Claudia Rankine’s Dialogue With America
Among many other things, 20th century Black feminism offered a powerful analysis of social exclusion. The preeminent midcentury Black feminist Claudia Jones described how poor Black women were frequently excluded not only from the concerns of white liberal society but also from the gains won by Black activists working against racism, the gains won by communists working against capitalism’s class system, and the gains won by feminists working against patriarchy. Poor Black women, she insisted, found themselves left out across the board.
Books in Review
Ever since Jones’s call for a more inclusive and emancipatory politics, Black feminists in the United States have expanded on this line of thinking. In 1977 the Combahee River Collective decried the “interlocking” oppressions of racism, classism, and sexism and the way that Black women tended to be excluded from struggles that combated only one of these oppressions. In her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins,” Kimberlé Crenshaw asserted that a new “intersectional” politics was needed to overcome the ways in which anti-racist activism focused primarily on Black men and anti-sexist activism focused primarily on white women. Crenshaw, in short, argued that little had changed in the decades since Jones first diagnosed Black women’s exclusion.
Since the publication of her first book of poetry, Nothing in Nature Is Private, in 1994, Claudia Rankine has been among the best chroniclers of the isolation that stems from this exclusion. In books that combine visual art, lyric verse, and prose poems that are a mix of diary and essay, she has recorded memories of her childhood alienation as well as her more recent experiences as a professor and writer. Her poems are riddled with encounters with strangers who seem to walk into her, who misunderstand her, who make her feel unknown. Her friends and family treat her poorly or die, both of which, she tells us in painful detail, leave her feeling even lonelier.
Rankine’s representation of loneliness was always political as well as personal, which primed her work for mass appeal when nationwide protests against police violence erupted in 2014. Published two months after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Rankine’s Citizen, with its long poem about police violence, among other things, answered the public’s call for a book that captured the Black experience of racist violence in contemporary America. Critics lauded the collection, which became a New York Times best seller. Interviews with her appeared everywhere. She received a MacArthur grant and an endowed professorship at Yale University. The perennial stranger suddenly became a household name.
Yet as Rankine tells us in her new collection, Just Us, the inclusion of her words did not lead to the inclusion of her person. She continued to experience marginalization and its attendant isolation; being a Black woman in America still led to an endless amount of “ethical loneliness,” a term coined by Jill Stauffer in her 2015 book by that name (and cited by Rankine) to describe “the isolation one feels when one, as a violated person or as one member of a persecuted group, has been abandoned by humanity, or by those who have power over one’s life’s possibilities.”
Rankine’s abandonment took on new forms as well. Her experiences of racism, in the midst of her newfound inclusion, led her to feel abandoned in a variety of novel locales: her daughter’s school, dinner parties, and her own classes at Yale. She may have gotten wealthier and famous, but she remained as vulnerable to loneliness as ever.
Rankine’s antidote to this loneliness was and continues to be conversation—a strategy on full display in Just Us. This is partly common sense: If you’re feeling alone, talk to someone. But she does not want to talk about just anything. In Just Us, she speaks with her often white interlocutors about race and how it colors people’s experience of the world, no matter the color of their skin. By helping people confront the way racism shapes their behavior and their lives, she hopes these conversations will not only alleviate her loneliness but also change the conversants and thereby help uproot white supremacy. Through dialogue about whiteness as well as Blackness, she hopes to help white people see how whiteness leads them to ignore and simultaneously mistreat Black people.
Like Nell Irvin Painter in The History of White People, Karen Brodkin in How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, and other scholars in whiteness studies, Rankine aims to foreground how white people experience race (just as Americans of color do) and how this experience of race and the privilege it entails depends on a system of anti-Blackness. Like Painter and Brodkin, Rankine emphasizes that while race is a social construction, it has hardened into both a pattern of small everyday behaviors and larger structures of power and violence.
What separates Just Us from these historians’ work is its focus on personal experience and thought. By chronicling her experiences as a means of bringing America’s racism to the surface, she asks readers to consider those larger structures of power and violence as well as how so many of them, as individuals, have contributed to sustaining a racist society. By recording her conversations with people about whiteness, she talks to her readers too, asking them to think about how whiteness—“the idea that one can stand apart” from the violence on which America is built—is a fantasy that “lives in every moment.” In her account, the fantasy of whiteness licenses violence against Black people while obscuring that violence and Black people’s humanity. Engaging people in person and readers in her text, Rankine hopes that helping them diagnose America’s racist malady will enable them to begin the work of abolishing its attendant violence toward and erasure of Black humanity.
Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963 and moved with her parents to New York City’s the Bronx in 1970. As a young adult, she attended Williams College, where she studied with the poet Louise Gluck, and went on to complete an MFA in poetry at Columbia in 1993. During these years, she was particularly influenced by the work of Adrienne Rich. “There was something about the way in which Rich addressed social issues from a very personal position,” Rankine recalled, “that made me want to write.” Her early poems, accordingly, aimed to merge the personal and the political.
Rankine’s investment in forging a private and public poetry proved generative. By the time she was 41, she had published three books of poetry. She also won high praise from critics and readers. But it was her 2004 collection Don’t Let Me Be Lonely that marked a formal and more seismic change. A mix of prose and verse poetry as well as visual art, the book was rejected by her original publisher because it was not “poetry.” Of course it was, but in a different form: The diaristic prose poems, a blend of Rimbaud and Baldwin, eventually found a publisher at Graywolf and marked the emergence of the voice and form that audiences became familiar with in Citizen.
Much of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely describes Rankine alone at home, where she leaves the TV on all day. From the outset, alienation follows closely on death’s heels. “There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died,” the first poem begins. Then, when Rankine is young, she sees her father “sitting on the steps of our home…he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead.” Her father flies back to Jamaica for the funeral without Rankine, and he says little about it after his return. Death, as well as his silence about it, isolates her father and Rankine, too.
While death spurs isolation, isolation also brings Rankine closer to death. Later in the poem, she calls the national suicide hotline and says, “I feel like I am already dead.” Fifteen minutes later, an ambulance arrives at her home. Rankine claims she is feeling better, but the attendant will not hear her. “You need to come quietly,” she writes, “or he will have to restrain you.” Even while seeking solace, she finds people more willing to hurt than to listen.
The prevalence of anti-Black violence in America reinforces Rankine’s sense that she is both vulnerable and alone. Later in the book, she is watching TV and sees Abner Louima, who was assaulted and sodomized with a broomstick by officers of the New York Police Department in 1997. At a press conference after he wins a civil suit against the city, a reporter asks him “how it feels to be a rich man,” Rankine writes. “Not rich, says Louima. Lucky, lucky to be alive.” For her, this moment foregrounds the ease with which Black people are killed and the violence so many face just to live. Louima is lucky because his survival was so unlikely.
Rankine also considers the NYPD’s murder of Amadou Diallo. “All the shots,” she writes, “all forty-one never add up, never become plural, and will not stay in the past. It felt wasteful to cry at the television set as Amadou Diallo’s death was announced.” The fact that racist violence is such a common Black experience interrupts even her mourning of Diallo, Rankine explains; the inability to stop police violence only reminds her of “what we can’t do for each other.” Her powerlessness in the face of anti-Black murder and assault—her inability to revive Diallo or to undo the police attack on Louima—isolates her even from other Black people.
For Rankine, the anti-Blackness that causes this isolation shapes American politics writ large. In a poem that begins with George W. Bush’s election, she speaks of him as a man who cannot recall “if two or three people were convicted” for lynching James Byrd Jr. in Texas. “You don’t know because you don’t care,” she tells Bush. The sadness she feels from this is a sadness that “is not really about George W. or our American optimism”; it “lives in the recognition that a life can not matter”—that the American state devalues certain people’s lives, at home and abroad.
The experience of not mattering only deepens during 9/11, when cops stand in front of the Twin Towers’ rubble, policing the public supposedly under attack. It pursues her when both Republicans and Democrats support war in Iraq. No matter the state’s attempt to call her, a naturalized citizen, into the fold of citizenship, its repeated violence against Black and brown people leaves Rankine feeling as though she doesn’t belong.
With Citizen in 2014, she plumbed America’s anti-Blackness at greater length. Printed on glossy white paper that heightens the black text, Citizen returns to the theme of being alone, but this time it describes the experiences of an unnamed “you,” who seems to be Rankine. The first poem recalls a series of racist acts: a friend calling her narrator by the name of a Black housekeeper, a friend complaining about having to hire a writer of color instead of a good one, a neighbor calling the police on a Black friend who brings her child home, and her therapist mistaking her for an intruder. (This is all in the very first poem; there are many more anti-Black encounters to follow.) Anti-Blackness seems to follow Rankine’s narrator everywhere, such that even as she falls asleep at night, the memories of racism come rushing back.
