“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib — Amanda Hiber

Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017) is like no other book I’ve read. In essays that combine pop cultural criticism, sociopolitical commentary, and memoir, Abdurraqib cuts to the core of his subjects with sensitivity and eloquence. He never oversimplifies. The book is written in the wake of 21st-century traumas— Hurricane Katrina, killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the election of Donald Trump, and others—that have only augmented a historic sense of injury, loss, and defeat for black Americans like the author. “There is no moment in America when I do not feel like I am fighting,” he writes. “When I do not feel like I’m not pushing back against a machine that asks me to prove that I belong here.”

Several essays in the collection wrestle with Abdurraqib’s appreciation for cultural products and spaces made without regard for people like him. He exposes the paradox that certain artists and artistic movements act as refuge for some yet ignore or marginalize others. The essay, “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough to Find Afropunk” takes the reader through Abdurraqib’s complicated relationship with the punk scene, citing racism directed at him at shows, as well as themes in punk music that arise from privilege. “It is a luxury to romanticize blood, especially your own,” he says. “It is a luxury to be able to fetishize violence, especially the violence that you inflict upon others.” Another essay describes a Bruce Springsteen concert, beginning with the writer’s long appreciation of Springsteen’s music and its cultural impact, then shifts to the whiteness implicit in his romanticization of blue-collar work. Having arrived at the show directly after visiting Michael Brown’s grave in Ferguson, Missouri, Abdurraqib writes that The River “is an album of a specific type of optimism—one not afforded to everyone who listens to it.”

Chance the Rapper, Abduraqqib writes, “was the one who tapped into exactly what [2016] needed.”

Other pieces in the collection provide deep examinations of the ways that black musicians—from Nina Simone to Chance the Rapper—express and elucidate black Americans’ means of survival and refusal to give up what is theirs. “I have always held the legacy of Nina Simone close,” he writes, “because I know how easily it could be taken from me and served back to America as something more pleasing.” Framing the collection are fragments that add up to an essay on Marvin Gaye—as cultural icon, black hero, artist, and man—as well as his impacts on our country and the writer himself. All of Abdurraqib’s music writing demonstrates an incredible attunement to what is happening between the notes and beneath the lyrics. He is an endlessly generous listener, always regarding an artist on their own terms yet constantly probing the surface. 

“Black Life on Film,” one of the most affecting essays in the collection, starts devastatingly with the writer seeing video of the Rodney King beating on the TV news at age seven. The essay then turns to Boyz n the Hood but here, too, the analysis is about the listener as much as the music. Abdurraqib describes his impression of the movie as a twelve-year old, and now, in early middle-age. “Looking back…I think it’s less a movie about death…as it is a movie about loyalty that spans generations,” he writes.

Boyz n the Hood, directed by John Singleton, premiered in 1991.

Some of Abdurraqib’s most personal essays address teenage friends’ suicides and his mother’s death. In one essay, he takes us through the summer of 1997. He is 13 and just coming of age as a rap fan. Both Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were killed only months earlier. Then his mother dies suddenly in her sleep. Grieving her as he is surrounded by hip-hop, he says, revealed to him the strong undercurrent of grief in hip-hop music at the same time that it provided comfort, escape, and a little joy. Another essay is a chronicle of the author’s process of mourning his mother alongside rapper Future’s grieving of his relationship with the musician, model and actress Ciara, as demonstrated in his lyrics. The comparison may seem shallow but music is deeply personal for Abdurraqib. Though he never says it outright, it is clear throughout the book that for him, music is a mirror, a microscope, a glue, and a salve, all in one.

Portrait of a Graduating Senior: Grace Kowalski

Grace Kowalski, English major with a Concentration in Professional Writing, Leadership minor 

Next steps: Gracie is pursuing her MBA at University of Detroit Mercy.

What is one class you took or book you read that you will remember when you are 70? Why?

One class that I will always remember was Diverse Voices in Literature. The class discussion and topics we covered were new to me. I had never had them in my education before, and this was a class I always looked forward to attending. During this class we had the opportunity to help sort books and help distribute literature to the community through Rx for Reading. There was so much love and care into both the education and service. I highly recommend this class! 

What noise or sound do you love? What noise or sound do you hate?

I adore the sound of water. The sound of the crashing waves from the ocean, raindrops dancing all around as they fall, and the sound of waterfalls. I don’t like the sound of swarming bees, I love bees but they sound so scary! 

What is your favorite quote/motto? 

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

How have the English Department professors impacted your experience as an undergraduate?

