The author and poet Claudia Rankine witnessed the collective muted response after James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death along an asphalt road in Texas in 1998. She watched widespread resistance rise against the nascent Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and 2014 following the murder of Trayvon Martin. Whenever she wrote books or essays about white privilege or racism, she expected to receive waves of denial or personal attacks, because she knew how white people deny white privilege and Black death.
So she was surprised when in late May, white people stormed the streets alongside people of color across the world to protest racial violence and injustice following the murder of George Floyd. “That was the most hope I’ve felt in a long time,” Rankine says in a phone interview. “I think we are suddenly seeing the same reality.”
Rankine’s life’s work has been driven by getting people to understand these grim realities. In searing works like Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen–which was a National Book Award finalist–she has explored how anti-Black racism has manifested in ways both mundane and tragic. For many years, it seemed as if Rankine was screaming into the void, laying bare a version of America that many people refused to accept. But Just Us, her new work of poetry, personal essays and historical documents, arrives into a changed climate, in which many people are finally coming to grips with uncomfortable truths.
Still, Rankine argues in the book that Americans have a long way to go toward understanding how deeply anti-Black racism is embedded into nearly every aspect of our society, from corporate culture to classrooms to even hair color. “It’s really a moment for us to slow down and understand that a white-supremacist orientation has determined almost everything in this country,” Rankine says. “For us to reroute, we have to ask more questions and really be uncomfortable.”
Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated at the age of 7 with her parents to the Bronx, where she says racism was palpable but mostly latent. While Rankine was an acclaimed poet in the early ’90s, her work took on increased urgency and focus after she learned of Byrd’s lynching: “I just thought, Who are these people we live among?” she says.
I first met her on a frigid day back in February, when the world was buzzing about as usual, and she was preparing for the premiere of her play Help at the Shed in Manhattan, which portrays fraught encounters with white men around the world. While I had many lofty questions prepared for her, Rankine initially just wanted to talk about my hair. I had recently dyed it bleach blond, inspired by Frank Ocean, BTS’s RM, and an unholy mixture of curiosity and boredom. Rankine, smirking slightly, took pictures of my desiccated strands, saying she had written an essay about “whether people consider blondness in terms of whiteness.”
I was startled by the sentence and, frankly, a little defensive. What did my dyeing my hair, on a whim and inspired by artists of color, have to do with whiteness or reinforcing racist systems?
I didn’t press the issue, and any chance for a follow-up conversation evaporated when COVID-19 quickly began spreading across the U.S. Help closed after two previews; Rankine went back home to New Haven, Conn., where she is a professor of poetry at Yale. She was staying at home–a previous bout with cancer made her a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19–when in May, new videos showing threats or violence against Black people began to spread across the Internet. These videos were grief-inducing to Rankine. “For all of these deaths, you feel the same depth of devastation,” she says.
But she also recognized that they revealed, to a captive world, the array of indignities and dangers that Black people can face on a daily basis. “The Amy Cooper video was, to me, a real gift to society, with her performance of fear, her uses of civility,” she says. “I hope it gets taught in classes. This kind of white woman who weaponizes her fear in an attempt to have Black people murdered: we’ve seen it again and again.”
Over the next few months, Rankine watched in amazement as rhetoric about whiteness and racism that might have previously been perceived as radical now began to receive support in mainstream discourse. She celebrated as books about racism and antiracism, from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, surged to the top of the best-seller lists.
“White men and women are beginning to have a shared understanding and a shared vocabulary for what’s going on,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m starting at the beginning in these conversations.” Despite this progress, however, Rankine knows that the country still has miles to go in terms of fully confronting its racist past, especially with a current leadership that often defends white supremacists. “For some people, it is a PR moment,” she says. “We’ll see whether people will follow up this initial response with more sustained inquiries and modes of shifting within their own organizations, corporations and institutions.”
Rankine hopes that Just Us will encourage readers to have these deeper and more difficult conversations. While she finished the book before the current moment of unrest, its themes have made it prescient. “I feel as if the book is addressing everything that lives below that,” she says of the pandemic and the protests. “The circumstances that Just Us addresses haven’t changed.”
The book includes uncomfortable vignettes from dinner parties, racist writings from Thomas Jefferson, and data elucidating the wealth gap between Black and white families. It shows how anti-Black racism haunts preschools, college campuses, police precincts and everywhere in between.
But the part of the book that struck me most was the essay on blondness that Rankine had mentioned months back. In it, she traces the preference for blondness, from Italian Renaissance writers through Nazi Germany through to the Trump family. She points out that many of the most famous blondes, from Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana, weren’t actually natural blondes but were just following beauty standards.
“If white supremacy and anti-Black racism remain fundamental structural modes of violence by which countries continue to govern,” Rankine writes, “blondness might be one of our most passive and fluid modes of complicity. It points to white power and its values as desirable, whether the thought enters one’s head or not.”
Reading the chapter, my pitch-black roots having once again assumed control of my scalp, I felt a gut punch. So many seemingly trivial matters are tied to centuries of oppression–and all of us as individuals are complicit in many of those systems.
But for Rankine, the point isn’t so-called cancellation, but interrogation and growth. When I mention my shame to her, she laughs it off and then widens the scope of the conversation. “Do whatever you want,” she says. “But one of the things I’m trying to say in Just Us is there is a history behind all of our decisions–and we should make them with the full consciousness of what that history is.”
This appears in the September 21, 2020 issue of TIME.