The Heart of It All: Newly named ‘genius’ Hanif Abdurraqib centers community

The Columbus writer talks about absorbing the work of Aminah Robinson and how the MacArthur grant could help him impact folks in the city he loves

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Author and poet Hanif Abdurraqib

The day after news broke that Hanif Abdurraqib had been named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” the Columbus author, poet and cultural critic posted an image on Twitter of a flower bouquet he left outside of the home of the late Aminah Robinson, an earlier recipient of the same prize and a local institution to whom Abdurraqib feels indebted.

“I drop things off for Aminah every now and then because the city’s artistic ecosystem, as I’ve understood it and I’ve grown with it, owes a lot to Aminah, and so I owe a lot to Aminah,” Abdurraqib said recently by phone. “Because I don’t really believe in myself at all as someone who’s self-made, or at all an individual who has figured something out on my own, I have to be realistic about what I owe to the people who helped me get there, even the ones who are ancestors by way of not being present anymore. In terms of the MacArthur thing and being in company with Aminah, that doesn’t mean as much as has been made of it, though I’m fine with people making a thing of it. But I’ve been in company with Aminah since I decided to take up art-making in the city she helped architect the artistic life of.”

Long before Abdurraqib met Robinson, her work had already been absorbed into his creative DNA alongside that of fellow Columbus artist Elijah Pierce, the collective work of the two existing within the world Abdurraqib navigated from childhood growing up on the city’s East Side. As he got older, Abdurraqib eventually sought Robinson out, though now he wishes he’d had more time to ask questions about her artistic process and how the work came to her.

“From what I understand, she worked in a way that was alarmingly rigorous, where she would get up early and work literally all day if she was in a groove, and only sleep a few hours at a time. And I don’t do that, and I could not do that,” Abdurraqib said, and laughed. “I think every artist has to find a thing that works for them, so I’m not sitting here endorsing working 18 hours a day and not sleeping, but I do think there’s this meticulous nature that shows up in Aminah’s physical work, where you can tell she was working as a means to chase down these obsessions that were consistently unfurling, and not holding herself back.”

The same could easily be said of Abdurraqib, who has embraced his pen to fearlessly address everything from the complex emotions that arose within him after Columbus police shot and killed Black teenager Ty’re King on the same East Side streets on which Abdurraqib once played, to the indefatigable feelings of Black joy central to his most recent and best book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, released in March. Similar obsessions will certainly drive Abdurraqib’s next book, There’s Always This Year, which will tackle his formative years growing up with basketball in the late 1990s, and which he plans to start writing early next year, roughly the same time his Minnesota Timberwolves near the midpoint of yet another Abdurraqib-predicted 82-0 season.

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It helps, of course, that Abdurraqib has an innate ability to remain focused on the daily act of creation, not allowing himself to be caught up in the deserved drumbeat of praise that has only gotten louder by the year. In addition to the MacArthur news, Abdurraqib was named a 2021 National Book Awards finalist for A Little Devil in America, and in July he joined Tin House Press as editor-at-large, a position in which he recently acquired his first book, the debut memoir from Ohio writer Prince Shakur. Oh, and in August his face appeared as the focal point in a large mural by artist Bryan Christopher Moss, which is located on the west-facing wall of 1450 E. Main St., not far from where Abdurraqib grew up.

“The last two years, I think I’ve been able to leap, in a way. And I’m thankful that I’m not done growing, and that I’m not comfortable,” Abdurraqib said. “I’m now officially in my late 30s. … And I get that that’s not old, in any sense. But in my teens and 20s, I grew up feeling like I knew everything, and to know everything was to get to a sort of freedom or salvation. But it is getting older that brings me happily to a place of realizing I don’t really know anything, or that the things I do know are not always useful. … I could ramble forever about what I do know, but eventually we’re going to get tired of talking about concerts from the 1980s or vintage magazine covers.”

This realization, which Abdurraqib has grown into over time, has also involved learning to set aside his “very real rage and cynicism … and to reach for something better,” he said.

“I used to get so discouraged because I thought it was solely on me to quote-unquote ‘fix things,’” continued Abdurraqib, who said part of what he has worked on over these last two, anguish-filled years is to realign his relationship with pleasure, which he said had been at dire risk of fracturing permanently. “I moved back to the city [in 2016] and I was just so angry and so heartbroken, and I had some visibility, so I was like, ‘I have to do this, or I can do this, or I can do this, or I can do this.’ And as I get older, there’s not just a humility, but a reality … that I’m not doing anything unique. Anything that I’m dreaming, someone is dreaming up better, and I want to be alongside those folks.”

This deeply ingrained idea will guide how Abdurraqib approaches the MacArthur prize, which comes with a $625,000 no-strings grant distributed over five years. He envisions using the money, in part, to benefit the local communities with which he feels a deep kinship: the unhoused, the vulnerable, the marginalized and others who live outside of the traditional power structures within the city.

“In terms of specifics, I know BQIC (Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective) for a long time has been looking for a place to set up shop,” said Abdurraqib, stressing that his intention is to work with groups that have already established a presence in the spaces he hoped to impact. “My hope is I can connect with them again and see if it is possible that I can help in some way.”

If and when these things do happen, however, don’t expect them to be accompanied by any fanfare.

“I’m someone who does my best work relatively quietly,” Abdurraqib said. “Maybe not my writing work or my performance work, but I think beyond that, because I don’t just believe in taking a victory lap, or the centering of oneself when purporting to do work that touches many. I think I do my best work and my most careful work from a place of small and silent movements. And, sure, that’s maturity, but it’s also a happy ceding of ground to my better impulses that have always been there but maybe had not been as tapped into as they should have been.”