Hanif Abdurraqib reclaims Columbus on his own terms

The celebrated poet, essayist and cultural critic reads from his staggering new book, ‘There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension,’ at King Arts Complex tonight (Monday, March 25).
Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif AbdurraqibKate Sweeney

In the weeks after Columbus police shot and killed 13-year-old Ty’re King in September 2016, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote an essay for Columbus Alive in which the poet, author and cultural critic unpacked the reality that he was raised on the same streets where King died, in a city that has a history of treating some of its residents as disposable.

“In all of this, I want to say that I grew up Black on the East Side of Columbus,” Abdurraqib wrote at the time. “I grew up Black on the East Side of Columbus and have run from police before. I have not always been good, but I have always been worthy of living and fighting to become better. I have touched that community and been touched by it, and the people who live in it are all worthy of life, even as their lives are ignored or seen as less worthy by the city that surrounds them.”

It’s an idea to which Abdurraqib returns in his remarkable new book, There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension, which uses sports as a launch point for the author to delve into everything from grief and aging to what it means to love your home even when it fails you and the perilously thin line that can exist between making it within a place and being consumed by it.  

This final point becomes jarringly clear when Abdurraqib writes about visiting the patch of sidewalk where plainclothes Columbus police officers shot and killed 23-year-old Henry Green in June 2016 – a pilgrimage that took place so soon after the shooting that Green’s blood had not yet been scrubbed from the sidewalk. In the passage, which stretches over a full page, Abdurraqib abandons punctuation, the words arriving in a furious rush as the author recalls his desire in that moment to see the concrete crack open and swallow the new condo developments and breweries and “mixed-use helltowers,” and his want to watch the mayor walk at night through the neighborhoods he had previously dismissed as war zones, and to have the city’s public school children attend classes in buildings equipped with proper heat and air conditioning, their educations not so consistently hindered by the whims of the seasons.

The writing is righteous and honest and visceral, and the unbroken way the sentences are laid out on the page created a physical response within this reader, to the point where I could feel my chest steadily compressing under the mounting weight of Abdurraqib’s words as I moved through the text. 

“At some point, for me, I decided I was going to write through this book – and particularly these parts – as I would speak them out loud,” Abdurraqib said in a mid-March interview at Upper Cup on Parsons, where he was preparing for the launch of an extended book tour that includes a hometown stop at King Arts Complex tonight (Monday, March 25). “And even before I drafted it, I remember thinking about these moments, and in particular going to that patch of concrete where Henry Green was murdered. And even as I was thinking about it, my heart rate went up and my palms started to sweat. And that was a signal to me that it would almost be a kind of betrayal to write this as politely and as structured as another writer might. … I’m writing through something visceral, and I had to ask, ‘How can I translate the way my literal body composition shifted while I consider this moment that I remember, that’s still very touchable to me? And how can I translate that to the page in a way that makes you, reader, perhaps feel your own body composition and your own internal meter and metronome shift?’”

Embedded within this passage, as well as in mentions of Casey Goodson, Julius Tate and Andre Hill, among others, is the idea that Abdurraqib’s own survival – let alone the reality that he has gone on to reached rarified air as both a New York Times best-selling author and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant – could be termed one of chance. “I think a lot of my quote-unquote ‘making it’ has felt accidental,” he said, his successes having arrived in the wake of a difficult upbringing that saw him spend time both in jail and unhoused. 

Abdurraqib recounts these years with unflinching honesty in There’s Always This Year, reflecting on everything from the sense of shame he felt when his older brother visited him in jail to the small kindnesses that allowed him to navigate life unhoused in Columbus, including the worker at the storage facility where he slept for a time who guarded his overnight presence even though it went against policy. Indeed, Abdurraqib’s prose is so heartfelt and generous throughout, the text so consistently close to the surface, that it’s almost surprising when he writes about how the elders in the poetry scene once instructed him to protect those more tender parts of himself from the public.

