Hanif Abdurraqib’s Poem, ‘How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This’

Ohio-based poet Hanif Abdurraqib. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The latest poem I’m digging into and excavating brings me back to my Buckeye roots, as it’s from Hanif Abdurraqib, who is from Columbus, Ohio. Abdurraqib floats between mediums, being a poet, an essayist and a cultural critic. He has the 2016 poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much; the 2017 essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us; the 2019 non-fiction book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Quest; and another poetry collection, 2019’s A Fortune for Your Disaster, according to the Academy of American Poets.

The poem is titled, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.” Here is an excerpt:

& lord knows I have been called by what I look like
more than I have been called by what I actually am &
I wish to return the favor for the purpose of this
exercise. which, too, is an attempt at fashioning
something pretty out of seeds refusing to make anything
worthwhile of their burial.

So, I’ve been doing these for a while and I never noticed the, “About This Poem,” feature the AAP does for its Poem-a-Day series. This poem was published as part of that series in 2018, and it has a great backstory from Abdurraqib. I won’t reproduce it in full, but in short, he was at a poetry reading where a black poet was talking about flowers, and a white woman in the audience whispered (so that he could overhear), “How can black people write about flowers at a time like this?”

That gives me chills. Something that happens with artists or journalists or a person of any vocation really, who are minorities or women, is that they are expected, it seems, to always produce through the lens of that identity. Shouldn’t a black journalist be covering race issues? Shouldn’t a female journalist do the breast cancer story? What’s it like to be X in a Y dominated field? So, then, when those individuals inevitability step out of that box they’ve been placed in, and enjoy other interests that have nothing to do with what was in the box, and doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the Big Issues™ going on in society, like the beauty of flowers, people take a step back and do either/both, “How can you talk about X when you’re a Y person supposed to be representing Z?” and “Whoa, hold on now. How can you talk about X when Y is happening?”

It’s sort of a perverse version of the “first world problems” meme. How can you complain about traffic in America when a famine is happening in Yemen? How can you talk about the joy of grilled cheese tacos from Taco Bell when thousands of people are dying due to a pandemic? How can you talk about the NBA when black people are being killed by police with impunity? Etc. etc.

That’s a silly rhetorical device for a variety of reasons, mainly, that human beings are complicated, the world is complicated, and there is nothing improper or inappropriate for anyone to have the Big Issues™, the little issues, and the non-issues in their head and on their mind at the same time. We can talk about what we want to talk about at any given time, and talking about whatever that thing is at that given time doesn’t diminish other stuff going on; it’s just what we want to talk about at that given time. And our particular identity, whatever that is, shouldn’t box us in even further.

I love that Abdurraqib’s poem here arose out of that sort of frustration and sentiment.

What is the black poet to be writing about ‘at a time like this’ if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower—that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes?

Hanif Abdurraqib

Beyond the meta reasons I love this poem, I also love it from the aesthetic standpoint of it’s almost impossible for me to read it without reading it like a Button Poetry spoken word poem. It’s lyrical in that way, and feels like it has that arc where it builds up like spoke word poetry does.

Also, it’s easy to overlooked the beginning because you start getting into the rhythm of the poem and the image of the dandelion, but whew, I love that opening, too. The idea of everything is a swamp, but hey, we’re digging our heels into the “good mud.” We’ve found some solace in the swamp.

The comparison to how easy it is to spread a dandelion’s seeds with one kiss and before morning with scattering his whole mind is striking, too. And how quick we are to size someone up, to make judgments, to assume the part is the whole rather than a part, and so on. It brings me back to the idea of complicated people, similar to how the dandelion is perhaps more complicated than the whimsical way in which we treat it, with a kiss of air and without a second thought.

Finally, one more thought: There’s nothing wrong with writing about flowers and evoking their beautiful imagery or other items related to nature and the beautiful world around us. If anything, writing about those things, despite all that’s going on between humans, is a helpful reminder of just how beautiful those things are. Nature is rejuvenating for a reason.

What do you think about this poem?

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