“How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?”

I finished writing this review of Claudia Rankine’s new book, Just Us: An American Conversation, during the week in which a White mob devoted to “vigilante antidemocratic paramilitary violence” (in Reconstruction historian Gregory P. Downs’s phrase) broke into the United States Capitol as Congress met to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. It is now clear, as it was clear then, that former president Trump incited the violence and allowed it to progress. In response, now-president Biden gave the speech that then-president Trump did not give, decrying the mob and claiming that “what we’re seeing is a small number of extremists,” and that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” Really? Then who are we? Which president represents us? What if one of these White men did represent the aggressive assembly he called forth? Then what does the other White man represent? The rest of us? What if for the last two and a half centuries, now and then have been repeatedly aligned so that representative democracy in America has continued to depend on a White supremacist illusion of collective national identity? What if the cracks in what Rankine calls “the racial imaginary” of that national identity have finally begun to show, and White people attached to that fictive and heretofore state-sponsored version of personal representation are dangerously pissed off? 

In that case, the problem with “who we are” in this country is the problem with White people. How does it feel to be a problem? The question that W. E. B. Du Bois famously framed as the question America addressed to Black people in the twentieth century has become the question America needs to address to White people in the twenty-first century. Yet while Du Bois’s point was that to be Black is to not be able to avoid being interpellated by that question, the problem with the contemporary American racial imaginary is that it’s easy for people interpellated as White not to hear the question at all. Even if they could, a personified “America” certainly cannot be the one to pose it. How might the question be made audible or legible—or at least perceptible—to those who most need to hear or read or feel it? On the television or livestream feed where we watched the events of January 6th? On Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Parler or in the New York Times? Unlikely. As it has become painfully clear that each medium organizes a different version of us, and that each genre (the news-anchor narrative, the crawl, the interview, the post, the tweet, the speech, the opinion, the sound bite, et cetera) addresses us as a separate public, how and where and when can anyone manage to make the whiteness that goes unnamed answer for itself? Claudia Rankine wants to put this meta-question out there, to start another sort of “American conversation,” though since we the people is an idea that may be (in one of Rankine’s many turns of phrase for the anachronism of contemporary life) too “historied out” to stick to any of us anymore, it’s hard for even such a skilled writer to know where to begin. So of course she begins by addressing us in a retro-medium (the book) that contains a retro-genre (the poem). Not a promising beginning, yet the result is something new and strange, the best thing Rankine has yet written, and that’s saying a lot.

It should also be said that I seem to be one of the few people to think so. Rankine is a famous, admired, prize-winning poet, critic, and playwright, a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and until recently the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale (in the summer of 2021, she will move to NYU). She is that rare “creative” writer whose work both deserves and has garnered substantial institutional support, and before her former teacher and Yale colleague Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize at the end of 2020 and Amanda Gorman took the stage at Biden’s inauguration, Rankine was probably the most famous American poet in the world. She has quite a platform. She is more widely read than Glück ever has been or, really, than any of her contemporaries can claim to be. (How often does anyone make the New York Times bestseller list with a book of poetry?) Her last book, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), was not only a bestseller, but won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and a lot of other prizes. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. And here, perhaps, a certain confusion began—or from my perspective, the promise of Rankine’s project really became apparent. Citizen was the second book in a trilogy that started with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric in 2004 and that has now concluded with Just Us: An American Conversation in 2020. The difference between the subtitles of the first two books in the trilogy and the subtitle of the last one tells you everything you really need to know, but I will spend this review trying to explain why I think the sequence American Lyric, American Lyric, American Conversation is such an important chord progression, why it makes this trilogy such a timely contribution to lyric theory as well as to American public discourse. The fact that you may think that those are two different things is an indication of how far Rankine’s trilogy has to go to convince you otherwise. 

