In Just Us (Graywolf, Sept), Rankine explores the challenges and rewards of talking about racial division in America.
Why is the book called Just Us?
I wanted to throw in the air what that phrase means. Like, who is “us”? It was a title, to me, that both addressed us all and called into question the ways in which a collective American public is impossible to think about.
The differences between the conversations in the book and those that happen online was striking.
I think some of the spinout that happens in social media has to do with people being inside a dynamic that allows them to forget that there’s another person on the other side of it—and also to forget the subject on the other side of it, and the origin, and the context in which they were initially speaking. But if a peace prize could be given to a thing, social media should get it. Because without it, policing never would have been held accountable in the way that it has over the last few years. And though there are lots of ways to think about surveillance as controlling, there’s also this kind of filming that has opened up truth, that has brought attention to violence, and that has given you the evidence of things that we—as in Black people—all know happen, and that continue to happen.
Do you feel like this moment—the protests over the death of George Floyd and others, with calls to defund the police entering mainstream conversation—is a turning point?
I do! As harrowing as his death was, the response has asked our population—not our Black population, but our population—to respond differently to their relationship to protesting, differently to their appetite for holding Black death, differently to their understanding of policing, and differently to their expectations from the justice system. So yes, I think this is an unprecedented moment, one that brings me hope that we’re not as entrenched and as final as we have seemed.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to engage in conversations right now about racial and social justice?
I think what we’re trying to do as people, as friends, as colleagues, is work and live together. And in order to do that, we really have to take the time to understand what is known and what is not known, and to be able to hold the misunderstandings, the deep cultural bias on both sides. It really is a step-by-step process, and you have to, I think, be both suspicious of the self—in terms of where your own limitations are—and then generous and curious about the other. Which is not to say that you’re not going to have emotions, you’re not going to get angry with people. Because we’re human first, and then maybe curious second.