Introductions: Claudia Rankine
September 29, 2020
By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director
We are here tonight to celebrate the publication of Claudia Rankine’s brilliant new book, Just Us: An American Conversation. Claudia Rankine is an author, poet, playwright, and multi-media artist. Her book Citizen: An American Lyric, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the NAACP Image Award, and was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Rankine’s previous poetry collections include Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Nothing in Nature is Private, The End of the Alphabet, and Plot, as well as the plays The White Card and Provenance of Beauty.
Just Us explores conversations as a difficult and necessary path to true change—the conversations we have and don’t have about racism and whiteness. From liminal spaces like airports and hallways, to structured spaces like classrooms and theaters, to the most intimate spaces of friendships and marriage, Rankine invites us into her experience of these conversations—her courage in beginning them, and all the painful ways they can unfold. And even in the closest of relationships we watch white people disappoint, harm, and fail to acknowledge their power or privilege.
What moved me most about Just Us, and what I continue to think about is the vulnerability Rankine shares as she documents conversations with both strangers and loved ones and what those conversations cost her. “The indifference is impenetrable and reliable and distributed across centuries,” she writes of one such conversation, “and I am stupidly hurt when my friends can’t see that.”
This is a book that implores us to consider both racism and conversation in new ways. As Michael Kleber-Diggs said in his review in the Star Tribune, it is an argument for “candor as the pathway to achieving universal humanity and authentic love.” It is an argument for discomfort and honesty as a path toward collective liberation. It is a book that made me think about my privilege, my whiteness, and even my blonde hair in new ways, a book that made me realize with new poignancy my responsibility to own and examine my whiteness, to recommit to not only not doing harm, but also actively working for change. In that way, it is an essential book.
Claudia Rankine gave an online talk with Douglas Kearney, SAL poet, on September 25, 2020, as part of our Women You Need to Know (WYNK) Series; SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey delivered this introduction.