The English department professors made my college experience so special. They truly cared and were invested in me as a person. The faculty encouraged me to research things that are of interest to me and that will aid me in my future endeavors. The English department has done more for me than I could have ever imagined or asked for. I will always be grateful for all that the faculty have done for me, and thank them from the bottom of my heart for all that they do. ♥️

Portrait of a Graduating Senior: Zoey Oatis

Zoey Oatis, Health Services Administration major and Professional Writing minor

Zoey is currently pursuing a M.S. in Information Assurance at the University of Detroit Mercy

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your high school self about how they should approach college?

I would tell myself that college is a journey. “You pack your bag, set your course, and embark on voyages that take you to far horizons.” Along that journey, you’ll meet new people, make new friends, run into obstacles, overcome adversity, and learn who you are as a person. What’s important is to make sure you stay the course and not lose sight of the goals you set for yourself. 

What are you most excited about in the next 12 months? What are you most nervous about in the next 12 months?

I’m most excited about starting my new career in the health administration field. I’m a little anxious about finding the right fit for me. There are so many different jobs in this career field to explore and I just hope to find one that suits my personality. 

What are you proudest of in your college career?

With my involvement in athletics at the university, I am proud to have been consistent with my grades. I was able to stay on the Dean’s honor roll as well as the Athletic Director’s honor roll all for all four years.

What is your favorite quote/motto?

My favorite quote is a bible scripture. Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” My faith is an important aspect of my life and it’s what makes me complete.  

Portrait of a Graduating Senior: Jasmina Cunmulaj

Jasmina Cunmulaj, Double Major in Developmental Psychology and English Literature

Next step for Jasmina: Masters of Public Health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health

What is your best Detroit Mercy memory?

Becoming a Teaching Assistant for Professor [Nick] Rombes Creative Writing Class was one of my best memories. I loved getting to spend time with other students, watching them expand their knowledge, and also learn from Professor Rombes’s great creative writing experience.

What has been most valuable or surprising about your experience in the English department?

As cliché as it may sound, I truly did find “myself” in college. Specifically, I found myself in the English department. Professors believed in me when I thought the opposite for myself, and always encouraged me to go further than my comfort zone. Each professor had their own specific genre of preference, and each continuously taught with an undeniable passion; this is what made the English department so special. Students were not numbers, but rather individuals. In the English department I became a part of one big family and this is one of the hardest things, I have found, about leaving Detroit Mercy.

What is one class you took or book you read that you will remember when you are 70? Why?

Class, Race, Gender is a class that I continuously refer back to in daily life. While many of my classes can be applied to things I encounter on a daily basis, the RELS class taught by Dr. [Hsiao-Lan] Hu really shifted my perspective on the way I view class, race, and gender within the world. It has opened my perspective to a new world, almost like someone had removed the wool from over my eyes. More specifically, I like to refer back to a lot of things I learned in this class and tell other people, so that they too can understand that there is a dimensional aspect to having a perspective, not just a one-sided approach.

What is one thing you want to have done or seen or accomplished by your 20th college reunion?

By my 20th college reunion, I would like to have opened up non-profit clinics in the Balkans that serve to provide mental health and medical services for women and children who were affected by the war over the past few decades. Hopefully become a working member of the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) as well. On a lighter note, I would love to have visited at least 10 places on my bucket list!

What are you proudest of in your college career?

 I am proudest of my ability to overcome obstacles that seemed impossible to challenge in my Freshman and Sophomore years. I felt as though I was lost in my college career, and had an unsalvageable track record already. My grades dropped and I had a sense of anxiety that constantly clouded over me. When I stumbled into the English department, I found a sanctuary that brought me in and guided me back to a more promising and hopeful path. I am proudest of my ability to overcome these things because not only did I finish strong, but also finished with two different majors with the help of many professors. This is something I will never forget, and something I like to consider to be the monumental point in my undergraduate career.

What do you want to learn about next?

I would like to continue expanding my knowledge by entering into the public health field focus primarily on global health.

What is your favorite quote/motto?

Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” – Mother Teresa

Portrait of a Graduating Senior: Mary Kate McNally

Mary Kate McNally, Honors English and History Major, Women’s and Gender Studies Minor

What is your best Detroit Mercy memory?

My best memory at Detroit Mercy was attending the Civil Rights travel course. The summer before my junior year I spent a week traveling around the South visiting different Civil Rights landmarks. I do not have the words to express what an amazing experience this was. Learning about this period was often extremely emotional, but I gained a deeper understanding of the Civil Rights movement than I ever could have through a textbook. I cannot recommend this class enough. If you are a history major or just someone interested in the Civil Rights movement, it is an unforgettable experience.

