Impressions and impressibility might seem a small thing to dwell on from a book overflowing with anecdotes, cultural references and data (a hybridity that shows Rankine at her best). But it is this idea of impression that brought Baby Suggs to mind. In the final pages of Just Us, Rankine sketches her clearest vision of a just future, writing, “Our lives could enact a love of close readings of who we each are, the love of a newly formed, newly conceived ‘one’ made up of obscure but sensed and unnamed publics in a yet unimagined future”. I can’t help thinking of Morrison’s clearing as the kind of unnamed, unsanctioned place that can foster the transformative relations Rankine dreams of. It is only in such a space, clear of a social contract built on bodily debasement and the idea of a “them”, beyond the purview of whiteness, and without the desire for either intelligibility or legibility, that we might be able to impress on each other in truly transformative ways – to just be us.
Chastisement should not be confused with learning. Just Us is a provocation and, if read closely, will make difficult demands on the reader. But they’re demands that Rankine is determined not to shirk from in challenging the continuing pathological inequalities of the United States. “Remaining in the quotidian of disturbance,” she writes, “is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows the existing structures to stop replicating.”
Thinking out each step of her reflections, Rankine demonstrates Gertrude Stein’s belief that “sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are”. Talking with strangers and friends, she shakes and is shaken by the world of “white living” (“I pick up my mistake like a snow globe and turn it over in my mind”). Ingeniously, each double-page spread is in discussion with itself, offering “fact checks”, footnotes, bright illustrations and meaningful blanks. Sociology (yes) is cited, but so are literature, visual art and photojournalism. I think Rankine is a writer of genius. But Just Us defies you — and perhaps particularly me, the white male critic — to deflect its restless questioning with resonant praise.
nvestigating the boundaries of limits of language, of prose and poetry, Rankine takes as her subject the idea of being a subject. How does it change us to be seen in certain ways? What do white people think of being white? How do they imagine themselves, and how do they imagine those who are not themselves? How, in short, are white people socialised, and how does that socialisation affect both them and people of colour? Through a series of conversations (at airports, with strangers, with friends, with therapists), Rankine is both courageous and meticulous. This is also a bravely vulnerable book. It invites the reader into Rankine’s personal life; her life as a cancer survivor; the strains of her marriage.
No matter what race you are, this is a discomfiting read. It’s also an enlightening one. Rankine’s elegant prose, which combines poetic insight with scholarly rigour, avoids pat didacticism. She writes with disarming honesty about her own foibles which, in this instance, include not contextualising the image of a burning swastika within anti-Semitism as much as within anti-black racism. Rankine may not always have the answers to the questions she poses, such as “What will it take for white Americans to change?” – but she’s not afraid to ask them.
Just Us is an indictment but it is also a longing for conversation, and Rankine examines deeply personal struggles of navigating her own prejudices. It is a book, in many ways, about friendship, a yearning to know what accounts for the “architecture of my intimacy” even as structures of power and hierarchy loom over all our fragile human relationships. Rankine returns to loneliness too, exploring what it means to negotiate public and private spaces in a country built not only on your invisibility but also its continued maintenance. Rankine is a patient interlocutor and she holds us gently in an uncomfortable truth: it is not the conversation that pains us, but the centuries of silence.