Today
Fri 4 December 2020

John Mitchinson considers how the author combines the integrity of an investigative journalist with a rhetorical urgency in a timely exploration of whiteness

When I originally conceived of this column (with a grateful hat-tip to the first series of Stranger Things), I wanted to find a way of de-familiarising the world to better show up its underlying patterns.

Sometimes this was achieved by assuming the point of view of a wasp or an octopus, but mostly it involved fossicking in the overlooked gaps in our history and culture. Now we are all living in a kind of upside-down, I find myself looking for something simpler but more elusive: how to engage with the strangeness of this time without giving into despair or exhaustion on the one hand, or short-term social media-enabled rage on the other.

As so often for me, cometh the hour, cometh the writer. I’d been aware of the work of American poet and academic Claudia Rankine since 2014, when her collection Citizen: An American Lyric won several awards and became a New York Times bestseller – a rarity for a book of poetry. Then earlier this year, Just Us: An American Conversation was published as the global Black Lives Matters protests were at their height. It seemed a propitious moment to explore Rankine’s work. Rarely has a hunch been so richly rewarded.

Citizen detonates the safe and familiar form of lyric poetry by mixing verse with prose meditation, visual art, photographs and film scripts. It is a book that asks to us respond on many different levels – the other media don’t ‘illustrate’ the writing; they add emotional context and resonance. The clue is in the subtitle: the book is an investigation into the lyric impulse – “the pronoun holding the person together” – from the position of a black woman whose presence is continually minimised, eroded and erased.

We are buttonholed by a ‘you’ (rather than an ‘I’) from the first page, as Rankine gathers a shocking litany of racist micro-aggressions: in banks, shops, on aeroplanes, at mostly white dinner parties, at academic conferences. Longer sequences unpack the race-baiting of Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane and the woeful federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Rankine summons the ‘upside down’ reality of being a black woman in contemporary America with the patience and curiosity of a scientific enquiry. And, as well as interrogating the reactions and motivations of the white people she interacts with, she also carefully unpacks her own reactions, subjecting her anger and disappointment to the same sceptical assessments.

Given the events of the past four years, it is perhaps understandable that Just Us, is a longer, darker book. There is very little in it that resembles most people’s idea of poetry. Instead, Rankine delivers a sustained enquiry into white privilege (a phrase she dislikes as it comes with connotations of economic advantage: she prefers ‘white living’ – the ability to live unmolested because of the colour of your skin).

Whiteness, she argues, has become invisible through its identification with “normalcy and universality” which masks its “omnipresent institutional power”. She adds: “I needed to slowly unpack and understand how whiteness was created”. This requires deep dives into educational disparity, policing, the relationship between race and class, the tensions between black, Latinx and other communities of colour, the challenges of diversity training, the rise of right-wing terrorism, and the strange and complex impulse for women of all races to dye their hair blond.

But this is no sociological treatise: her organising principle is the conversation. She talks to white friends and strangers she meets while travelling and asks them about how they perceive and understand their own whiteness. She then shares the written-up notes of these dialogues and the written responses they elicit are revealing, shocking and sometimes unexpectedly moving. Throughout, these investigations are mirrored on the opposite page by extensive footnotes, graphs, photographs and sources that function as a commentary and fact-check on the main text.

The effect is exhilarating. Rankine has created an unclassifiable new form combining the patience and integrity of an investigative journalist with the rhetorical urgency of a James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But what really sets her work apart is the inclusion or her own complex and ambiguous responses – the work of a poet not a polemicist. It is full of what she calls “real thought”, an attempt to formulate “the event of feeling historical in the present”. Challenged by a colleague that this hardly represents a strategy, she responds, as a poet should, that “response is my strategy”.

And then she expands, holding out a poet’s hope for the future: “What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other. Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.”

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI


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