What the world needs now … is more Hanif Abdurraqib.
And more Carly Rae Jepsen and more Gerard Way and more Ric Flair and more Allen Iverson, and all the other spirits and cult figures the Columbus author conjures in his new book, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
Hanif’s essays pivot from pop culture to cultural politics naturally, but suddenly—like a Barry Sanders spin move—deftly weaving the experience of today’s black man and how his experiences separate from the shared nostalgia of the white world around him. He goes from Ferguson to Jersey, a Springsteen concert overlapping with Mike Brown’s murder. The NBA All-Star game or the Super Bowl halftime show, in his words, are given entirely new value and meaning. There’s few people that can talk about pro wrestling and emo and race and inequality with equivalent credibility. He’s Lester Bangs and Kevin Powell and Stephen A. Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
He’s a new narrator in a world that is always threatening to lose the plot.
And best of all, he’s ours.
Now, much more of the world gets to share the little black nerd in the Ohio hoodie with us, but when he shows up on MTV.com, or Pitchfork, or when They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us gets dap in Oprah Magazine and on NPR, we’re not just celebrating him, but Two Dollar Radio for publishing it, and for every little local mention in it to get a little more light.
I love the chapter about Iverson and the night he crossed up Jordan. He seems a touchstone for the shared, but very different experience between white and black folks in America. Why is he so compelling to you?
I never had NBA aspirations, but I remember trying to model my subpar game after his. Practicing crossovers on leaves that had drifted to the ground on the basketball court near my house. He also refused conformity at a time when the NBA was trying to force players into a box. It’s hard to imagine now in the post-David Stern era. Players have more freedom over how they express themselves. LeBron James called the president a bum on Twitter and the NBA didn’t even blink in his direction. I love that, in part because I imagine Allen Iverson would have thrived in this era of expression. When the NBA enforced its dress code and told him to wear a suit, he stood up for himself. He said “No. Where I’m from, we wear jewelry and baggy jeans and you aren’t going to make me forget where I come from.” He paid literal thousands in fines, just to keep his hood close.
You’re dressed more like Iverson. So are CEOs. So was Mike Brown. How has fashion and its place in the language of race changed?
I don’t know if it has, really. I mean, I still walk into most rooms and I’m black first—no matter what I have on. For the first time in my life, I don’t own a tie. I have some blazers and a few nice shirts, but I don’t own a tie. If I’m home, I spend at least 40 percent of my week in sweatpants. I’m saying all of this to say that it’s the things we cannot take off that most define us when the stakes are at their highest, or most violent.
Much of your work strikes at the duality of a place like Columbus, like Bexley. When did that start to crystallize in your head, in ways you now express in your work?
I think maybe around my mid-late 20s, I became interested in what it is to love a place that doesn’t always love you back. And then, of course, what it is to love a place as a type of replacement for loving the people inside of that place. I’m still figuring that out, and I think a lot of my work is always reaching towards an unraveling of that. If there is to be injustice on every land—if the very obtaining of this land we’re all on was an injustice from the start (Christopher Columbus statue still looming downtown as we speak,) then how do we reconcile our places here? How can we best honor where we live and how we live and the people we’re sharing all of this living with? I don’t have an answer to any of that, which is great. Which is what keeps me writing and eager. Not to find answers to how to best live in a place I still work to love, but to find new ways to complicate this place that I love, and see if I can still find it within myself to love it as all of its complications are laid bare.
What’s the place in this town that still feels like “old” Columbus?
I think I have lots of old Columbuses, really. I love to pop over to the Junior’s Tacos food truck, even when I’m not that hungry. I’ll purchase a taco, sure. But I mostly just appreciate the lively conversation. The way laughter can shake the trees there. Everything at Resch’s Bakery on the eastside is still so inexpensive, almost as it was when I would go there in my younger years. If you are lucky, you can find some change in your car and walk out with a donut. I also love that you still have to take a number upon walking in. There’s something about that anticipation that I love—looking at your number and watching the screen slowly tick in the direction of your coming blessings. On the right day, I see Goodale Park as I saw it in my late teens and early 20s. Those days have become few and far between, but sometimes if the sun leaks through the trees in the right spot, it feels like I’m there, back on a blanket with my pals. I will call it Crew Stadium for as long as I can, and I believe that is a vital part of Old Columbus. I don’t know what will become of our beloved Crew, and I don’t know what will become of the stadium. But I have felt alive there more times than I have almost anywhere else. I still like to slip into a booth at Tommy’s Diner when I can. The Book Loft makes me unbearably anxious, but for some reason, my phone doesn’t get service inside of it. And so I enjoy walking into that anxious invisibility for a spell. On the blacktop of what used to be Fifth Avenue Elementary School, there’s a haphazardly drawn and colored map of the United States. My class drew it when I was in fourth or fifth grade. It’s maybe the only thing on the school grounds that has endured, save for the rusting playground accoutrements. That is my favorite bit of Old Columbus. A thing tattooed on a corner of the city’s ground from when I was small.
Of the new bits, what are the places you feel are an organically good addition to the city?
I’m obviously biased, but I love the new Two Dollar Radio store. I’m starting a monthly series there in February called “Ships At A Distance” where I pair two black artists of different disciplines and have them perform brief sets before being in conversation with each other. I think that’ll be really fun, and I love that the space is open to doing that. It has to be remembered that I just moved back home in April, and so I’m readjusting to the city as we speak. Still—it’s not brand new, but I love Si Senor. Best sandwich spot in town, for my money. The one in Grandview is not only great, but also very forgiving of the fact that I often burst in 30 minutes before they close, because I’ve lost track of (or poorly managed) my time. Since I’ve been here 95 percent of my life, “new” is kinda relative. Sole Classics isn’t brand new, but it’s newer than what I consider Old Columbus to be. And as a committed sneakerhead, I really value having one of my favorite sneaker spots walking distance from my apartment. I do think there are a lot of good organic additions, and I’d like to see more places and people holding hands with existing communities they move into, and not just trying to rush ahead in the name of some vague idea of “improvement.” I like places like Sole Classics and Spoonful Records because it feels still very community-based. I can go in these shops and have conversations with the people working there. It can feel like a city inside of a city.
Who inspires you in this town?
There’s a long list. I’m inspired by the Black Pride 4, and by young black activists. I hope to see the work of activism continue to be pushed here, and I hope to see it led by young black folks, queer black folks, black women, and intersections of all those identities. I’m really heartened by the idea of looking to people younger than me to light the way. I’m not all that old, but I am old enough to know that there is something exciting happening inside of the way young activists are looking at the world, and it serves me to get out of the way and support them how I can. I’m inspired by Scott Woods and the work he’s done (and continues to do) to bridge gaps in the black artistic community here. I’m inspired by Will Evans, who built Black Nerd Problems out the city and took it worldwide. I’m inspired by all of the Two Dollar Radio folks, and how they created and sustained a vision. But, beyond that, I’m inspired by my friends here. My dear friends who live in this city, and have lived in this city, and who have found a way to make the most out of living and loving here. Who will come over to my house for a movie night and make a late night UDF run with me and sit with me in a diner booth. I’m really inspired by the folks who have lived here for a long time and still decide to make the most of it, even through their sighing on some days. On my walk to the gym every day I’m in town, I walk by the old Union Station arch in the Arena District. And when you see something magnificent every day, it’s easy to forget its magnificence. One Saturday, I was walking by it and a guy was just standing in front of it, marveling at it and taking pictures, smiling as wide as he could. Because this is generally what tourists do upon seeing it, another passerby approached him and asked the guy if it was his first time in the city. The guy replied, “No, I live here. I can just never get over how cool this thing is.” I think that guy inspires me the most.
I feel like you’re the kind of person who has a personal timestamp for all these moving moments in pop culture. Can you think of a few that you haven’t written about?
Oh, absolutely. I will now always remember climbing the steps to an arena to watch what would be one of Tom Petty’s last shows. I remember being very young when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. But more importantly, I remember the bus ride to school the next day. Back when buses played the radio on the ride to school, and WVKO had KC Jones on the morning show, and he was just so stunned that Tyson was knocked out. I remember not really understanding the weight of it all until hearing KC Jones on WVKO the morning after. I think all of the time about KC Jones, and how Columbus morning radio shaped me when I was younger, because it was all that got played on the bus to school. Shoutout to KC Jones, a legend.
Do you remember where you were when you found out about Trayvon? Tyre? Eric Garner? Mike Brown? Marshawn McCarrel?
I do, and there’s a series of pieces in my book about the murders of Trayvon, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice. Marshawn was really difficult for me. I lived in Connecticut at the time of his death, and my then-partner came upstairs to my office to tell me that she saw news floating around that Marshawn had killed himself. Finding out about death in the moment is always difficult, for me. I have had to endure that so much that I’ve kind of made an accelerated processing mechanism—going from disbelief to acceptance in mere minutes. I remember that on my desk in my office, I had some kind of red candy. I used to always eat candy when I wrote—a habit that I just broke this year. I stared at the candy for a long time, I think because when I saw Marshawn alive last, he had on a long red shirt. We hadn’t seen each other for a while and we hugged. It was an awkward hug, balancing both love and the tension that exists when you haven’t spoken to someone you love in a long time. I want to remember him like I knew him best, always. He was so immensely gifted. He was a better and more eager writer than poets twice his age. He’d come into the Method Gallery for the Writing Wrongs open mic and kick some shit that would make me not want to follow him. He was flawed, but singular. Like all the best of us are.
Purchase They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us at twodollarradio.com. For more of his work, visit abdurraqib.com.