What is one class you took or book you read that you will remember when you are 70? Why?

I will never forget my unyielding efforts to convince the English department to teach a class on Jane Austen’s works. I never did get my class, but one day while I was in Dr. Harrison’s office, she told me that she was teaching a Writing About Literature class and Pride and Prejudice was on the reading list. It was a fantastic class, made more so by the fact that I got to read and write on my favorite novel. 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your high school self about how they should approach college?

When I graduated high school, I was not excited to start college. I did not approach it with an open heart. I remember leaving for orientation with such a feeling of dread. Looking back, I am embarrassed that I had such a bad attitude. I spent the entirety of the summer trying not to think about starting college and I missed out on a lot of joy and excitement. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself not to focus on everything that could go wrong, but of all the great, new opportunities that were in front of me.  

What is your favorite word? What is your least favorite word?

My favorite word is “ardently”. I like it best when used in the following manner: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” My least favorite word is “really.”

What are you proudest of in your college career?

My proudest achievement was the defense of my undergraduate thesis. I did not realize how important that moment was going to be to me, but it was exhilarating to discuss two years’ worth of work and research. Because of the COVID-19 crises, I had to defend my thesis online at home. As a result, my entire family was able to be present. The completion of my thesis was a daunting task, and finishing it gave me a sense of accomplishment I have never felt before.

What is your favorite quote/motto?

“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied fields of hope and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils”

–Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Portrait of a Graduating Senior: Savanah Wright

Savanah Wright, Double Major in Theatre and English

What has been most valuable or surprising about your experience in the English department?

I had not expected to be in such a close-knit community. We were able to build a community that cared for one another rather than simply being classmates and professors. The English department was there for me when I was going through one of the hardest periods of my life. For that, I will always be grateful.

What noise or sound do you love? What noise or sound do you hate?

I love the sound of water! Rain, ocean tides, running faucets, you name it. I find it extremely relaxing. I really don’t like it when people make sounds when they eat. It makes my skin crawl.

What is your best Detroit Mercy memory?

There are so many memories that I love, but if I had to choose I would say that my time performing on stage with the Detroit Mercy Theatre company would have to be my favorite. Throughout my time at Detroit Mercy, I have been able to play numerous roles, all unique in their own right. I have been an estranged daughter, a headstrong artist, a “Bad Idea Bear’, and so much more. The memories that I have made both on and off the stage are memories I will cherish for a long time. 

What is one class you took or book you read that you will remember when you are 70? Why?

Honestly, I will remember a lot of the classes I took for a long time. It is hard to choose only one because each of the courses has impacted me significantly. If I had to choose one specifically it would be Writing about Literature. I was never fully confident in my writing skills but this course helped me get out of my mind and realize my potential. This course gave me the confidence that I needed to let myself enjoy writing without constantly second-guessing my skills. I highly recommend the course to anyone who is struggling with confidence in their writing as well.

What you should read, watch, and listen to this spring: recs from English department students and faculty

What we’re reading to maintain our intellectual muscles

Eliot has a way of taking you deeper into your own life by immersing you in the lives of others.

Dr. Harrison

It’s better the second (or tenth) time around: What we’re re-reading

What we’re reading for escape (what pandemic?)

Our fave movies that never get old

  • Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bek Hirschmann)
  • Paris, Texas (Hannah Knisely)
  • Tarzan (Jency Shaji)
  • Captain America: Civil War (Jency Shaji)
  • Annie Hall (Dr. Crabtree)
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Dr. Streit)
  • The Magic of Belle Isle (Dr. Streit)
  • Casablanca (Dr. Weatherston)
  • The Breakfast Club (Dalton Hahn)
  • Sunset Blvd. (Dr. Paszek)
  • Manhattan (Dr. Rombes)

What we’re binge-watching

  • Grey’s Anatomy (Hannah Knisely)
  • Brooklyn 99 (Jency Shaji)
  • All American (Jency Shaji)
  • Rake (Dr. Crabtree)
  • Call the Midwife (Dr. Crabtree)
  • Schitt’s Creek (Dr. Harrison)
  • The Great British Baking Show (Dr. Streit)
  • Planet Earth (Dr. Streit)
  • Bosch (Prof. Hiber; Dr. Rombes)
  • Insecure (Prof. Hiber 
  • Tales from the Loop (Dr. Weatherston; Dr. Paszek)
  • The Man in the High Castle (Dr. Hill)
  • Better Call Saul (Dr. Hill)

Rake is a semi-comic Australian show about an outrageous, funny, sexy barrister who’s self-defeating but lovable.