Because of Citizen’s success, the concept of “American lyric” was much discussed six years ago. Rankine herself called the book an attempt “to pull the lyric back into its realities,” and in his review in the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson described Citizen as a challenge to “our sense of the lyric’s natural territory as the exclusively personal, outside the scope of politics.” “Natural territory”? “Our sense”? It is fascinating to track the reception of Citizen in terms of the genre Rankine said it was, to witness most reviewers seem to assume a consensus, to watch critics try to make the miscellaneous alternation of text and full-color images; long swaths of prose; lineated interludes; memories; tennis journalism; blog posts; works of art (such as the 1993 David Hammons piece that graces the cover—a severed black hood that everyone I know thought they recognized as Trayvon Martin’s, though he was not yet born when the piece was made); transcripts of soccer matches; edited documentary photos (like the famous 1930 Public Lynching, which Rankine’s husband, John Lucas, edited by obscuring the obscene lynched figures, leaving only the White spectators in the frame, looking right at us); riffs on Dante, Whitman, Miles Davis, Audre Lorde; conversations with the poet’s therapist; and gorgeous associative meditations (“On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush”) all fit into “the lyric’s natural territory.” We may be almost two hundred years down the line from John Stuart Mill’s warning that “the vulgarest of all” definitions of poetry is “metrical composition,” but we still seem to share Mill’s fear that we tend to be led back “to this wretched mockery of a definition” by the failure of our attempts “to find any other that would distinguish what [we] have been accustomed to call poetry, from much which [we] have known only under other names.” Despite the long history of experimental poetry, of “uncreative writing,” of avant-garde poetics, of Black genre invention, of prose poetry, of what everyone from the Language poets to the critic Anthony Reed has called “post-lyric” poetry, it seems that since Rankine called Citizen “An American Lyric,” readers have expected it to be one. And what is a lyric? Critic after critic has struggled to make lyric a term capacious enough to include the mixed media and hybrid genres of that book, perhaps because the narrowness of the definition of lyric as a kind of poetry that expresses personal feeling in a concentrated and harmoniously arranged form and that is indirectly addressed to the private reader—the definition Chiasson called “natural”—just can’t be bent to fit so many shifts in personal pronouns, so much generic disarray, so much direct address. Most of all, readers have had a hard time situating what Chiasson calls “the lyric I” in relation to Citizen’s preferred pronoun, you (“you the murmur in the air, you sometimes sounding like you, you sometimes saying you”). The poet and critic Evie Shockley comes closest to understanding what’s at stake in Rankine’s pronominal shifts when she writes that the unstable modes of racial identification solicited by Citizen’s unstable forms of address “may be less a challenge to the coherence of the lyric speaker than to the coherence of many readers. Rankine’s relational lyric-You may challenge us . . . to retheorize the lyric genre.” That’s right, I think, and one of the reasons I think so is that Rankine seems to think so, too, since she has offered just such a retheorization in the one book in her trilogy she does not call a lyric.

Nor should she, since whatever Just Us is, it is not a lyric, though I would say that the book contains, implies, produces, generates, permits (or whatever aberrant verbal metaphor one wishes to choose) the entire possibility of the lyric. Again, it seems that no one agrees with me that lyric—rather than, say, anti-Blackness, whiteness, American racism, American history, misogyny, White supremacy, the failure of liberal democracy—is one of the most important things this book is about (though I agree that it is about all those other things, too). Most readers seem to think that in Just Us, Rankine has not only stretched lyric to its limits but has left it almost entirely behind. This time in The New Yorker, Katy Waldman complains that the marginalization of lyric gives the book “a tortured, insincere quality,” and that “there’s the sense of a subject overflowing every genre summoned to contain it.” Ismail Muhammad in The Atlantic writes that while Citizen asked, “can Black citizens claim the expressive ‘I’ of lyric poetry when a systemically racist state looks upon a Black person and sees, at best, a walking symbol of its greatest fears and, at worst, nothing at all?” the new book’s replacement of “An American Lyric” with “An American Conversation” means that “the very idea that drives Just Us forward—the notion that racial inequality can be challenged by fostering social intimacy and uncovering the reality of white privilege—risks seeming somewhat regressive.” Citizen, everyone seems to agree, was a poem—a weird poem, but finally, a great poem—and Just Us is—what, exactly? Writing in the New York Times, Maya Phillips offers a practical solution, calling Just Us “a collection of essays and poems.” But such practical criticism turns on a pervasive sense of disappointment that the collection “can feel incoherent, insulated, and disconnected from the world it depicts,” leading the critic to lament that there is “less sense of balance here between Rankine’s two prominent modes, poetry and criticism; her lyrics get short shrift.”

I can see why people think that lyric is what’s missing from Just Us, but what they are missing is the reason the end of Rankine’s trilogy has ceased to pretend that “the lyric speaker” does not (like the president) depend on a White supremacist illusion of collective identity. It does. This is not the place for me to provide a long historical argument about how and why this is true, so it’s a good thing I don’t have to, because Rankine has come to the same conclusion through her practice as a poet. Not that the first two books in the trilogy did pretend that the abstract person represented by lyric is unproblematic, but they managed to experiment with ways to inflect that abstraction, working to make the lyric persona back into a person, thus rendering that represented person less abstract. If I were to fill in the American lyric history and theory I don’t have time or space to narrate here, I would say that over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American poetry was gradually lyricized—by which I mean that ballads and songs, elegies and odes, hymns and epistles that depended on particular forms of address gradually and unevenly merged into one big genre of address associated with the genre of the person rather than with the genre of the poem. All poetry (or almost all poetry) became lyric poetry. In order for the genre of the represented person to be representative, the definite article attached to the concept of “the lyric speaker” erased that speaker’s race, gender, and personal history. That erasure amounted to a default whiteness, since that unmarked illusion made it easier for all readers to appropriate the words of the poem as their own. For example, when Emily Dickinson (one of Rankine’s favorite poets) writes, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –,” it’s easy for me to put myself in the place of that pronoun, so that Dickinson’s “my” becomes my “my”—since pronouns are shifters, and thus change definition according to their use. Rankine’s project in the first two books of her trilogy was to make that shifting use more difficult or at least more self-conscious, such appropriation more visible as appropriation. One of my favorite definitions of lyric is Adorno’s understanding that “the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism.” Claudia Rankine has always been more interested in the social antagonism itself than she is in any expression that appears to resolve it. That is why the movement from “An American Lyric” to “An American Conversation” seems to me such a promising move. Pace Adorno, this is not a dialectical progression; it is instead a way of giving up on the idea that any one expression could offer an aesthetic resolution of social conflict, that you and I could trade places, that I could adopt your words as my own. 

