Claudia Rankine's award-winning poetry collection Citizen came out in 2014 — the year of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown.
Her latest book arrives as the same problems afflict the United States. It's called Just Us: An American Conversation, and it's a collection of essays, photos, poems and, yes, conversations, that she has been having with friends and strangers alike about race.
The title comes from a surprising place, the late Richard Pryor and his stand-up bit on the criminal justice system: "You go down there looking for justice. That's what you find — just us."
"Comedians like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes — these people are able to hold the good and bad of it," Rankine says. "They're the people I go to who can both see it and hold it — and move through it. And they don't abdicate; they really stay in there."
On not just listening to others, but reflecting on herself
I'm really interested in what other people say to me, but I'm also really interested in why I say the things that I say, because we are all socialized inside a system that was shaped with the tenets of white supremacy. So how is that affecting my behavior? How is that affecting the amount of patience I have in conversation with you? What am I hearing when you speak to me? Why am I saying the things that I'm saying to you? So all of those questions were the guiding questions in the making of Just Us.
On her lack of interactions with white men
I have interactions with white men in terms of work — and I am married to a white man — but I don't have conversations, long conversations, exploring a subject without a destination, in a sense, with white men in general. And so the task I gave myself was to approach white men in the way that I might have a conversation with a white woman just because I'm sitting next to her, but really to push the moment so that these white men would talk to me about this idea of white male privilege. And if I could move the conversation to that subject, I did.
On starting to approach white men
Well, I think initially I thought I would just wait for somebody to give me an opening in conversation, you know — so you're sitting next to a guy, you're waiting, the plane is delayed. He asks the time. He asks what did the gate agents say, and then that leads to something else and leads to something else. And in one of the situations recounted in the book, eventually he asked me what I did and I said I taught at Yale and he said, you know, his son didn't get in on early decision. And even then I wasn't willing to say, let's talk about white male privilege. But then when he said his son didn't get in because his son's friend, who was a person of color, got in, then I thought, OK, he is in my wheelhouse and we can start this conversation.
So that's sort of — I didn't want to feel like I was pressing because I didn't know these people, you know, and it didn't always work out. There was one occasion where a white man, I was waiting on line to board the plane, and the two of us standing there, and he says to me, you know, I love airplanes because you don't have any news. You don't have, you know, this constant chatter around the news. I said to him, you shouldn't have voted for him. And at that point, he turned to me and he said, it's not just him. And that was the end, but that was the sort of project of the book was to push these moments to their crisis.
On a friend's comment that her book has no strategy
Well, because there's no strategy, because I'm not interested in telling people what to do. I'm not offering a prescription. Just Us is a book that says, look at this. Let's see what it means to be in conversation. Let's see what it means to try to apprehend the same reality. When you see a man put his knee on another man's neck until he dies and has to call out for his mother — what is behind that? What allows us both to be able to hold that as part of America? You know, it would be in a different category. What are those categories, self-help books or something? ... That's not — that was never my intent. My intent was to look at a thing.
This piece was produced for radio Art Silverman, edited by Justine Kenin and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.