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I Don’t Know Any Longer Why the Flags Are At Half-Staff

By Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

I think I am breaking up with memory. again. I live
by only that which will still allow me

to do the living. The flag, for example, reminds me
to either feel fear or sadness, depending on how high

it is drawn along its metal spine. I guess I am not breaking up
with all memories: at the summer camp before 7th grade,

my homie Trey stole some rich boy’s sonic the hedgehog
underwear and ran them up the flagpole. They were covered in gold

rings. I woke up, and that was my country. I salute whatever cloth I must
in order to keep breathing. I hum every anthem through clenched

teeth. I am, still, a victim of familiar melody. Particularly when it is sung
right, by someone who comes from a long line of people who had to sing

for their meals. Here we are, mouths open in summer. The grief passes
through us without ceremony these days. effortless heartbreak.

I wonder, for a moment, if the land shook hard and rattled the flag
halfway down way back when it felt the arrival

of the first bullet / the first bomb / the first family
torn apart by the fangs of our endless war / the first mother crying

the dead’s name into her palms. I’m saying the flag has maybe
always been this way, and I’ve just recently become bored with

the optimism of pretending. In the hood, the dope boys come back
from a funeral and pour a 40oz of OE out at the center of the basketball court

until the bottle is half-full. Until the bottle is half-empty. Until the bottle
is half what it was before the news of death, and half ready to be consumed.

This, too, is how I walk. Half-empty. Half-full. Half-hearted. Fly,
but with a glance over my shoulder as I turn every block.

In the hood, there aren’t enough flags to know when the mourning
is supposed to be over. Or if the flag cuts through the wind and sings

back the name of your homie who got buried and didn’t make the news.
From my father’s window, a row of boys march the block, one hand

holding up their beltless denim. Saggin’ spelled backwards is niggas,
the white cop reminded us past curfew one night back in ’01.

Niggas. As in, some of my niggas wear their pants halfway
down their stiff legs. In memory of, in memory of, in memory.

Added: Friday, August 26, 2016  /  Used with permission.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in July 2016 by Button Poetry.

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