On the morning of October, 11, 2018, poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib spoke with students on the St. Lawrence University campus, where the subjects ranged from Kanye West to Black Lives Matter to Abdurraqib’s extensive sneaker collection. After the Q&A, Nicole Roché, who teaches a class about storytelling and identity in the first-year program at St. Lawrence, interviewed Abdurraqib about his work and about his experiences talking with young people in America.
<< NR: You just got into town. It’s warm and rainy. The leaves are falling. You just had a Q&A session with St. Lawrence students and lunch with a few more. How are you feeling today? >>
AR: How am I feeling? I feel good. Back home, it hasn’t gotten cold enough for the leaves to start changing yet. Flying down, descending into Ottawa, you could kind of see the tops of the trees, and that was really thrilling and uplifting and heartening for me. I really like the fall. Columbus gets it a bit later because of the weather there. It’s great when it happens there, but to come to a place where it’s already in full swing has been really exciting. I was going to go out later and take a picture of the leaves, just because it seems so unreal. Columbus had a short fall last year, so I didn’t really get to see any [leaves] until very late. It feels good. It feels good to be here, to be engaging with young students. Engaging with students about the things that are important to them is really exciting for me and how I kind of stay mentally sharp.
<< As a cultural critic who’s very active on Twitter, I know you read a lot of news. It’s definitely been an intense news week, between the battle over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the conviction of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in the murder of Laquan McDonald. Hurricane Michael is ravaging Florida as we speak. Last Friday [Oct. 5] you tweeted,
“the news cycle has been consistently wild for a really long time but every now and then there’s a consecutive few hours that really and truly raise the bar for how overwhelming it can all feel.
I am going for a long run.”
I think a lot of people have been feeling that way lately. Many of us end up either “binging” on news to an unhealthy degree, or maybe worse, turning it off. How have you been processing the news these past few weeks? Are there times when you just have to turn it off? >>
I’m often thinking about at what cost do we consume news. The cost that does to our bodies, our minds. And conversely, what would be the cost of not engaging the news at all. I find myself often, knowing my limits in turning off the news when I hit my limits, but I also feel a responsibility to be engaged, particularly around Kavanaugh. I am someone who could engage with that news and not have a triggering or unhealthy reaction to it. I know a lot of my peers, specifically women, specifically survivors, could not, and they were relying on people to watch and report back to them, to act as like a go-between, because for them enduring that news cycle would be a different kind of horrific.
For me it was also horrific, but it was something I could endure. Much like I know that I cannot always endure the news of a black person’s murder. What is interesting to me is how within my friend groups we’ve set up sort of small news networks with each other, that both check in on each other when we know the news will be affecting us and keep each other guarded from the news that might harm us. But it’s abnormal to have to undergo those filters in any society. What I worry about is, with each raising of the bar that a news cycle has, a new normal is created. So a news cycle where only two immensely daunting things are happening feels like, well, this is a bit of a reprieve—and that’s not normal. There’s always bad news somewhere. It’s important for me to consider news as not just local or national, but global, and there’s always bad news somewhere. But I do remember when it was easier to manage. Now it feels like it is harder to manage and there are those who bank on it being hard to manage, who cash in on the fact that it’s hard to manage, those who profit from chaos, and that is also hard to come to terms with.
<< In “Black Life on Film,” an essay from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, you write about your memories of watching the Rodney King beating on television, and the impact that had on you at a very young age. Lately I—and a lot of people—have been thinking back on the Anita Hill testimony during Clarence Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearings. I was wondering if you watched Hill’s testimony as a child, and if so, how you’re reflecting on it now? >>
No, I didn’t [watch Hill’s testimony], because I didn’t understand it. I had a vague understanding of what sexual harassment was. I knew it was bad. But I did not know what was at stake. I did not know how sexual harassment could impact a life, a career, the body, the autonomy of a person. I didn’t really understand all those things. But, of course as I grew older I had the resources to look backwards and unravel the confusion I had about Anita Hill. You know, everyone wanted to compare Anita Hill and Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford, and of course that makes sense on its face, but even echoing outward, right? These two women—there are similar things because of the men who were wielding power, or attempting to wield power, the men that they bravely faced down—there are similarities. Even with all the similarities, does not account for society’s obsession with excusing men in power at all costs. Or not holding us, and by us, I mean men, not holding us accountable to understanding what being in power means, and what wielding any power means for responsibility, a responsibility to ideally foster a type of equity among gender and identity that we don’t always see. Yes Anita Hill and Dr. Ford have similarities that I think were worth mining for, but so much of the analysis stopped at the similarities because of the Supreme Court and not, they are both two brave women who attempted to hold men in power accountable in a society that has no interest in holding men accountable, but specifically, men who have power.
