A little devil in America Notes in praise of Black performance

Hanif Abdurraqib, 1983-

Book - 2021

"A Little Devil in America is an urgent project that unravels all modes and methods of black performance, in this moment when black performers are coming to terms with their value, reception, and immense impact on America. With sharp insight, humor, and heart, Abdurraqib examines how black performance happens in specific moments in time and space--midcentury Paris, the moon, or a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio. At the outset of this project, Abdurraqib became fascinated with clips of black minstrel entertainers like William Henry Lane, better known as Master Juba. Knowing there was something more complicated and deep-seated in the history and legacy of minstrelsy, Abdurraqib uncovered questions and tensions that help to reveal h...ow black performance pervades all areas of American society. Abdurraqib's prose is entrancing and fluid as he leads us along the links in his remarkable trains of thought. A Little Devil in America considers, critiques, and praises performance in music, sports, writing, comedy, grief, games, and love"--

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New York : Random House [2021]
Main Author
Hanif Abdurraqib, 1983- (author)
First edition
Item Description
Includes index.
Physical Description
xii, 300 pages ; 22 cm
  • Movement I. Performing Miracles
  • On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance
  • On Marathons and Tunnels
  • On Going Home as Performance
  • An Epilogue for Aretha
  • Movement II. Suspending Disbelief
  • On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance
  • This One Goes Out to All the Magical Negroes
  • Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface
  • On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs
  • Nine Considerations of Black People in Space
  • Movement III. On Matters of Country / Provenance
  • On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance
  • The Josephine Baker Monument Can Never Be Large Enough
  • It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades
  • My Favorite Thing About Don Shirley
  • I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses
  • Beyoncé Performs at the Super Bowl and I Think About All of the Jobs I've Hated
  • Movement IV. Anatomy of Closeness // Chasing Blood
  • On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance
  • The Beef Sometimes Begins with a Dance Move
  • Fear: A Crown
  • On the Performance of Softness
  • Board Up the Doors, Tear Down the Walls
  • Movement V. Callings to Remember On Times I Have Forced Myself Not to Dance
  • Acknowledgments
  • Credits
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Blending pop-culture essays, memoir, and poetry, the latest collection by Abdurraqib, following A Fortune for Your Disaster (2019), delves into the many iterations of Black artistic expression through an often deeply personal lens. Divided into five "movements," these pieces offer an expansive exploration of subjects ranging from the often-tragic lives of legendary Black artists to close examination of a singular performance. On Merry Clayton's choruses in the Rolling Stones' song "Gimme Shelter," Abdurraqib writes: "They would speak of her performance, and how it summoned all of the darkness in one hand and all of the light in the other." Whether pondering the dynamic life and contributions of Josephine Baker (to whom the book is dedicated) or meditating on his own various performances, the author's ruminations are an invitation to think deeply about Black performance on both cultural and individual levels. Abdurraqib consistently engages the reader, mixing conversational tones and poetic turns of phrase ("it feels, most days, like my grief is simply being rebuilt and restructured along my own interior landscape"), with surprising, succinct insights ("to know whiteness is an infinite task"). Startling, layered, and timely, this is an essential, illuminating collection that advances Abdurraqib's already impressive body of work.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this staggeringly intimate meditation, essayist and poet Abdurraqib (Go Ahead in the Rain), chronicles Black performance in American culture. Broken into five "movements" consisting of essays, fragments, and prose poems, Abdurraqib weaves cultural analyses with personal stories. "On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs" captures Whitney Houston's performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards ("And I will tell you what I know, and what I know is that Whitney Houston could not dance"). In "On Going Home as Performance," Abdurraqib commemorates Michael Jackson on the night of his death in a club where "there wasn't enough space for the bodies to do anything except dance." Abdurraqib shines a light on how Black artists have shaped--and been shaped by--American culture: he outlines Josephine Baker's life as a performer and a spy, and examines the "magical negro" trope and "the laughter of white people" through performances by Dave Chappelle and magician Ellen Armstrong. Abdurraqib addresses his commentary to readers both alive and dead, referring to "my dearest dancing ancestors," "magically endowed problem solvers," the "non-Black reader or scholar of history," and a "dearly departed band of brothers," and his prose is reliably razor-sharp. Filled with nuance and lyricism, Abdurraqib's luminous survey is stunning. (Mar.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Poet, essayist, and cultural critic Abdurraqib (Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest) studies the impact of Black performers throughout U.S. history, sharing his own poignant stories along the way. Inspired by Josephine Baker's extraordinary life and her self-proclaimed title of "little devil in America," Abdurraqib pens respectful, heartwarming essays that reflect on other giants in music, television, cinema, and even magic. From intense dance marathons to afternoon sock hops, from the funerals of Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin to games of spades to barroom brawls, he examines the feeling of invisibility that haunts so many Black Americans. He scrutinizes ways in which Black artists subverted racial stereotypes, such as Josephine Baker's banana skirt performance, which tackled the assumption of Black people as primitive and made it "so absurd that it circled around to desire." The author also calls out the use of blackface and the sanitization of race relations in today's films and laments the exploitation of violence against and by African Americans. VERDICT Told with humor and grace, Abdurraqib's stories will inspire and provoke thoughtful meditations on how Black lives matter in all areas of life and art.--Lisa Henry, Kirkwood P.L., MO

