Difficult Questions

Friday, Dec 18, 2020

Equating conversation with political action

Halfway through Just Us, I was reminded of the moment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) when, in a clearing, Baby Suggs delivers a sermon: “And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! … Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either”. As Baby Suggs expatiates on the utility and disposability of Black life in the immediate aftermath of enslavement, she also theorizes Black intimacy as, above all else, a matter of relating to one another and feeling – a matter of mattering.

Separated from Beloved by over thirty years, Just Us is also a book about being touched by blackness; or, more precisely, about white people’s chilling failure to be touched by Black life. Like Rankine’s two previous works – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014) – Just Us strains against genre conventions and disciplinary boundaries. Among its contents are redacted excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query IX, social media content, statistical data, long-form prose, diverse visual media (video stills from network news channels and films, photographs from white supremacist rallies, and Twitter screenshots), and playful experiments with apparatus such as the index and the footnote. Unlike Citizen, where poetry takes centre stage, here it primarily functions as framing device and the location for Rankine’s most honest demands. “What if what I want from you is new, newly made a new sentence in request to all my questions, a swerve in our relation and the words that carry us”, she asks towards the end of the book’s opening poetic gambit.

But whereas Citizen mobilizes the lyric, verbalizing the accrual of small violences that culminated in spectacular and state-sanctioned murders of Black men and women, Just Us chooses the conversation, whether directed outward or inward, as a critical mode and as the pathway to a more just future – as the avenue through which Black life might begin to matter. Rankine’s commitment to conversation as the threshold of political transformation is rooted in a deep investment in the possibility of rewiring the social contract, the unspoken agreement about civility that is also a formative democratic principle. According to the rules of social engagement, “Among white people, black people are allowed to talk about their precarious lives, but they are not allowed to implicate the present company in that precariousness”, Rankine writes. To shift the terms of the agreement and create a space of mutual exchange, she stages a series of dialogues, mostly with white people, about whiteness in all of its permutations, in the hope of instantiating an atmospheric shift in a climate that favours white lives. Sometimes her conversation partners are strangers, such as the several men she encounters flying in first and business class who regret that their children were denied admission to Ivy League universities because of affirmative action, or who are just a little too eager to engage in a conversation about South Africa; just as often, though, they are colleagues with whom she attends dinner parties, or college friends who recall the moment when a cross was burned just outside the Black Student Association Party.

In a moment that has already been much discussed, Rankine recalls going to see Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview (2018). When her white friend refuses to respond to the play’s closing prompt for non-Black audience members to come onstage, Rankine begins a slow descent into irritation, disappointment, and self-doubt:

I wanted to run. Away from what? An embodied refusal I can’t help but see and one that surprises me? My own mounting emotion in the face of what I perceive as belligerence? A friendship error despite my understanding of how whiteness functions? … Be still my beating, breaking heart.

Rankine is unwavering in her dedication to understanding her friend’s intractability. By the time she is offered a less than satisfactory explanation, her generosity feels unmatched, if not unwarranted. In moments like this, is not always clear what, if anything, Rankine gains from her commitment to this approach.

That Just Us concentrates on white people thinking about whiteness is not surprising, but its infrequent engagements with Black people might give the reader pause, not least for their bluntness. To her question, “as a black woman why have you bleached your hair?”, an interviewee she has stopped in the street offers a rhetorical “why not?” before walking away, leaving Rankine alone with her contemplations. This brief exchange is devoid of the premediated quality of her encounters with white men and women. Whereas she mulls over if and how she’ll broach the topic of whiteness with white people, Rankine can only imagine the Black woman with blond hair as a willing participant in her social experiment.

Taking liberties to ask questions even, and especially, when they are not welcome seems to be at least half of her goal. Yet given the insufficiency of the conversation as a substitute for politics (and given that if conversation and democracy are twinned forces, then right now they are equally impotent), evident here as elsewhere in Just Us, her methodology is hard to get behind. This summer, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, white people were encouraged to engage in difficult, discomfiting conversations about their own privilege. Just Us adopts a similar liberalism, equating conversation with political action, even as this equation strips urgency away from calls for anti-racist practices.

If conversation is a matter of getting white people to think differently about how they relate to whiteness, then for Rankine it is also, above all else, a matter of impressibility – of creating a reality where whites will be touched by Black life. Rankine draws us to this conceit via an easy-to-miss footnote where she engages with the feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed. According to Ahmed, impressions are affective (“you left an impression”); but they are also physical (“your hand’s grasp left an impression on my arm”). As much as Rankine’s work is a thought experiment, it is also a desire to prove that her life, a Black life, can leave a lasting impression that is both physical and affective – can be felt in a way that might change the existing social contract. “The structures that inform our lives are the predetermined architecture we live in or against. But I am beginning to know that feelings can change structures”, she explains. Over the course of Just Us, she looks for signs that she’s left an impression on her white interlocutors: “I tried to imagine what my presence was doing to him”. In most cases, the searching remains one-sided. In the end, what Rankine learns from her conversations is that whites remain, even in intimacy, incredibly untouched.

Perhaps the real goal is not, as Rankine puts it, to redeem the structures that determine how we have related to each other, but to create new modes of relation altogether, ones that don’t necessarily begin from a premiss like the impression or the social contract. Might we imagine a conversation or a mode of encounter that doesn’t submit to the rules and the grammar of the social contract? Moreover, what if recognition by white people is not the political or ethical horizon?

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.

[Originally published on December 4, 2020 via the Times Literary Supplement]

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