<< You said today in your Q&A that you’re writing for people “who always knew the world was fucked up,” not just people who think it’s suddenly gone wrong in the Trump era. Nonetheless your work feels so fresh, so vital, so in-the-now. I’m curious about your writing process in terms of reflecting on current events. How do you know when you’re ready to take on a subject? >>
I don’t view myself as a reporter in the moment. So I’m not reporting on the news as it arrives, or the world as it arrives. Instead I’m reporting on my curiosities with the world as they arrive, which happens all the time. But I also know that in order for me to write my way towards, or out of, or into a particular space, I need to be able to figure out where I sit in that as the teller of that story, which to me—that is the hard part. I don’t see myself or my experience as separate from the telling of these stories, even if they are current events, because there is no universal “we,” there is no universal “us,” there is no universal “our.” So I need to each time decide, for whom am I telling this story, and how can I best articulate it? And I fail in that sometimes. But that decision comes before I just rush into a story and say, “I’m reporting this to some universal audience,” because I’m not. I’m trying to be super clear about who I’m speaking to and why I’m speaking to them. If I’m doing the work of trying to call a group of people into a room, they need to know why they’re there. That is the work that I am doing before I write. So the timeline varies. I wrote a piece about the protest at JFK [the day after President Trump signed the executive order banning refugees from predominantly Muslim countries] that was written an hour after I got home from the protest, but that was because it was in the spirit of the day. That protest was spontaneous and almost emerged from the ground and from the air and from the skies and it felt very in the moment, and I wanted to go home and write into that moment immediately because my feelings were directly in that moment, and then I did not need to necessarily work to define the “we” I was speaking to, because they were the people that were there, so, it varies.
<< Tell me about your recent experiences visiting college campuses and speaking with young people. What are some of the recurring questions they ask? Which ones have felt particularly striking or crucial in our current cultural moment? >>
I get asked about Kanye West a lot. Which is interesting because I’m getting asked about Kanye West by people who are attempting to make sense of Kanye West now, or Kayne West maybe from post-2008 to now, but I am someone who has had to work to make sense of Kanye West from 2003 to now. The greater question I’m being asked inside of that question is, how can I fight through this soundtrack or these memories and reckon with this current state of things with this person? Help me make sense of how I felt good about this person once, and now I do not. I feel like that’s the question underneath that question.
I also just get asked the general question of “What do we do?” And again, I think the “we” is not universal. So I’m always like, “Which ‘we’ do you mean?” I can’t tell anyone what to do beyond myself. I’m getting a lot of questions about separating art and artists, which goes hand in hand with the Kanye West question, really, because what people are really asking is, help me do the math on my passion for this artist versus what this artist has done, which again is not something I can answer, singularly. But I think those are all topics. What I think people are really wrestling with now is a need to hold close the things that bring them joy, and then, when those things, or those people or those songs or those movies get some evil attached to them, the question then becomes, what do I do now?
<< Do you feel like they’re asking you for permission to keep that artist close? >>
Of course. And I don’t have that, because it’s something I still wrestle with all of the time. But I will say this: I’m always heartened by going on college campuses and seeing where at least interest in passions are. Politically and not. Largely, politically, I think we’re just in a climate where young people are so much more called to activism than they were when I was younger. And there are more ways for that activism to be performed. There are bridges that can be reached across via the internet that make at least national and global activism more accessible to young people, and there’s an excitement there that I’m really happy about following.
<< Listening to your comments about Kanye West just now, I was reminded of your discussion of Ice Cube in “Black Life on Film” where you talk about how he’s representative of the complications in these men you’ve known who are ultimately flawed, but you still have a relationship with them. >>
Yes, and I think you can let those people go, and you can let those songs go, and you can let those movies go, you can let all that go—and I think it’s important to let those things go when the time comes. You can still hold close what those things taught you about yourself. What I learned about myself from N.W.A, for example, or what I learned about the type of reporting that N.W.A was doing, still serves me, despite the fact that I have less of a use for them now than I did.
<< Do you sense that there’s a gap between the kinds of conversations young people, students or otherwise, want to be having, and the opportunities that make it possible for them to meaningfully engage with others in those conversations? >>
Yes, and I think it’s because young people’s voices aren’t taken seriously. Youth is taken seriously, or the aesthetics of youth, especially when performed by those who are no longer young—well, “young” is a spectrum but—no longer twenty or twenty-one. Or they’re seen as novelties. Like, “Wow, look at this exemplary, young smart person,” when behind that single young smart person is a whole group of more young smart people. So I think there’s not enough enabling of the young voice, and there’s not enough care given to the ideas of young people. Because not enough people see an exchange of knowledge or an exchange of information with someone younger than them as what it is, which is lineage-building. I would not be the writer I am if people older than me didn’t put me up on things, and take my voice seriously. Granted, I’m not ages older than the students here, but I think it’s important that I take their voices seriously. And exchange ideas, and exchange information, and imagine our conversations as an exchange and not as me sitting on high telling them what they need to know. Because they definitely have some game that I need too. Truthfully, this exchange is lineage building. It’s building a generational bridge that is almost undoubtedly going to help us get free somewhere along the way.
