“I feel close to my roots in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever felt”
By Kevin Smokler
In his four books of poetry, essay, and biography, Hanif Abdurraqib connects forms of music and culture America calls its own with the Black genius practitioners of that music and the white racist violence inseparable from its creation. We want, even crave, the beauty and transcendence of a Sam Cooke or a Josephine Baker as part of our national story. Abdurraqib’s work also reminds us that, as a nation, we lie and forget the bigotry and cruelty just as foundational to that story.
A proud native and current resident of Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib usually begins where he began. But the lens of his work is equally midwestern and national, instead of turning away from one for the other. His debut poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016) was a finalist for the Erik Hoffer Book Prize (honoring excellence in small press publications), while his second, 2019’s A Fortune For Your Disaster, won the Academy of American Poets Lorne Marshall Prize. That same year, his biographical meditation Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. The notes here as well as the essays in his 2017 collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (An NPR and Chicago Tribune Book of the Year, among others) are built from the tools of poetry, images repeated in alternate contexts, lines fashioned from rhythm as much as for argument. “Not a day has sounded the same since I read him” wrote Greil Marcus in the Village Voice.
Now Abdurraqib has written A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, his most expansive project yet. In a series of chapters labeled “movements,” Little Devil holds its attention on historical moments of Black excellence in music, sport, and dance. The author’s story is here too, one of sweaty live music venues, crowded parties, the Columbus punk scene, movements of his own body through space. Themes echo from his earlier books, but the direction feels new: America’s national destruction of Blackness, right alongside its envy of Black achievements. This is not a secret or alternative telling of American history. It is the rhythm of America. It is who we are.
I spoke to Abdurraqib over the phone on a Tuesday afternoon. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
KS: One of the things I notice in your work is how strongly you identify with being from Columbus, Ohio, and at the same time time iris in and out from a local to a national perspective and back again.
HA: Particularly for Black folks I know…regional explanations of regional metaphor shift. I don’t experience the cold in the same way that even Northern Ohioans experience the cold because there’s no lake effect. There’s something I love about Cleveland writers, the metaphor and the imagery used to help people, to guide people to an understanding of winter or to an understanding of something cold, right? There’s a vastness to the way that Gwendolyn Brooks writes, in my mind. Or there’s a vastness to even the writing of and around [Chicago] that feels really vast because Chicago sprawls in so many ways. So yeah, I would be a different writer, which is to say, I would have a different understanding of the world at my disposal.
I’m someone who grew up immersed in and consuming a lot of media that came from the coasts, that treated me as though I had a rich understanding of every way that a West Coast rapper raps about low riders and dings on the car, right? …You can’t do an aside in a rap song and explain to me the Midwest with dings, really. There’s no dingers on anyone’s cars here. I had to watch the videos and get an understanding for what that ecosystem was like, but it was presented to me as though I understood it already. It makes sense that I should be able to write my corner of the Midwest as though it is everyone’s corner, as though it is everywhere.
KS: In both the new book and your essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, you make those shifts in perspective even within the boundaries of a single chapter.
HA: I fully believe that there is a history of a place, and there’s a history of a people, that don’t end or begin in one moment. I am in Columbus by virtue of the fact that my father could not find a job in New York and then tried to find a job in Providence and then could not and moved to Columbus, Ohio. In the book, I talk about place as something that happens to us. When I think about the city, despite my affection for it, it’s something that happened to me. And with that in mind, I think I have to write about it as though it is a series, something in a series of events or histories or lives.
This land existed with people upon it before it was even named Columbus, Ohio… If we’re talking about the history of a place and understanding the interconnected nature of history, to live in a place named after Christopher Columbus is a jarring and frankly upsetting reminder of that interconnectedness. And so, the interest and investment I have in weaving in and out of perspectives mostly comes because I’m trying to remind myself that my presence in a place by itself is not necessarily special.
KS: Reading your work, I feel as though the same thing happens in a relationship between the past and the present. The past always seems close to where we are right now.
HA: I think about this all the time. So much relies on convincing people that much of the violence that the country and its actors are complicit in happened a long time ago, a capital-L long time ago…so long ago that there is actually no one living or breathing impacted by those violences. This rhetoric extends before [the Capitol riots on] January 6 and will extend after, undoubtedly, but at least a rhetoric like you saw on January 6, where so many people were like, “Well, America is not who we saw today.” Because that relies on convincing people that today materialized out of nowhere, that it is not braided into a series of other days that came before it and a series of other days that’ll come after it.
I don’t want to use the term gaslighting because I do think that what I’m getting at is something different, and I believe gaslighting is a word that has very real weight that I want it to maintain. But what I’m saying is that so much of my work is trying to crawl back to history, both my own and the history that my living is kind of encased in, by virtue of being a Black person in America. And not only by way of confirmation that yes, there has been violence and yes, there’s been anguish and yes, there’s been pain, but also in confirmation that there’s been a great deal more than that in my lineage, and in the lineage of many others, that is really iridescent and stunning and so irresistible to this very same country that the country likes to try on that essence and outfit itself in it without giving proper credit to the inventors.
KS: The theme of Black performance is an incredibly rich one, but it feels like most examples you cite are of Midwestern Blackness. Was that intentional?