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A thoughtful memoir rolled into a set of joined essays on life, death, and the Black experience in America. Black women, it's been said, saved American democracy by delivering their votes to the Democratic Party in 2020. Poet, essayist, and music critic Abdurraqib is having none of it. "Black people--specifically Black women in this case, are not here in this country as vessels to drag it closer to some moral competence," he writes. Later, he adds, "it occurred to me that Black women were simply attempting to save themselves." The point is well taken. The chapters open with flowing stream-of-consciousness introductory passages--e.g., "I was the only one in the Islamic Center on Broad Street who got to stay up & watch the shows on MTV that came on after my parents cut out the lights & went up to bed & it was only me & the warmth of an old television's glow & the DJs spinning C+C Music Factory for people in baggy & colorful getups"--and then settle in to tightly constructed, smart essays--in this case, about the history of marathon dancing, the exhilarating contributions but tragic life of Soul Train host Don Cornelius, the deaths of both his mother and Aretha Franklin, and numerous other subjects. In another essay, Abdurraqib considers the concept of the magical negro and the unenviable role of being the Black friend who provides an escape route for White racism. Here, comedian Dave Chappelle figures prominently, having become a huge draw for Comedy Central precisely because it gained a huge White audience: "Chappelle got to be everyone's Black friend for a while," writes the author. "The one that stays at a comfortable enough distance but still provides a service." Social criticism, pop culture, and autobiography come together neatly in these pages, and every sentence is sharp, provocative, and self-aware. Another winner from Abdurraqib, a writer always worth paying attention to. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Soul Train was guided by Don Cornelius, who got his start as a backup disc jockey at Chicago radio station WVON. Cornelius was born in Chicago in 1936, as the era of dance marathons began to die down. He worked primarily as a news and sports reporter, but he spent his downtime emceeing a series of concerts featuring local Chicago music talent. On weekend nights, he would pack as many people as could fit into Chicago-area high schools and put on his show. He called the series "The Soul Train," and his shows grew in popularity during the late '60s, with people coming from all over the Midwest to dance to whatever Cornelius decided to spin. In 1965, two dance programs were running on the upstart UHF station out of Chicago: Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues --both targeted to young people. The latter catered primarily to Black audiences, playing on Friday nights, hosted by Big Bill Hill, a DJ and promoter in the city. Red Hot and Blues featured mostly R&B, and younger kids dancing with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the hits of the day. This was the seed for Soul Train , but Cornelius was trying to make a show that was distinctly adult, and distinctly rooted in a type of cool that was being born at the turn of the decade, when Black people were redefining themselves once again, after talk of civil rights turned to talk of complete liberation. At his core, Cornelius was a journalist who was driven to journalism by a desire to cover the civil rights movement, with an understanding that the movement was inextricably linked to the music that soundtracked it. It acted as both a call for people to take to the streets and a reprieve after a long day of protest, or marching, or working some despised job. Cornelius was frustrated by the lack of television venues for soul music, and the lack of Black people being their whole, free selves on television, and so he created a venue for it himself. By the time a television deal came knocking in 1970, he'd already established an audience. A people cannot only see themselves suffering, lest they believe themselves only worthy of pain, or only celebrated when that pain is overcome. Cornelius had a vision for Black people that was about movement on their own time, for their own purpose, and not in response to what a country might do for, or to, them. It did help that Don Cornelius was cool. His name itself seemed like something passed through a lineage of motherf***ers who wore their hats low and kept lit cigarettes in their mouths that never burned all the way down. His full name--Donald Cortez Cornelius--might have been even cooler than the one he's most known by, but I suppose even the freshest among us have to give people a break sometimes. He was a lanky six foot four and walked with slow, long strides. Don Cornelius didn't dance much; he preferred instead to give the floor to the many people who spilled onto it during each taping of Soul Train once the show got picked up by television and became a breakout success. But you knew Don Cornelius could dance. There are people who you don't even need to see move to know that they are one with rhythm, and Don Cornelius was one of those people, in part because he