<< You said earlier today, “I’m not saying college is a scam… but don’t fall for the hamster wheel of perseverance.” I’m right there with you, in so many ways, despite having completed quite a lot of schooling myself. I have seen, and I have been of one, those disenchanted students—I think you referred to yourself as having become “de-mystified” by your time as an undergrad. For now, at least, the machine of the college industrial complex is still lurching along in this country. In light of that, what can educators like myself do to make college more meaningful, more useful, more real, dare I say more “educational” for our students? >>
I don’t know. I wish I knew. As someone who’s really far removed from college—I teach an MFA workshop, but I didn’t get an MFA—I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer. I talk to people who took a lot of classes and did a lot of work in college that did not serve them in their real lives. Instead, what has served them in their real lives was the ideas and concepts and passions that were built outside of a classroom, and so that is why I question, is the machinery of college necessary at all? For learning, maybe, but there’s so much access and so much radicalization happening in self-education. I don’t know, it’s going to sound like I’m trashing college. I’m sure that it’s useful for young folks somewhere. I just haven’t been to college in a long time, and I don’t plan on going back.
Every single thing I’ve picked up that’s aided me as a writer and as a thinker happened outside of college. And I best learned to love the complexities of both me and my people in a way that was not afforded me in college. I think that college is great as a space for organizing and activism and learning ways around that, and finding a voice, almost certainly, but beyond that I’m never sure.
<< Let’s talk about that idea of self-education that you mentioned. Because my next question was, what responsibilities do students have to their own educations, whether inside or outside of the classroom? How did your own self-education process work for you? >>
I think that I was allowed to be kind of foolish about my pursuit of my passions. I think foolish is a good thing to say, because I followed them at the expense of other parts of life that folks would consider more practical, and I found a cohort of people who were also engaging in that kind of foolish pursuit. And I think college has to be good for that. It has to be good for finding your people. And by your people I mean the people who are at least engaged in the pursuit of some wild curiosities that you might not reach the end of in a classroom. So often, I think, college feeds into this idea that to unearth a curiosity and then to chase it is based off of production. Like, based off what someone can produce to get to the end result. But the best curiosities are chains, never-ending chains of production. And production looks different on each link of that chain. Sometimes it is writing, but sometimes it’s a conversation, sometimes it’s listening, sometimes it’s creating visual art—you have to open yourself up to whatever journey it takes to get to the end of your passions. Or not even the end, whatever journey it takes to allow your passions to bloom more passions. And that’s not always based off of production. I don’t know if that answers the question, but I’m often thinking about that.
<< I’m curious about the structure of some of your essays. Sometimes, reading your work, I think of Million Dollar Baby—the Clint Eastwood film that looked like it was about boxing but was really about assisted suicide. I remember looking back at the advertisements at the time and thinking, that’s pretty clever, because maybe they’re getting people in to see this movie who most need to see it. Now I’m not accusing you of bait-and-switch, but I think some people similarly might be pulled in by your work because it’s short and welcoming and about a seemingly light topic like basketball or Carly Rae Jepsen or Fall Out Boy. But then we start reading, and it’s really about suicide, or different forms of “digestible” blackness. What is your intention with those shifts? Is there an ideal reader you are hoping to move? Or are you just following your curiosities again? >>
Never an ideal reader. But my ideal piece has one entryway but several exits. And so I am trying to responsibly decorate that entryway as best as I can. I’m trying to, for example, point to a door and say, follow me to this door, and then make that door inviting and warm, but also say, inside here, there will be comforts and discomfort, hopefully. But, there will be several exits. Sometimes several exits inside of the piece. Sometimes you may exit the door of grief and enter another room of joy. And sometimes you may exit that room of joy and enter a room that asks you to reckon with your complicity in some oppression. Because I am also reckoning with my complicities. The reason I don’t really think about audience or ideal readers is because I hope that my writing is such that allows for a reader to feel as though we are in conversation together. So there’s not a distance—a trust is being built. Which is me saying, I am not preaching to you and ignoring my flaws. I promise you, I too understand that I am flawed. And if you trust me that I know that, we can be a little more honest with each other.
