Voice of Columbus: Hanif Abdurraqib

Joel Oliphint
Hanif Abdurraqib

The last weekend in February — when toilet paper was plentiful, sanitizer was for germaphobes and Amy Acton wasn’t a household name — poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib flew home to Columbus from Iowa City, where he was teaching a graduate-level course at the University of Iowa’s storied program.

The Crew season opener on Sunday, March 1, brought him back to town. Abdurraqib, who grew up on the East Side, has been a diehard Crew fan since his early teens, when the team made its 1996 debut. He gets excited about all things Crew (well, almost all; he’s frustrated by the controversial deal over the new stadium). Abdurraqib roots hard for some other teams (Minnesota Timberwolves, the Blue Jackets), but none are as important to him as the Crew.

“If the Timberwolves lose another game, it's like, ‘Cool, cool. What are we doing for lunch tomorrow?’ But the Crew is still that team where, when they are doing well, I feel good. It kind of lives inside me,” Abdurraqib said at a German Village coffee shop the morning before the team's opening match. “When they do poorly, I'm not depressed, but... it does weigh.”

For a piece inThe Columbus Anthology, a new collection of essays from Belt Publishing and Trillium, Abdurraqib ruminates on the Crew as a “unifying force” in Columbus. “A home game is a place where you can come and see yourself reflected both on the field and in the stands,” he writes.

Abdurraqib’s profile has skyrocketed in the last few years. About 75,000 people follow him on Twitter, where he tweets about the NBA, writing, music, the Pierce Cleaners sign, poetry, Grandpa’s Cheesebarn and plenty more. But Abdurraqib didn’t gain all those followers by aspiring to be a social media influencer. He wrote, and his vulnerable, culturally incisive poems and prose resonated with readers. Abdurraqib’s critically lauded books — most recentlyA Fortune for Your Disaster (2019),Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest(2019) andThey Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us(2017) — end up on multiple best-of-the-year lists and win prestigious literary awards.

And so, now, he’s firmly in the category of Prominent Writer from Columbus. People look to him for his takes. When he speaks, his voice carries far beyond the 270 outerbelt. And while Abdurraqib feels unequipped to be in such a position, he’s also fully aware of what it means, and he wants to use it for the good of the city, which sometimes means pointing out the things that are wrong with it. In that same Crew-themed Anthology essay, Abdurraqib wrestles with the uglier parts of Columbus, writing, “There is no way to romanticize how a city can eat its own, and who it leaves behind in the process.”

“I think that it is kind of useless for me to write romantically about Columbus and beautifully about Columbus if I am not also taking action to fight for a city that everyone, at the very least, can feel a part of and be a participant in,” said Abdurraqib, who came to that conclusion soon after the death by suicide of local activistMarShawn McCarrel. “He was someone who I wrote alongside and knew well. He was such a beautiful writer, such an immensely skilled writer. And he wrote about the city that he loved, and then fought for a city that other people could also love. So I think that's where my work is now. I do want to talk about the things I love about Columbus. I do want to be romantic about all this. And I do want to be generous in my writing about Columbus, but it falls flat if I'm not also thinking towards actions that can afford other people the opportunity to participate in the city in a way that feels generous.”

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The tough part, though, is figuring out where to focus those actions. In the months following the 2016 presidential election, Abdurraqib was inspired by the wild energy of activists pouring into the streets. But he soon realized that all-encompassing passion could also lead to burnout, exhaustion or worse.

“This large-scale, resist-everywhere idea — it doesn't feel emotionally sustainable. I was thinking about MarShawn with that, too, and how this work weighs on people,” he said. “What did feel sustainable to me was, if I was going to live here, and I was going to love living here and commit to living here — which I am — then I had to be the best version of myself for the city.”

To focus his energy, Abdurraqib (who's also an occasional Alive contributor), simplifies his mission for Columbus into a three-step process: “Defining where my people are, deciding what their needs are, and taking action.”

Sometimes this meansasking people to donate to the family of Julius Tate, Jr., a 16-year-old who was shot and killed by police (Tate’s girlfriend,Masonique Saunders, was charged with his murder). Sometimes it’sa plea to sign a petition asking Ohio State to cancel a scheduled “force science” training for police (the university latercanceled the training session).

“If I can get the ear, even briefly, of someone who has the ear of President Drake at Ohio State, that would be stupid for me not to do that,” he said. “I can't sit here and wring my hands, like, ‘What does this mean for me? Will I never get to guest lecture at Ohio State?’ … My personal consequences are often really small when compared to the larger implications for what something means for a city.”

Some of the injustices are on a smaller scale. Abdurraqib, who played soccer at Beechcroft High School and at Capital University, would like to coach a youth soccer team — partially because it would be fun, but also as a way to give back to the city. He wants to be the kind of coach he didn't often have growing up.

The younger generation provides constant inspiration for Abdurraqib, who is a frequent presence in high schools around Columbus. Every year he looks forward to the Columbus City Schools District Poetry Slam, which he deems the most exciting annual event in town.

“I'm really interested in how creative work is sitting in young folks who have not become overly cynical yet, or who are still detached from the kind of irony that might prevent someone from writing fully,” he said.

And he continues to put down roots in Columbus. Truth be told, the Crew match wasn’t the only thing bringing Abdurraqib back home that last weekend in February. He was also trying to wrap up the process of buying a house. He wants to be home as much as possible, which sometimes means saying no to opportunities.

“If folks want to really work with me in any capacity, they gotta work with me here,” he said. “I think that sends a message to people that this person who is creative and who you are excited about is living in a place with other creative people that they are excited about, and they don't want to depart from that place. I love Columbus not only because I work well here, but because a lot of people work well here, and I am moved to support them and collaborate with them and learn from them.”

“I think people imagine that whenever someone has any kind of national success, they're going to leave a place to go to where they can capitalize on it, [like] Los Angeles or New York,” Abdurraqib continued. “But I don't need TV shows made out of my books. I don't need a hosting gig on a web show or whatever. I don't need these things to be happy. What I need to be happy is a city I love that is also sustainable for folks at the margins, and I want to be able to write. I want to be here and write.”