immune, talked about this in Becoming, that sense of a self under duress, feeling threatened, and that’s what we’ve been walking around with.
Is there a disconnect between racism and trauma that they don’t connect it. They don’t see the trauma?
Who do you mean by they?
The institutions — white people, absolutely white people. They see the history, but they don’t want to see the history.
Well, they don’t want to connect the dots.
And thank you for correcting me on “they.” Sorry about that.
No, no. I’m just curious, trying to be clear here.
That’s what’s so beautiful about what you’re doing. You want to have the conversation. Whatever the conversation is, let’s have it. Let’s remove the discomfort. We’re not going to move forward unless the discomfort’s removed.
I don’t think we can remove the discomfort, but I think we can exist within the discomfort. We can understand that we can actually survive the discomfort, that to feel the discomfort is to feel, to take on reality, to recognize history, to see the connections. And if it didn’t feel uncomfortable, if it didn’t feel devastating, if it didn’t feel shameful, that might itself be a problem. I think that’s the problem we’re seeing with our leadership at this point. There seems to be an inability to feel beyond the self.
Where is the discomfort? Where is the feeling of shame? Where is the grief?
Can you describe the emotions you experienced while you were waiting for responses and replies from those included in these essays?
When I had the interaction, the conversation, I wrote it down. I read it to my therapist. We discussed it. I then fact-checked it. Each essay went through that schedule. At the conclusion of those steps, I sent the essay back to the person with whom I had the conversation and asked them to respond. In the space between — I wondered what they would say? Did I get it right? All of a sudden, I was accountable to what I said they said, and also to what I said I said in the conversation. What were they going to come back and say? I didn’t say that? Had I misremembered?
Pretty much at no point did anyone say, I didn’t say those things, or, You didn’t say those things. What they would say is: These were the things that were said, but this is not what I meant. Then each response was an attempt to explain what they meant, and I was very curious about that.
A few times, people said, No, that’s right — that’s the conversation we had and I have nothing to add. I always found that disappointing, because I couldn’t comprehend not having a response. We’re thinking, curious people. How can you tell me there’s nothing to add?
Have those relationships changed? Grown deeper? Again, what’s the emotional cost of this work?
I think they have gone deeper. These people in the book, they’re my friends, and we have been having these conversations for years. I think we couldn’t have maintained our friendships without the hard work that we did earlier on and the difficulties that we have managed to negotiate around race, around racism, around projected notions of what blackness and whiteness means and what they perform. Depending on the race and gender of the friend, these journeys over time have taken their own paths.
White people have these ideas of what blackness is, and then a black person arrives, and thinks, what’s this white person talking about? Most of my friends are writers and academics and so, by nature, curious people, interested people. We have spoken about the conversations, the responses, and the lack of responses, since the book went into its production period. But I haven’t lost any friends, not yet.
How are you engaging with Richard Pryor’s “Just Us” the epigraph of your book?
Humor, for me, is really important. This idea of “just us” calls into question who “just us” is. And the pun, the title’s relationship to justice, has everything to do with how racism shapes our day-to-day lives. It’s not just about over-policing or racial profiling. It’s not just redlining. It’s segregation inside of people’s social communities and the idea that, if a thing is broken, it’s black. It’s a broken school. I don’t want my child going there. It’s a broken neighborhood. I’m not living there, all for that it’s difficult to meet as one human to another.
I feel that, in that simple statement, Pryor was able to get to the entire architecture of systemic racism and still make it about intimacy, just us: I went down there looking for something, justice, and found just us. He might have meant just other black people or just the regular dynamics between the white power structure and black people, however you want to take it, but I love that segregationist practices are embedded in that statement. Later in the book, we have other comedians like James Patrick Connolly, Louis C. K., referenced. I really wanted the book to include the voices of comedians. They’re able to see, excuse the pun, the dark humor in all of this. Comedy is the genre of discomfort and contradiction.
Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests that the white audience members might only get half the jokes at a Pryor concert. I think that epigraph — some will get it, and some won’t.
Exactly, but some will get it.
In the early phase of this project, when did you conceive of verso and recto format? How did you hope readers would engage with it?