always looked so well put together, but also not so put together that he might shy away from f***ing up a dance floor. He'd wear velvet sport coats and keep his afro picked high and flawless. His round-framed glasses sat evenly on his face and never needed to be adjusted. Beyond all of his aesthetic cool, Cornelius was a poet speaker, toying with melody and syntax in his introductions and interviews. At the start of each episode, the voice-over would introduce Cornelius as the camera zoomed in on him smiling easy. Then he'd take a deep breath before unfurling a long, winding sentence along the lines of HEYYYY welcome aboard I guarantee yous'll enjoy the ride especially if you like your soul ice cold 'cuz we got none other than the iceman himself here and he's gonna be lookin' ya right D-E-A-D in your eyes after this very important message. Or Hey there it's time for another sweeeet ride on the soul train and you gotta hold right on to that spot ya got because you're not gonna wanna miss your spot we're gonna be here alllllll night. It also helped that Cornelius didn't take himself too seriously. Like Soul Train itself, he was aiming to show the multitudinous nature of Blackness, and sometimes that meant he'd put on clown-shoe-sized basketball kicks to do a bit where he plays a game of H-O-R-S-E with a friend. His presence as host served the show first, without question. But he also gave enough of himself to the viewers at home to make them feel like they were in the room as well, no matter what time or era they were watching the episodes in. For a couple of hours on some scattered Sundays in my youth, I was there with the dancers in their thick ties and butterfly collars, or I was there with Earth, Wind & Fire playing "September" and an audience washing themselves with the sound like it was the sweetest thing they would ever hear. I was there, every time, at the end, with Cornelius giving his signature send-off: We'll be back next week and you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and souuuuuullllllll! A major feature of Soul Train was the Soul Train Line, which anchored the program. It was simple, on its face: two lines are formed, and two dancers peel off from the end of the line and dance their way to the opposite end, until the line naturally dwindles. The participants in the line don't have a long stretch of time to make their way down, and they have to do it smoothly. Everyone is watching, at home and in the line itself. As people move down it, the waiting participants clap to the music to help keep them on beat. The history of the line itself was born out of the Stroll, a dance that gained popularity in the late '50s and extended to the late '60s. "The Stroll" was a 1958 song by the Diamonds, and it hit big on American Bandstand, where the dance craze gained momentum. Videos of the original Stroll don't bring forth much excitement. The two lines are far apart, and most dancers, upon meeting in the center, simply hold hands and walk somewhat melodically down, sometimes swinging an arm or two for effect. All of the dancers are white, and the waiting dancers kick a leg out from time to time instead of clapping. In the black-and-white videos, most of the dancers look like they barely even want to be there. Like this particular song demanded a labor out of them that they were never fully committed to. Still, the line formation itself was of interest to Cornelius, and the concept, it seemed, could be better served with some small adjustments. If the space in the line was tighter, for example. Or if the line existed outside the concept of a single song that made the movements feel like an obligation. The Stroll was slow and a bit tedious, but there was something insistent about the Soul Train Line. The songs were faster, sure. But the people inside danced with a clear urgency. Showing off their best moves as if they might forget how to do them at any moment. The people on the ends beating out a percussion with their open palms. The hand and the voice and the body, the sweetest instruments. The instruments from which all other instruments are born. The line was an instant hit because it afforded each person their own time to shine. There were dancers who returned multiple times, and watching reruns, I was always delighted to see them reappear in the line a few weeks in a row. But I was never as happy as I was watching a new person in the line for their first time, which could sometimes be given away with an excess of flourish, or an even greater urgency spilling forth from their movements. Someone who savored their time in the line, maybe twirling sideways for a bit in order to milk just a few more seconds before finishing their turn. Someone who maybe heard stories of the line's mythology and made a pilgrimage to see it for themselves. As the line evolved, people got more and more creative about how they chose to use it. Dancers began to bring props. The moves got more acrobatic. The couples began to coordinate outfits. The Soul Train Line became an essential part of the Soul Train viewing experience. Black people pushing other Black people forward to some boundless and joyful exit. Excerpted from A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.