The one time I met Rankine, a few years ago, she told me that she had to leave the event we were both attending early because she was “in writing mode,” finishing a book. I asked her what the new book was about. “Talking to White people,” she answered, smiling. “Oh, like this,” I laughed. She laughed. If ours had been a conversation in Just Us, she might have commented on the joke we enacted as if it were the same joke for both of us. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, since I’m also pretty sure that she was asking me how it feels to be a problem. Or maybe I feel that way now because that is the question Just Us keeps asking. In the opening pages (after an initial series of lines that are formatted lyrically), Rankine describes the class on whiteness she teaches at Yale. It’s a way of introducing the pedagogical intentions of the book, intentions that are graphically obvious in the textbook-like information panels on each left-hand page. The panels range from “Demographics of Political Power” expressed as pie charts to Facebook posts by Black people being insulted while waiting in the first-class line at the airport to the result of a 2011 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to excerpts from the 1619 Project. These explanatory panels are like but unlike the images scattered throughout Citizen: the difference between Citizen’s final image of J. M. W. Turner’s (astonishingly beautiful) The Slave Ship (1840) and Just Us’s final image of a (repulsively ugly) Trump tweet says it all, really. Turner’s painting is horrific, but it takes a while to see through its beauty to the horror; the white-on-black glossy print version of Trump’s tweet demeaning “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” is not hard to see through, and is keyed (by a red dot on the right-hand page) as illustration for the paragraph,

As a naturalized citizen, I am as connected to the ones who say “go back to where you came from” or “send her back” as I am to the democratic process that names me an American citizen. And as unknowable as I am to anyone else, I forever remain in relation to everyone else.

That prose may be clear as day, but it is not at all clear how forever remaining in relation to everyone else in a country premised on anti-Blackness can be sustained. That’s where the poetry comes in.

“Is it possible to live E pluribus unum?” The answer Just Us gives to Rankine’s question won’t please everyone. If lyric makes one out of the many by making that one representative of us (whether we are Americans or women or Black people or White people or “we the people”), then the reason that Rankine’s new book replaces lyric with conversation is that such representation no longer seems possible. Yet conversation may remain just possible: “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.” Whereas the lyric poet is supposed to speak for all of us by speaking to and as an abstraction (“the speaker,” the reader”), Claudia Rankine is showing up personally to ask us all to speak up for ourselves. The last keyed text in the book explains that “A friend finished reading the final pages of Just Us and said flatly, there’s no strategy here.” I do not agree. Maybe Rankine’s friend and I could have a conversation about that. Maybe the White men on the plane that Rankine wants to ask about White male privilege could chime in, too. Maybe Rankine’s White husband will have something to add, or perhaps we can invoke Emily Dickinson (There is a pain – so utter – it swallows substance up –) or Thomas Jefferson (whose 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia appears in redacted form as preface to a section on recent events in Charlottesville). Maybe Sara Ahmed, Fred Moten, and Frank B. Wilderson III can provide some theoretical wisdom. Maybe Ruby Sales has more to teach us. Maybe middle-aged women who dye their hair blond should reconsider the context of that signifier (Reader, I did!). These (and many more) participants in Just Us: An American Conversation do not add up to “a true America,” do not eventuate in a liberal, inclusive conversation, and they certainly do not converge in a single representative figure. But they do begin to index what it might feel like for whiteness to be a problem for all of us, and not least a problem for the version of personal representation associated with the lyric. As the illusion of White supremacist national collective identity falls apart, the illusion of White supremacist lyric collective identity does, too. What will take its place? As Rankine writes, “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 named publics in a yet unimagined future.” The genres of that future are up to us.


*Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. 360 pp. $30.00


Virginia Jackson, UCI Endowed Chair of Rhetoric at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of the forthcoming Before Modernism: Inventing American Lyric in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press) and co-editor (with Yopie Prins) of The Lyric Theory Reader (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Her first book, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton University Press, 2005), won the MLA First Book Prize and the Christian Gauss Award. Her essays have appeared in PMLA, Studies in Romanticism, Modern Language Quarterly, New Literary History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Historical Poetics Working Group.