A Little Devil In America: In Praise Of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

The Blurb On The Back:

A kaleidoscopic history of Black performance, from Josephine Baker to the Midwest punk scene, through sport, sit-coms, stand-up and more.

In A Little Devil In America, music critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib weaves a unique and intimate history of Black performance, in which culture, politics and lived experience collide.  Taking readers from mid-century Paris to the moon, via dive bars, Broadway, and a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib illuminates the poignancy and power of Black performance, whether the stage is vast – as in Beyoncé’s Super Bowl show – or small, as for a schoolyard fistfight.  Each of these moments, Abdurraqib reveals, has layers of resonance in Black and white culture, the politics of American empire, and his own personal history of grief and love.

Filled with sharp insight, humour and heart, and infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians the author loves, A Little Devil In America is a celebration of Black performance as it has unfolded and endured to shape individual lives and entire cultures. 

You can order A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA: IN PRAISE OF BLACK PERFORMANCE by Hanif Abdurraqib from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic.  This fascinating collection of interconnected essays (organised into 4 movements) reviews different types of Black performance in the arts and sport by incorporating commentary on specific performers from Beyoncé to Dave Chappelle and Mike Tyson together with examples from Abdurraqib’s own life to contextualise Black performance within Black lived experience to moving effect.

I picked this up because although I hadn’t read Abdurraqib’s other work, I had heard excellent things about this book from within the Blogsphere so was keen to check it out.  I was not disappointed.

The book is organised around 4 movements: Performing Miracles; