“How are you?” Claudia Rankine asked her interviewer, Lauren Michele Jackson. And so began the most recent installment of Scripps Presents, held in conjunction with PEN America and the Strand Bookstore.
“I’m here,” Jackson said. The greeting was not cheery; one night after the presidential debate on Sept. 29, a fog of seriousness and urgency loomed over the event.
Rankine — a poet, essayist and former Pomona College professor who now teaches at Yale University — and Jackson settled in to speak to a virtual crowd of approximately 750 people for just over an hour, unpacking Rankine’s new book, older works and the events of the summer.
With “Just Us,” Rankine’s goal was not to be prescriptive. Although it was published only a month ago, “Just Us” was written last year, prior to the protests and racial reckoning spurred on by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and countless others.
“It was written as a critique of a population that allowed a white nationalist to take office,” Rankine said. She wanted to look at “anti-Black activity, from the neighbor to the executive office.”
The premise of the book is that Rankine sought out conversations about race with white men, the only demographic who she didn’t find herself falling into discussion with very often or easily. She settled on airports, which she describes as a liminal space, as the perfect location to initiate that dialogue.
Interspersed between chapters devoted to those conversations are other sorts of essays, poetry and prose. In one essay, “lemonade,” she examines her marriage to her white husband and the strains placed upon it by her battle with cancer as well as the structures of racism.
She wanted “Just Us” to be “a process, opened out to the reader … They’re invited into wondering.” She makes subtle references and nods to thinkers like Frank B. Wilderson III, a progenitor of Afropessimism, pulling the reader into further reading and questioning.
As the evening wore on, the conversation travelled to Wilderson and Afropessimism — a school of thought that argues Black people will be permanently stuck as an oppressed class as long as society as we know it continues to exist.
“I find their work important but I am not them,” Rankine said. “Martin Luther King had an amazing importance in our history in terms of getting legislation in this country, and Malcolm X had an amazing influence on the gestalt of the culture. Everybody is doing the thing that they’re doing … There are lots of Black people doing lots of different things, and together we move forward.”
Later, Rankine shared a short film — which she was narrating — about Amy Cooper, the white woman in New York who called the police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, after he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
“She can bet on racism, racial profiling, and possible unwaranted murder of a Black person to be supported systemically by random policemen, prosectuors, judges and the carceral system at large,” Rankine said in the film.
After the video ended, Rankine said if she could revise “Just Us,” Cooper would’ve been a point of conversation.
“I cannot tell you the number of people who called me afterward and said ‘You know, what Amy Cooper did was racist but should she have lost her job? Isn’t that going a bit too far?’ And these are white people,” she said.
To Rankine, these interactions were symbolic of a larger problem: the deep-rooted, systemic racism supported by white people — including Rankine’s liberal friends.
“One of the things that I was really sad about was that Christin Cooper refused to join in a court case against her for illegally calling the police,” Rankine said. “I wish he had because I feel like he mistakes that moment as about him, rather than seeing it as a pattern that white people are able to employ without feeling that they need to be accountable to the deaths that might ensue from it.”
During a Q&A session at the end of the evening, Rankine touched on how her time in Claremont informed her previous work, “Citizen: An American Lyric” — a portrait of American race relations (although such a simplification is doing the book a disservice) — which is required reading for Scripps College first-years this fall.
“The Claremont Colleges are a very white-dominated space in many ways … For a long time, I was the only Black woman on [the block I lived on] in Claremont. I always felt like I needed to invite my Black friends over so my daughter wouldn’t think I was the only Black person in the world besides her,” she said. “It allowed me to see the issues of ‘Citizen’ more clearly.”
These divisions which Rankine exposed in “Citizen” seem to be the primary source of her fascination in “Just Us.” Her pursuit is to “know where we all stand.”
A common criticism of her new book is its insistence on the interpersonal side of racism, and she acknowledged that the idea of deep conversation with white people can feel passive or unproductive. But Rankine is not blind to structural racism — she refers to some form of it in nearly every chapter — but institutions, she reminded the crowd, are made up of people.
Rankine knows that she is going against the grain of the current political moment, but she remains secure in her beliefs.
“The process of trying to listen to the other person is a process I think we’ve lost…it slows down everything in a time when everything seems to want to speed up, so I think that might be some of the source of the irritation,” she said.
At its core, “Just Us” is Rankine’s attempt at understanding the pervasiveness of racism and whiteness, through her own experiences and through talking to white people.
“We have let those people pretend — especially white liberals — to have one idea that they present to us, of equity and democracy in this country, and then the actual activity that they’re involved in limits our own mobility and puts us in a world of surveillance and possible death,” she said.