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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Claudia Rankine: “There is no justice, there’s ‘just us’”

Poet Claudia Rankine presented her latest work, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” at UC Davis

Using a compilation of poetry, essays and images, Claudia Rankine’s newest book, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” tackles the issue of systemic racism’s persistence in American culture, specifically through the presence of white supremacy and the failures of the U.S. justice system in providing an equal opportunity to all Americans.

Rankine’s book features a series of difficult conversations held with friends and colleagues to demonstrate deeply embedded “white denial” in even the most well-meaning people and how to address and combat it effectively and with unity. 

The poet gave a presentation on Nov. 4 through UC Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum. Her event began with an explanation of how the title of the book, “Just Us,” comes from a Richard Pryor joke regarding the injustices Black people are often subjected to by the police.

“You go down there looking for justice and that’s what you find, just us,” Pryor’s famous quote goes. While it was originally told in the ‘70s, the joke’s message still alarmingly resonates with how Black folks are treated by the U.S. justice system.

The poignancy of the quote allows readers of the book and audience members of her lecture to get straight to the point of the importance of her work: directly addressing the racial inequalities that manifest, from small instances of implicit biases to larger, violent acts of aggression supported by the American government. 

Her lecture, similar to her book, employed several types of media to engage her audience. She drew from videos to further emphasize the juxtaposition of “Blackness” and “whiteness” in America, like Richard Pryor’s performance, to the more severe depictions of Black bodies being violated and unlawfully harmed by the police. 

“Blackness and racism does not exist without the concept of ‘whiteness’” Rankine said. Rankine illustrated how the two coexist in devastatingly different lights and how it furthers the divide between the American people. 

During her lecture, she also explained the process of how the book was written and how she was able to navigate the conversations she describes in her book. Some conversations are more controversial than others, but Rankine describes how “white denial” is rooted in the ignorance of all their statements.

She detailed the process of heavy revision and fact-checking after a conversation before it was sent back to Rankine’s original conversation partner. In the case that her colleague took issue with how a certain statement is interpreted (often claiming “I didn’t mean it like that”), she would note that discrepancy in her book. The discrepancies further exemplify the implicit harmfulness embedded in these conversations, bringing Rankine’s point to a full circle.

“Just Us: An American Conversation” is well-worth looking into, especially given the  current social and political climate. It allows for people of all ethnic backgrounds to engage in a more comprehensive examination of the different ways implicit biases and racial injustices prevail.

Written by: Mariah Viktoria Candelaria –– arts@theaggie.org


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