For a good cry, try Call the Midwife.

Dr. Crabtree

Who/what we’re listening to

  • Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Bek Hirschmann)
  • Harry Styles: Fine Line (Bek Hirschmann)
  • Khalid Radio on Spotify (Jency Shaji)                                         
  • Bedrich Smetana (Dr. Streit)
  • Herbert von Karajan (Dr. Streit)
  • Angel Olsen (Prof. Hiber)
  • Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Prof. Hiber)
  • Everything but the Girl (Dr. Weatherston)
  • Talking Heads (Dr. Hill)
  • Wilco (Dr. Hill)
  • Jax Jones: Snacks (Dr. Paszek)
  • Mitsuko Uchida (Dr. Rombes)

About our recommenders

Dalton Hahn is a Theater major and Creative Writing minor. He’s also been writing music, and playing guitar and piano while quarantined.

Bek Hirschmann is a Literature major and Philosophy minor who wrote the previous Between the Pages post. Check it out!

Hannah Knisely is a Literature major and Psychology minor who’s recently taken up repurposing and painting old furniture.

Jency Shaji is a Biology major and a Literature minor. In addition to reading (etc.), she’s been relearning ASL during the quarantine.

Dr. Crabtree is reading advice columns, cooking more creatively, and eating frozen brownies.

Dr. Harrison has been Zoom-ing and forest bathing.

Prof. Hiber can be found reading food blogs and almost-finishing NYT Sunday crosswords.

Dr. Hill has been ordering and planting flowers.

Dr. Paszek is listening to a ton of music and cooking with his air fryer.

Dr. Rombes has been walking and rediscovering jigsaw puzzles.

Dr. Streit is gardening and re-reading Harry Potter books.

Dr. Weatherston has been biking, playing Yahtzee, and reading home renovation magazines.

Social Awareness & Justice: Whose Responsibility Is It? — Bek Hirschmann

A look into celebrities’ platforms and their use of them for political influence.

Bek Hirschmann is a literature major with women’s and gender studies and philosophy minors at University of Detroit Mercy. Music has always been a staple in Bek’s life, whether it be music production, lyricism, or piano playing. If you can’t find them on campus, you’d be sure to run into them riding their bike all over the city. Bek plans to continue on their education and become a professor, hoping to live a life filled to the brim with good literature and good conversation.

Janelle Monae on a throne surrounded by people
Still from Janelle Monae’s music video “Django Jane”

What is politics? One may say that it is only what goes on in the political sphere, but the political world is not a separate entity that only affects those outside of it when it decides to. The world influences politics, and politics influence the world in an endless cycle. With this in mind, is it possible to be apolitical? If the answer is no, what responsibility do those who are held on a pedestal in public life, such as celebrities, have to make their political leanings known?

“Fans want the music, but they want a politician,” rapper Aminé states in his song “STFU.” In the last 10 years, there has been a push for celebrities to stand up publicly for certain causes. Before social media, celebrities released their work and said their piece; there was less involvement in their personal lives. Now, especially in 2020, there are multiple ways to interact with and seem like one knows their favorite celebrity. Being a fan is more than liking their art; it has to be liking the whole person. People have always made public their adoration of certain artists by going to their concerts, owning their product, or wearing their merchandise, but with social media, people also have accounts dedicated to their favorite celebrities. When one connects themselves to an artist in such a way, they feel as though they have to support everything the artist does or else they are cancelled.

Cancel Culture is not as new a phenomenon as people think, but the scope of it and its use in the public sphere has grown. An early wave of Cancel Culture started back on Tumblr in the early 2010s, bringing popularity to phrases such as “Social Justice Warrior” and “problematic.” As Tumblr lost its popularity as a platform, this sort of discourse died down as well; however, it was picked up again to new heights on Twitter.

One wrong word, one wrong move, one wrong post–you’re cancelled. A popular way for people spread the news that someone is now deemed problematic and is cancelled are hashtags such as “#(insert name here)isoverparty.” Just in the past two days, there have been three separate hashtags of this nature trending–one for Demi Lovato, one for Conan Gray, and one for Adam Driver. Each one was “cancelled” for a different reason, but each cancellation was for a singular event in the person’s life. Whether it was a decision made when they were young or one they thought was private does not matter. In Cancel Culture, there is no room for growth; once you are deemed problematic, it’s over.

“I think a lot of people in the public don’t speak out about things that they could well use their platform to speak out with. They’re afraid of sticking their neck out because if you do, your head gets chopped off.”