Rankine often finds common cause with Black women and especially Black women athletes. After a friend calls her speaker a “nappy-headed ho,” adopting the racist insult that talk radio host Don Imus directed toward the Rutgers women’s basketball team, she feels the joke like an “injury” that “rupture[s] along its suddenly exposed suture.” The racist sexism those women experienced publicly is revived as private pain, an experience that recurs when she watches Serena Williams. “Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister,” Rankine writes, “could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world.” The most egregious of those people is the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, who pads her bust and butt (and all but paints her face black) to imitate Williams. This racist caricature of her figure is not just an attack on her Blackness but also her gender. Black women, Rankine reminds us time and again, often become objects of ridicule and vitriol whenever they step into the public eye.
For Rankine, the racism that motivates this denigration of Black women athletes is the same racism that licenses the state murder of Black people across the world. In a long poem, she recounts the many high-profile episodes of state or state-sanctioned racist homicide—including George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin, Darryl Dedmon’s murder of James Craig Anderson, the London police’s murder of Mark Duggan—the abandonment of Black people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and more. These harrowing events are cumulative, gesturing to a world that produces Black death. The poem culminates in an unending list:
In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
The list goes on, each name a life prematurely ended, but the words fade. At the bottom, “In Memory” is barely visible. No names follow, because more will come, and the many instances of police murder since 2014 have proved her point.
The endlessness of state violence toward Black people makes her narrator feel unsafe. When her partner (who is, perhaps, Rankine’s husband, the white filmmaker and documentary photographer John Lucas) succumbs to a bout of road rage, she pulls him back into the car as Martin’s name rings out on the radio. “Though no one seems to be chasing you,” Rankine writes, “the justice system has other plans.” The in memoriam to come may very well be your own.
Rankine’s fears about police violence lead Citizen to query its causes: white supremacy and the fear of Black people it instills in white Americans. “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black people are dying,” she writes. While this makes Rankine feel alone and afraid, she finds an antidote in communal self-defense. After noticing a father who is watching over the neighborhood children as they play to ensure, perhaps, that no one kidnaps them, her narrator also feels protected. Self-defense makes him family, a guardian—a transformation that recurs when a friend relays a story about a man knocking her child over on public transit. The friend confronts the man. “The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards,” the friend says, “like newly found uncles and brothers.” Forceful and militant self-defense turns strangers into kin, transforming isolation into community and vulnerability into safety.
While kinship forged through self-defense is a possible solution to Black vulnerability in Citizen, Rankine’s new collection finds her once more dwelling in loneliness. The first prose poem in Just Us recounts her alienating experiences while traveling. A white man walks past her in the first-class line because he assumes a Black woman could not be in first class, some white men form their own line to board because their white privilege allows them to do so, and a fellow traveler complains to Rankine that affirmative action kept his son from admission to Yale. No MacArthur grant or endowed Ivy League professorship can help her escape the loneliness born of these experiences (though one wonders how much lonelier it is for those not traveling first class).
Unlike her earlier books, Just Us focuses increasingly on whiteness. Drawing on the work of whiteness studies scholars like Cheryl Harris and David Roediger, Rankine seeks to turn it—and not just nonwhiteness—into an object of study. In her prose poem on traveling first class, she challenges a white man who claims that he does not see color and later strikes up a correspondence with him. “I’ve thought a lot about our conversation since that flight,” he writes to her. After he reflected on his childhood, he remembered interracial fights, a white teen using an anti-Black slur, and “cruelty, from mostly white to black.” “The lack of an integrated life,” Rankine observes, “meant that no part of his life recognized the treatment of black people as an important disturbance. To not remember is perhaps not to feel touched by events that don’t interfere with your livelihood.”
This focused frustration with whiteness, at times, strains Rankine’s marriage. Though her husband has long been committed to anti-racism, Rankine finds herself increasingly unhappy with his unwillingness to wrestle with his whiteness. When she tells him about her experiences with white privilege, he criticizes white fragility, but he also “set himself outside the pattern of white male dominance,” as though he were not a part of it. Their conflict reaches a boiling point when she is recovering from cancer. Rankine tells him that, as a white man, “he would have no trouble replacing me, a black woman, in America.” When they discuss this comment in marriage counseling, Rankine asks, “Isn’t my husband, whoever else he is, also white America?” Or as she puts it elsewhere, “metaphors can also be realities.” Increasingly frustrated with white people, Rankine at points begins to wonder if her marriage—to her husband, to America—can last.
