A Strategy of Response: Degna Stone reads a work about race, power and the ethics of conversation

Claudia Rankine
Just Us: An American Conversation
Allen Lane £25.00

The epigraph to Just Us, the third instalment of Claudia Rankine’s clinical exploration of the US in the context of race, quotes Richard Pryor: ‘You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us’. It’s a joke, but Rankine sets out to show that beneath the surface of the conversation on race in America lies the absence of racial justice in the US, and across the world.

Rankine weaves personal reflections and autobiography with academic research and poetry in a book that is presented with an abundance of white space; the verso pages are either blank, or they display images and ‘footnotes’. This could be a literal representation of the ‘white spaces’ that racialised people inhabit, or it could be a deliberate intrusion on the flow of the text, making the reader pay attention. This stylistic choice also has the much-needed effect of inviting the reader to pause and reflect before moving from one section to the next. It gives them the chance to take a moment to steel themselves for the heavy lifting ahead.

The opening section titled ‘what if’, a poem written in six parts, asks the reader to hold this question in their mind when contemplating the ‘age-old call / for change’, and to resist the urge to maintain the status quo. Rankine reminds us that the etymological root of ‘chastise’ is to make pure.

How is a call to change named shame, 
named penance, named chastisement?

How does one say

what if

without reproach? The root 

of chastise is to make pure.

It’s a neat way of showing that meanings shift and that words evolve or become distorted over time, and it introduces one of the major themes in this collection: language itself. ‘what if’ is one of a handful of verse poems in Just Us, but Rankine brings a poet’s understanding of the importance of language, and explores the impact of precise placement, throughout.

Language is the medium that helps and hinders us. Words have power, especially when they are taken out of context or when meaning is divorced from the reality of

what the word represents. It’s all too easy to get confused over meaning and intent; it’s even easier to underestimate the power of words that are made to seem more innocuous or innocent than they really are.

Rankine links the rhetoric of the ‘nationalist-identified’ 45th president of the US with the actions of terrorists operating in the name of white nationalism, citing mass murders in places of worship in Pittsburgh and Charleston. Trump, who is quoted as saying, ‘I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word’, frequently downplayed the role of white nationalists, referring to them as ‘fine people’ even when their actions led to loss of life. It’s through repetition without challenge that the true meaning becomes diluted until it becomes palatable.

Rankine understands the power of words, but she also understands the truism that a picture tells a thousand words. The still images of an assault on a child present a shocking depiction of the violence faced by black children at the hands of authority. Rankine articulates the underlying mentality that makes such things possible:

The inability of white people to see children other than white children as children is a reality that frankly leaves one hopeless about a change in attitudes regarding the perceived humanity of black people. The phrase “they are just kids” exists with the unspoken “except when they are black”.

Another illustration of the burden placed on African- American children, particularly during the Civil Rights era, to ‘achieve the mission’ of integration comes via the testimony of the social justice activist Ruby Sales:

And we sent them into places that were unsafe, where they were humiliated, and their egos were decimated in structures. [...] why did we send them, young children, into places like that without protection?

The tone throughout Just Us is conversational, and in any conversation, there is a danger of misinterpretation. ‘To converse is to risk the unravelling of the said and unsaid.’ In the ‘social contract’ section, Rankine interrogates the mores of dinner parties. Uncomfortable conversations around race in polite company are avoided for fear of being perceived as the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype. She asks, how can you talk about race at a dinner party when ‘[t]o create discomfort by pointing out facts is seen as socially unacceptable’? Faced with the danger of saying something wrong (therefore shutting down the conversation before it has even begun), the narrator returns to the same unresolved question: ‘How does one say // what if // without reproach?’

Rankine argues that this fear of saying the wrong thing is holding the conversation up and insists that a lack of understanding and awareness of someone else’s lived experience shouldn’t stop you from joining the conversation. When recounting a conversation with a Latinx woman, Rankine recalls how she was made aware of gaps in her understanding of the Latinx experience. She writes: ‘It’s this disconnect that keeps me saying the wrong thing. But I still have questions, and the way to get answers is to bear her corrections. I slow down so as not to make the same mistakes.’

Where Citizen: An American Lyric focused on the black experience, Just Us sheds light on the construction of white privilege. It argues that overt racial injustice is compounded by this more insidious phenomenon, with different cultures subscribing to the perceived desirability of a proximity to ‘whiteness’. Rankine references Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, which describes how the various white ethnicities of the nineteenth century, ‘Celts, Hebrews, Teutons, Mediterranean and Slavs’, began to be identified as ‘socially constructed Caucasians’ in the twentieth century. Whiteness stopped being divided hierarchically.

Rankine wants to know, what does it mean to be white? What does it feel like to be white? At what point did Irish and Italian immigrants in America cease to be considered ‘other’ and become white? How does one ‘acquire’ whiteness? Proximity to whiteness as an identifier of unquestioned humanity is sharply contrasted with ‘the afterlife of slavery’ that has enabled a continued questioning of the humanity of black people.

The ‘notes on the state of whiteness’ section depicts the brutal business of the transatlantic slave trade in a reproduction of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, designed by Rankine’s husband, the filmmaker John Lucas. It’s a hard read. The reasonable tone and matter of fact manner contrasts violently with the vile content.

                                     Misery is often the parent of
the moƒt affecting touches in poetry. ——
Among the blacks is miƒery enough, God
knows, but no poetry.

                                                 it could not produce
a poet.

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rankine allows space for playfulness, from the aesthetic of the book’s design to experiments around form. In the ‘ethical loneliness’ section, Rankine recalls an incident during a performance of a play that she’d gone to see with a white friend. Towards the end of the performance, her friend refused a request from a black cast member for the white people in the audience to get up from their seats and go onstage. Rankine first recounts this incident from her own point of view, then presents (with permission) a letter from her friend exploring her reasons for remaining seated in the audience. From this material Rankine creates an erasure poem based on her own text and informed by the response from her friend. This has the effect of deepening the interaction between these texts, taking the conversation to a new level.

By delving into language and meaning, stripping things back and subverting the reader’s expectations, Rankine adds another dimension to last summer’s (essential) recommended reading on racial injustice and structural racism. This is neither a self-help manual nor a polemic; it is, as the subtitle indicates, a conversation that requires ‘a reciprocation of understanding’.

Rankine states that her strategy in the fight against racism and white supremacy is ‘response’. ‘What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.’

Every reader will bring their own lived experience to this book, but they also need to bring a willingness to engage in the conversation. A willingness to be honest and vulnerable, to be open to making and learning from mistakes. Rankine references Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, citing her contention that ‘if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism’. For this conversation to lead anywhere we have to recognise the need for change, we have to want things to change, and that’s going to take some work.

Degna Stone is a contributing editor at the Rialto, co- founder and former managing editor of Butcher’s Dog, and an associate artist with The Poetry Exchange. In 2015, she received a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry and her latest pamphlet Handling Stolen Goods is published by Peepal Tree.