Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.
I will need to read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us again. I think it is brilliant and important and thoughtful, but I know that there’s more to absorb, more to contemplate. I read it too quickly this time, wrestled with the format of the e-book (I’m definitely going to buy it in print), and so I know that I missed details, connections, and nuance that would have enriched my reading experience even more.
Still, even on a first read, I loved it.
As she did in her gorgeous book Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine uses a mixture of poetry, essays, and images through Just Us: An American Conversation. The book moves between the main pieces and connective pieces that are woven alongside the text, providing sources, in-the-moment fact checks, and further reflection.
Rankine uses the intensely personal to explore the universal. She is wrestling with her own experiences as a way to grapple with American experience. She is both keenly aware of when she has been wronged . . . but she’s reflective and vulnerable enough to admit when she wrongs others, too.
Her scope is wide ranging. She uses brief meetings with strangers in airports and on planes, longer conversations with friends that puzzle her, and disagreements or moments of dissatisfaction with her husband to explore her topic. She’s aiming to define whiteness, as she does in one of her classes at Yale, to try to figure out what it means to be white and how her own identity relates to that definition. She’s constantly challenging her own assumptions, her friends’ assumptions, small comments that seem to offer a key that will unlock a new insight into race in America.
As she did in Citizen, Rankine presents her response in abstract and lyrical poetry, in meditations on things like tennis and college admissions, in social media, in her cancer, in her interracial marriage to a white husband. She’s looking for answers wherever she can. Often, after having written an essay about a conversation with someone, she then shares the essay with that person and shares his/her response. It’s fascinating, a true series of conversations that she’s developing with others and with herself.
At one point, a friend critiques what Rankine has written because “there’s no strategy here,” and Rankine replies, “response is my strategy. Endless responses and study and adjustments and compromises become a life” (334). It’s what we all do, on some level, I think (or at least I do!): we respond to what happens and then test our responses, absorbing new information and events and meetings and conversations into our understanding. And then we do it again.
This is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.