Love, ultimately, keeps her in both marriages. As she explains in a later poem, this is partly due to her love for her daughter, for whom she remains committed to creating a more just America, “because I want the world for my daughter.” She goes on to describe the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 congregants dead and the rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which white supremacists marched with tiki torches and a counterprotester was killed. “What is it we want for our daughter?” she asks at the poem’s end. “I still want the world for my daughter that is more than this world, a world that has our daughter already in it.” Rankine wants, in other words, a world in which her daughter does not experience the alienation and the fear of racist violence that she has felt (and still does).
How does Rankine imagine that such a world can be created? One hint at a solution lies in her understanding of the problem. As she writes in the last poem, “A white supremacist orientation is packaged as universal thinking and objective seeing, which insists on the erasure of anyone—my actual presence, my humanity—who disrupts its reflection. This form of being.” The reassertion of the presence and humanity of nonwhite and marginalized people who are the victims of white supremacy, she insists, is a means of undoing this dominant orientation. Some of this work she does for others by asking them to consider the role of their whiteness in effacing these other groups’ humanity, and some of it she does for herself: In one poem, Rankine admits her lack of understanding of race among Latinx people and chronicles her journey toward learning more.
In these and many other examples in the book, the work of undoing white supremacy, whether it persecutes Black people or other nonwhite or marginalized people, is conversational. After dreaming of a “future other than the one that seems to be forming,” she ends the book with these words: “Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.” Speak honestly—speak without taking whiteness as the unmentioned universal standard, speak with the acknowledgment of Black people’s humanity—and begin to remake the world.
Given Rankine’s long years of chronicling her isolation in the face of anti-Black racism, it should come as no surprise that Just Us delves into her ambivalence toward the nation that elected Donald Trump. “My own interracial marriage,” she writes early on in the book, “also existed inside a racist America whose ways make life more difficult.” She then wonders, “Was there a possibility of a love and a laughter that lived outside the structure that brought us together?” If there is such a possibility, she believes it will be found in a future made through conversations about race. By speaking with others, people can begin to undo the world wrought by racism and its consequential isolation and start to make a better future.
Accordingly, Rankine’s representations of racism in Just Us tend to be interpersonal. Although she has discussed unconscious and implicit bias throughout her work, Just Us is the book in which she discusses both forms of bias most explicitly and at the greatest length. It is also the book in which she turns most profoundly to the ways in which whiteness—and especially notions of white innocence—lead white people to forget the role that racism plays in enabling their success. In diagnosing this problem, she joins James Baldwin in his “Letter From a Region in My Mind” (later included in The Fire Next Time) in proclaiming, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Like Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, Rankine aims to assert whiteness as an object of study as well as the place of Blackness in constructing whiteness, though Rankine’s preferred method for doing so is oral.
Her commitment to the emancipatory possibilities of conversation can, at times, make Just Us a frustrating read. Time and again, one wonders, why talk at all? Why remain friends with people who treat you poorly? Why talk to your fellow first-class travelers? Why go to dinner parties with white people who cause you so much pain? She could say nothing. Rankine could befriend different people, teach at other institutions, find community in political organizations working against racism (and, one hopes, the existence of things like first class, the Ivy League, and wealth). Those people and communities will assuredly hurt her at some point, too. No one is perfect. But they are more committed to undoing the very systems that Rankine takes so much umbrage at. They seem like better company, at the very least.
Yet by the end of the book, it becomes clear that Rankine sees these conversations as doing a particular kind of work. By confronting those who preach color-blind liberalism and those who are more explicitly racist, she hopes to bring to the fore how race affects every daily interaction in America. She does this in part because of her commitment to her marriage and to her daughter’s future. But her drive to take part in these conversations also seems to come from a theory of social transformation that holds that the best way to end racism is by educating racists (as opposed to building power among those persecuted by racism). Just Us transforms Rankine’s personal conversations into poetry in the hope of starting other conversations that will lead to liberation. Just as Claudia Jones and Kimberlé Crenshaw brought to light the ways in which political activists could not see Black women’s unique oppressions, in the hopes of ending them, so too does Rankine hope to transform the unseen ways race operates in America, in order to prevent further racist violence.
This future orientation makes her latest book pessimistic. The title of her 2004 collection, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, asks readers to prevent her isolation; the books she has written in the 16 years since then suggest we have failed. But this pessimism motivates her hope. Rankine may believe the present moment is a lost cause—she has experienced and witnessed too much violence and trauma to think otherwise—but her pain spurs her to work toward ensuring that her daughter’s future and ours are not.