<< This morning at the Q&A you spoke about the importance of people, especially Americans, getting more honest. It reminded me of the line in your essay “Searching for a New Kind of Optimism” where you write, “Even now, I’m not as invested in things getting better as I am in things getting honest.” I remember being very attached to that line as I was reading your work for the first time. Can you say a bit more about that now? >>
I think that perhaps both honesty in the way that people make use of their various guilt, myself included, has to come under some kind of scrutiny, because I think that any country built on oppression, it’s going to spend the rest of its existence lying to itself. Any country built on violent oppression is going to have centuries of lies in order to just stay living, right? Because the truth will have to shift the ecosystem. For example, there’s a biopic about Harriet Tubman in the works. And I thought, gosh, I really don’t know if I want to see that. Because I think people love the idea of Harriet Tubman, but don’t really want to reckon with the labor of Harriet Tubman, because to reckon with the labor of Harriet Tubman means that we have got to be really honest about what it was to free slaves on the underground railroad, why that was a necessity, and the horrors of that practice. We can romanticize the freeing of slaves, but at some point we’re going to have to get to the base argument, or the base conversation, that there were slaves that needed to be freed. Every lie creates a new distance, and we are at a point as a country where we have lied so much and created so much distance that to even acknowledge that this is a country founded on violence, on slavery, on genocide, is like, surprising to folks, or is like, why are we talking about that? When it’s like, why is this not deeply written into every bit of this country’s code so that this is not surprising anyone?
<< It’s the lineage-building working against truth. >>
That’s it, right? Because for some Americans, it’s everywhere. And for others, they would prefer it to be nowhere. And in the middle of that, there’s a space that privileges the people wanting it nowhere. And that space is built largely out of myth, out of lies that are hard for people to reckon with.
You know, I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I’m from a place that has the name of a murderer, a genocidal murderer, who the country still celebrates with a day in his honor. There’s still a gigantic Christopher Columbus statue hovering over the downtown of Columbus. To bring this up creates a discomfort. When to me, the logical thing is, I need you to explain to me how our city benefits. I do get—I want to say that I do get that changing a city’s name is a lot of labor, and is probably not going to happen. I love Columbus, I love being there, I love living there, I have long since understood that changing a city’s name is just, a capital city at that—. There’s a place called White Settlement, Texas. People lobbied it being changed. I forgot the vote. Someone on Twitter put this up the other day. The vote to change the name in 2005 lost like 96 percent to 4 percent, 96 percent “no.” And so it’s an entrenched thing. I think even people in Columbus who understand Christopher Columbus was a terrible person would just be like, “Well, but this is our city’s name.” But that statue can surely go. We can surely airlift that statue and put it in the Scioto River. It’s wild to me that Columbus is split by a river that was established and named by indigenous folks, and yet hovering above that river is a statue of Christopher Columbus. And there’s no honest analysis of that, because an honest analysis of that shakes a foundation of comfort. And as a society we love our comforts.
<< It’s like the example you used in the Q&A. It’s easier to say that [former 49ers quarterback Colin] Kaepernick, or whoever, is protesting “the flag.” “He’s after what it means to be American.” And it’s like, yeah—>>
We should go after what it means to be an American. People need to start asking themselves, “What does it mean to be an American?” And then the next question should be, “What am I willing to give up?” Because I’m less interested in what it means to be an American and I’m more interested in what it means to be good, what it means to be responsible. And if those two things don’t go hand in hand, if I have to look at a column and see where they aren’t matching up, I’m down to do away with what it means to be an American in favor of what it means to be a good and responsible steward of any place I may be.
<< In the Q&A, you said you didn’t think it was the responsibility of NFL players like Kaepernick to protest injustices in our country, but you liked it when they did. How did you decide that speaking your truth was your responsibility? >>
For me, there’s too much at stake for not only me, but for the people I love. I think that—and again, this is systemic and has echoes for years—but I think something happened not only around the murder of Trayvon Martin but around the acquittal of George Zimmerman that shifted activism in our country for the foreseeable future. There was something about the publicity of that that was kind of horrifying, there was something about the brazen nature of George Zimmerman himself that was horrifying. It opened up a thing for me that said, “Well, silence was an option before, but silence is no longer an option.” And, not only that—it took seeing how people organized around that to say, my role is not just to fight for black men. There’s the saying, “No one’s free until everyone’s free.” That sounds good on paper, but to have that viscerally impact me was really something.
After Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown too, the rally cry became, “They’re killing unarmed black men,” and it was like, yes, true, but also black trans folks are being murdered, black women are being murdered, and people are showing up. So I think…much like the guitar player [who knows when and when not to play], my work then became about knowing when not to speak, and then making my speaking worthwhile when I do. There’s just too much at stake for too many people I love. And with that comes an awareness that I am not moving the world on my own. I think for some, they think, because I can’t move the world on my own, I need to be silent. But for me, to know that I cannot move the world on my own means that I can’t be silent. There is a chorus that I’m joining—that’s the whole thing. And who knows if that chorus will change the world, but I’m happy to hear it growing.
Banner image: Hanif Abdurraqib reads from his work as part of the St. Lawrence University Writers Series on October 11, 2018. (Photo credit: Nicole Roché)