– Jameel Jamil, US Weekly, 2019

Knowing this is the climate of celebrity culture, musicians have to make a choice–make their political stances known or stay silent. There can be no middle ground. If one only shares some beliefs, people accuse them of not caring, or even helping worsen, other social issues. Staying silent does not always mean an artist is free of criticism either. If an artist does not continually speak out on certain issues, no matter what their ideologies are or what they do in private to help, they are also deemed problematic by not using their social status in the way they should. Two artists that we will take a closer look at that each take a side of this coin are Janelle Monae and Harry Styles.

Janelle Monae has been known to be public and honest about the issues she supports and the causes she fights for. Her latest album Dirty Computer (released 2018) is overtly and purposely political. In her song “Screwed,” Janelle sings, “And I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets. We’re all screwed.” She is clearly commenting on the state of the world and placing herself in the narrative by the use of the word “we.” As well, in her song “Django Jane,” Monae sings, “Black girl magic; ya’ll can’t stand it. Ya’ll can’t ban it, made out like a bandit. They been trying hard just to make us all vanish.” Once again, Monae is making a comment on the world that is going on around her but also on her own personal experience; she is unable to separate the two. As a queer black woman, Janelle does not necessarily have the ability to not pay attention to certain issues. There is constant legislation and fights for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights. To ignore these issues would be ignoring herself. As a member of a higher tax bracket, however, Monae still has more privilege than others in the world, which is why she feels even more compelled to share her beliefs.

“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”

– Janelle Monae, Rolling Stone 2018

Harry Styles, on the other hand, is very quiet about what he stands for, but he is not necessarily silent. There have been multiple times that he has privately donated money to charities, released merchandise where 100% of the profits go to help certain causes, and spoken out at his concerts about being yourself and acceptance. However, these are all things that if you are not a close follower of Harry Styles, you would never know. He goes on social media rarely, and when he does, it is to share a few short sentences, and then he disappears again. When asked in a recent interview with The Guardian why he doesn’t speak out more, he responded,

“Because of dilution. Because I’d prefer, when I say something, for people to think I mean it. To be honest, I’m still searching for that one thing, y’know. Something I can really stand up for, and get behind, and be like: This Is My Life Fight. There’s a power to doing the one thing. You want your whole weight behind it.”

There is truth to what Styles is saying, and it is good to know he won’t stand up for causes just because he is expected to, but it must be acknowledged that his answer is being said from a place of privilege. Unlike Janelle Monae, Harry Styles is a rich, white man, meaning that if he wanted to ignore politics completely, there is a strong chance his life would go on unaffected. I will not claim to know what he believes or what he does not, but the ability to pick and choose is not a luxury everyone has.

Harry Styles in a blue velvet suit with a guitar
Harry Styles performing at Stevie Nick’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

What is the verdict? Should celebrities have to share all their beliefs to prove they care? Or, will we allow actions to speak louder than words? I wish I could give you an answer, but it will never be that simple. I do believe if you have a platform, it should be used somewhat to improve the society you’re living in, but the jury is still out on the best way to do so and to what extent. Should all your artistic endeavours and social media platforms be filled with moral and/or political messages? Or, is it enough to sprinkle it into a few songs, merchandise, and posts? There is no right or wrong answer, and we cannot control how others express their beliefs. All we can do is what we feel we must to make the world a better place to live in for everyone, not just ourselves.

A person standing in front of a body of water wearing a sweatshirt that says Teach me Empathy
The author

WGS Writing Prize Winners

Congratulations to all of the winners of Women’s and Gender Studies Writing Prizes! As always, the English Department was extremely well-represented among this year’s winners. These are the English majors/minors and students enrolled in English courses who won prizes in the categories of Academic Essay; Fiction and Personal Essay; and Poetry.


First Prize: Diego Peralta (English minor)
“Resistance, Resilience, Alliance: Racism in The Bluest Eye”
Essay Written for ENL 2750: Diverse Voices in Literature

Third Prize: Mary Elizabeth Johnson (English major)
“Culture, not Capacity:” Individualism and Paternalism in The Woman of Colour”
Essay written for ENL 3520: Nineteenth-Century British Novel


First Prize: Mary Elizabeth Johnson (English major)
“Is Lizzy Bennet a Cool Girl?”
Essay written for ENL 3000: Writing About Literature

Second Prize: Nurzahan Rahman (English major)
“Beauty: Her Inner Beast”


First Prize: Aly (Alyssa) Porcerelli
“in a place that shames and other poems”
Poems inspired by ENL 2450: Study of Poetry

Second Prize: Emily Tarchala
“Meditation from the Man Cave and other poems”
Poems written for ENL 2050: Introduction to Creative Writing