Well, for me, always, content and structure are tied together. Coming up with the format of the book is really as important as the writing. I’m, obviously, really interested in and invested in the relationship between text and image and the notes. With each book, I have become bolder in terms of what is possible. For this book, the question of not losing the fact-check section to the back of the book was my concern. How do you come up with a format where you privilege the images and the facts as equal to the essay? I wanted a form that created an external and internal world in conversations.
I really didn’t want to put the notes at the end of the book, but I also didn’t want to lose the clarity of the essays, impede the reading of each essay. I remember thinking, we’ll repeat the sentence on the other side, so you know exactly where you are. That’s when the building of the verso-recto pages began. My husband, a photographer and a filmmaker, whose visual acumen really helps me see what’s possible, was also very helpful in terms of laying out of the book.
We consulted a book designer for this one, and she had the idea of putting the red dots so that the reader would have a visual relay between the fact-check and the text. This way, one could not read the verso page and not worry about it. If you chose to do that, fine. But you would always have the nagging feeling that you were missing something. This sense of missing something is the nagging feeling that brings us back to the table in the end.
Right, right. You were being cheated out of the read.
Yes, but it’s a decision. And that was something that I also was interested in, so those red dots became — if you want to go deeper, it’s over there. If you don’t want to, just keep going.
What do you hope are the results for Just Us?
Everyone asks that question. I don’t know. What I hoped is that it would get written. It got written.
How long did this book take to write?
I would say about four years, in a way, not as long as some of the other books. It’s usually about a 10-year span between them. This one, to me, came very quickly.
With the completion of this book, does this feel like a trilogy to you? Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Citizen, and now Just Us?
I hope so, because I hope we’ll take a turn, in terms of what the national gestalt feels like. I don’t have a ton of faith, but I have some hope. I keep feeling like it’s rock bottom, and then there’s more. So maybe we haven’t hit rock bottom, but in the last four years, this presidency has outdone itself.
And we’ve also seen a new kind of resurgence in activism in the last months since George Floyd was murdered by Chauvin. It’s a very interesting moment. I feel frightened because of the dismantling of the post office during quarantine, the voter suppression, all of that, which is very real, very scary, which speaks to a kind of fascism being put in place, an inability to trust our democracy as a democracy. It feels that we are on the precipice of something very harmful with long-term effects, if it’s allowed to continue.
A lot is being held inside within this moment of quarantine. The quarantine is allowing Americans to focus in on the devastation, which is maybe not a bad thing.
A thousand percent and more. What books are you reading for pure pleasure?
Pure pleasure … right now Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had.
Oh, you read it already. I’m so jealous.
I read it in galley. It was a really interesting book for me as a reader. Beautifully written but it did create a yearning in me for more seeing. Cathy Park Hong’s book that just came out is really interesting and a new line of inquiry. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. What I love about her book is, it really looks at racial politics from the point of view of being a Korean American navigating the black/white conflict. I felt like I learned so much, reading Minor Feelings. Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith’s theater piece, also took on that area of intersection. I also read P. Carl’s Becoming a Man, another completely new inquiry into the life of a trans man. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition is stunning, but we know that. Jess Row’s White Flights is a book I return to.
I know you like music, and I’m just curious, because you said in an interview that you sometimes listen to a song over and over again.
Did you have a song in your mind while writing this book?
There is one song that I did play a lot. It’s by the Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen. There are some lines in it that I would go back to. I’m surprised they’re not in the book, actually. That song, for me, could run alongside the book as a soundtrack. I think the song is called “Different Sides,” maybe. Let’s see. Yes.
Both of us say there are laws to obey
But frankly I don’t like your tone
You want to change the way I make love
I want to leave it alone
Isn’t that great?
Whoa. Yes. Yes. Yes. The dedication page reads, “For us.” Who did you write the book for?
Well, I meant the American public. I did mean “For us” in the largest sense. You saw me five years ago, six years ago, saying, Come on, y’all — this man, he is coming. He is the worst of us, and he is going to devastate us. Don’t let it happen. Don’t do it. But here we are.
You always have hope. Where does your hope come from?
Well, I think if we’re human we have it. We all have it, or else we wouldn’t stay alive. I think hope and being social is the same thing. If we get out of bed, if we vote, if we go to the grocery store, if we’re obeying the laws of the road, we have hope because we are still trusting each other to allow each other to have, to build a life.
Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Millions, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. UK’s Dodo Ink will feature her work in the 2020 anthology, Trauma: Art as a response to mental health.