HA: I’m drawn to the depictions and explorations of Midwest Blackness, because that’s just where my fascinations lie. And so, I think without even thinking about it, I can go down those roads pretty easily. And especially when thinking about Ohio, or thinking about Chicago, thinking about Detroit, these kinds of places that I’ve orbited…So that’s like never an organizing principle, but I think that I just flowed into it really easily without even trying.
KS: I don’t think as a culture we talk enough about Michael Jackson being a Midwesterner or give Soul Train enough credit as being deeply rooted in the Midwest.
HA: Well, I’d personally claim all of them.
KS: Yeah, so do I.
HA: I think it would require a reckoning with the multitudinous nature of Blackness, which it feels to me that at least some of America is not really prepared to do. They may not be prepared to for a long time. But it requires a deconstruction of an idea about what the Midwest is and how it, like so much of the fantasy of America, relies on people who cast bad faith blankets over regions.
To say that Prince is from the Midwest and Soul Train is from the Midwest and that Funk music was born out of Dayton, Ohio and all of these things I think would require an understanding…of migration and how Black people in America ended up in the Midwest and spread out across many Midwests.
KS: [Former Boxing Heavyweight Champion] Buster Douglas is the centerpiece of your chapter on sports as a kind of black performance, a movement of the body through space. I will confess, until I finished reading The Little Devil in America, I had either forgotten or never knew that Buster Douglas was from Columbus.
HA: He’s another Midwesterner who I feel like does not get associated with where he’s from, despite the fact that boxing is so regional. Boxing is really the sport of place. Buster Douglas is someone who feels like one of ours, but because there are people who maybe don’t know him as well as an Ohioan, it really makes people here, I think, claim him that much more ferociously, which I kind of love.
The thing I loved about Buster Douglas was when—and I put this in the book—when they asked him what his plan was with Tyson, he just said, “Well, I think I’m going to hit him.”
KS: Let me circle back to another essay from They Can’t Kill Us, because the topic comes up at the end of the new book, which is your history with the Columbus punk scene. Punk has a very complicated relationship with its own racial diversity and whom we feel as Americans we can assign anger to and who gets to display it publicly.
HA: I think it is important for the anger of Black people to be seen as something that serves in a multitude of ways. Sometimes the anger and rage of Black people is a tool of protection to keep other Black people safe and to keep other Black people loved and cared for, and to paint all rage as something unworthy of being felt by someone Black, or to paint rage as something that is a problem, I think ignores and negates the fact that much of the rage I’ve seen Black people exhibit is in the service of care.
So much of this does revolve around who gets to be angry and who gets to revel in their anger and who gets to have their anger romanticized, even. But in the book I wanted to just be like, “Yo, I’ve been around some angry Black folks. I have survived some angry Black folks, I’ve been an angry Black person.” And I think it’s important to say that. It was important to me to say that and to say, through their anger, they were no less worthy.
KS: One of the lies we tell ourselves about punk is that it’s a hermetic musical form not based on or in conversation with any other. And that’s never true. In the Ohio punk scene you grew up in, what other musical forms was punk in dialogue with?
HA: Oh, in the Midwest, under the umbrella of punk and hardcore and even ska a little bit in some ways. I think so much of it in the era I came up in was still paying homage to rap music, underground rap especially. A lot of the kids I was in a crew with were also Black kids. So I came up with punk kids who were also…passing mix tapes around, like rap mix tapes.
I felt like so much of the work was in conversation with some of the stuff I was already listening to in terms of hardcore hip hop and underground hip hop and any music that attempted to present a mechanism for escape or an understanding that the world we’re living in isn’t the world in its final form.
KS: Little Devil is a much larger book in scope than They Can’t Kill Us or Go Ahead in the Rain. But it’s constructed very much in the same way. Do you inherently see your work as little chunks making up a larger whole or is it coincidence that the three books I’ve mentioned have all kind of organized themselves in that way?
HA: I think the way my brain works, connectivity is priority. So I prioritize connectivity and assume that if my brain is processing a lot of smaller ideas, in a manner where they are floating, then I’m almost required to search for connective tissue. And I’m not only required, I’m actually actively craving it.
The biggest question I’m always chasing is, Why did this come to my mind in this moment and what is it swimming towards that I can’t see yet? And usually, through research, I find that answer through the delightful process of falling into a rabbit hole and allowing myself to not crawl out. Allow myself to continue to fall, instead of being like, “Oh, I’m wasting time.” The rabbit hole is where I find the thread that I can use to pull all these things together.
KS: As a writer, do you feel close to home or far from it?
HA: Oh, I always feel close to home. I live in the neighborhood…near the neighborhood I grew up in. I feel close to my roots in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as I’m aging into the comfort of my home and my neighborhoods and the people that I love here. And so, I feel perhaps closer to home than I’ve ever felt. ■
Kevin Smokler has written four books, including Brat Pack America (2016), and directed the 2019 documentary Vinyl Nation. He is a proud son of the American Midwest (Ann Arbor, Michigan to be exact. Detroit three generations back).
Cover image: Hanif Abdurraqib in Columbus. Photo by Benjamin Willis.
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