Acclaimed poet, cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib shares work and thoughts with GVSU Arts Celebration audience

Hanif Abdurraqib this week presented a GVSU Arts Celebration audience with a seamlessly connected narrative appreciating baldness, his father, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, the satisfaction of a good meal, the comfort of silence, the inevitable indications of aging and more as a way to guide everyone to the altar he wanted all to ponder: impermanence.

The rich, vivid storytelling, undergirded by larger themes, showed why Abdurraqib, an acclaimed poet, essayist and cultural critic is regarded as one of the top writers of his generation. He also was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.

"He has a remarkable ability to put America in a glass box and examine all of us from various angles," said Amorak Huey, associate professor of writing and chair of the GVSU Arts Celebration steering committee.

In a screenshot, a man gestures with his left hand while looking down as he reads aloud his words. He is sitting in front of a microphone.
Hanif Abdurraqib reads his work during the first part of the GVSU Arts Celebration lecture.

Abdurraqib closed out this year's community arts celebration with the stirring reading followed by an engaging conversation with Louis Moore, professor of history and author, whose areas of expertise include African American history, sports history and gender history.

During the virtual lecture event, Abdurraqib told audience members he wanted to read something new he had written, "In part because Dr. Moore writes so generously and thoughtfully about sports and Black athletes."

And with that, Abdurraqib started the narrative journey for the audience members, at first talking about the NBA legend Jordan and his baldness that made him cool, but then transitioning to the 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Contest where Jordan wasn't yet bald, but did make an impression with a dunk where he took off from the free throw line, seemingly suspended in air. 

Jordan never was as cool as he was after that dunk, Abdurraqib said: "Even now, I wish to touch the hem of that kind of cool."

Abdurraqib then took everyone through a world where he lovingly recalled watching his father, "a man who enjoyed a meal," look at his plate in anticipation of what he was going to enjoy first. And then he pondered aging through his father and grandfather – both bald in their later years – and through watching the facial changes in current NBA star James, who is about Abdurraqib's age, and through his own "gray stars poking through in the black solar system."

His wide-ranging conversation with Moore covered basketball past and present, the best coming of age movies for Black kids and collecting records – and the feeling of flipping through a stack of records and seeing the thing you wanted.

In a screenshot, a man smiles while looking into a computer screen. He is sitting in front of a microphone.
In a screenshot, a man smiles while looking straight ahead into the computer screen.
Hanif Abdurraqib, left, and Louis Moore, professor of history, had a conversation after Abdurraqib's reading.

Abdurraqib, who later described himself as an "affectionate listener" of music, said while he doesn't like to listen to music while he writes, he likes to edit to a lot of punk and replies to emails with Martha and the Vandellas and The Stylistics playing in the background.

Moore also told Abdurraqib that he was struck by how often Abdurraqib goes back to his childhood in his work, and asked him if that process was therapeutic.

Acknowledging how jarring it is to lose touch with childhood friendships, Abdurraqib added: "So much is to confirm to my present self that my past self lived a uniquely fulfilling life that was awash in love."


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