“And to be clear, there are some things I did not offer up in this book. But you hit a point where it’s like, do you want to be safe, or do you want to write a good book?” Abdurraqib said of his latest, an almost undefinable work that effortlessly blends all of the forms for which the writer has become known: poetry, sports writing, memoir, musical criticism, essay and cultural critique included. “And it took a lot of time to get here. … I think personal revelation has to be in service of the larger narrative. Otherwise, you’re just the person on the street corner yelling information about yourself that no one wants to hear, right? But it got to a point for me where it felt like I couldn’t write about the truth and the lies of a city and place without saying, ‘I’ve seen both of those.’ Because being unhoused in a place is to be either invisible or a nuisance. … And to be an invisible entity in a place, it means you can see its bruises and brutalities and beauties.”

In There’s Always This Year, Abdurraqib traces his evolving view of the city, which first introduced itself to him only as the small section of neighborhood framed by the window in his childhood bedroom and then gradually expanded from there, growing to include places such as the basketball court at nearby Scottwood Elementary. There, as a youngster, Abdurraqib would snag rebounds for local legends such as Kenny Gregory, who starred at Independence High School before going on to play for the Kansas Jayhawks, and whose presence ripples throughout the text alongside that of NBA star and Akron, Ohio native LeBron James. 

And while James serves as a recurring character, moving through life alongside Abdurraqib in the text – at one point, the revelation of Bron’s graying, early pandemic beard functions as a mirror for the writer’s growing awareness of his own aging – the all-star’s stature isn’t elevated above those with whom Abdurraqib shared a court at Scottwood. “We loved MJ but there were Michael Jordans on our block,” he writes. “There were Michael Jordans walking among us. Jordans four houses down. Jordans at the bus stop.”

For the first time, Abdurraqib also writes at length about his father, affording the elder a degree of hard-won grace as he addresses their complex relationship, which atrophied amid a battle of wills in the years that followed the death of Abdurraqib’s mother, who passed away when he was 13. 

“We are becoming alike in a lot of ways that I think I resisted for a long time,” Abdurraqib said of his father, who still lives in the same East Side home in which the author was raised. “I was so beholden to the idea of becoming my mother, but I have ideas of my mother that aren’t really fully realized because she’s been gone for so long, to where I don’t even know what being like my mother means. Sure, I know these broad strokes, where from my mother I learned a level of sensitivity and a level of care and a level of emotional awareness. … But I have a much more concrete understanding of what it is to be like my father – my father who is incredibly curious, my father who chases down his obsessions to the end of the Earth, my father who is deeply observant and quietly considerate of a great many things. Those are things I think I had attributed to coming from somewhere else, but they were from him. So, to have grace for him is really to have grace for the version of myself that is just tumbling towards him.”

These types of clear-eyed reflections are central to There’s Always This Year, with Abdurraqib gradually reframing his views on his family, his city and himself. The writer said he began to reconsider his relationship to Columbus, for instance, after he returned in late 2016 following a stretch when he lived in New Haven, Connecticut. At the time, he was newly divorced and contemplating where he wanted to spend the next phase of his life, kicking around the idea of moving to Providence, Rhode Island, Los Angeles or Chicago before realizing that he needed the familiarity of a city where he had previously carved out an identity of his own outside of marriage. And so, for 18 months he rented an apartment above the now-shuttered Tasi Cafe in Italian Village, battling depression while learning how to love his home in a new way, which he said included being honest about its flaws. 

“It was choosing to say, ‘I could have lived anywhere and I’m living here,’” he said. “And since I’m living here, I need to really commit to a new version of learning and loving this city that isn’t rooted in this cheerleading approach, which I think I took when I was in Connecticut, like, ‘Columbus! Columbus!’ … I think choosing a place back requires some accountability of that place.”

Along with this, Abdurraqib, who has embraced running as a mind-clearing part of his daily routine, has also staked his claim to parts of the city that were once forbidden to him. 

In our interview, the writer recalled how his father warned him and his brothers not to run in certain neighborhoods – Bexley being one of them – because of how a Black male running in those places could be interpreted by the people who lived there, particularly at night, and how this shameful reality could in turn put the youngsters in danger. 

“But now there’s something I enjoy about reclaiming that,” Abdurraqib said. “I’ll run wherever I want. And that is something that is freeing to me.”

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