It is a cool autumn morning and I am perched on my couch, a coffee cup nearby, a few pages into Claudia Rankine’s newest book, Just Us: An American Conversation. My 14-year-old son saunters in and asks what I am reading when I look up over the brim to tell him: “It’s a book on race by an author I met last summer during my writing residency.” “Is it good?” he asks. “It’s interesting,” I say. “But sometimes I get tired of reading about racism.” “Why… because it makes you angry?” he asks. “Angry is not the right word. Annoyed. Yes… annoyed that she took 300 pages to reflect on what White people think of us. Who cares?” Black writers
The book details Rankine’s various experiences with blackness, whiteness, and the ways in which the two collide and integrate throughout her life, work, and friendships. This work and others like it are necessary in a post-slavery country where, far too often, White people forget that the systemic effects of slavery are still alive and well: in education, in professional life, and in daily interactions between humans, whether they’re the same race or not. Early in the book, Rankine comments on a truth she has accepted about the “culture of whiteness”: “The lack of an integrated life means that no part of [their lives] recognizes the treatment of black people as an important disturbance.” In other words, White people are often not touched by racially charged events that do not interfere with their own livelihoods. They quite literally don’t even notice.
While Rankine’s book contributes to an important discussion — one that shines a light on White privilege, “white living,” and “white blindness” — I wonder, with doubt, if there is a space in literature for Black people to explore our lives outside of, and with disregard to, the White lens. In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison famously said of racism, “I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one. If you can only be tall when someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem and you have to find out what you’re going to do about it. Take me out of it.”
There is the reality of race relations in this country — and the long, sordid history that precedes it — but before I am a Black woman and a Black mother, I am a human being. Far too often, that reality gets lost in mainstream art, film, literature, music. In our culture, White people get to be “just people,” and Black people always have to be “Black people.” Our blackness has to be pronounced and juxtaposed against whiteness in order for it to be relevant. The result is a literary tradition in which blackness doesn’t exist on its own. However, the idea that Black people spend our lives lamenting over what White people think of us is offensive, and dismissive of the truth: that we are people before we are Black people. Continue reading…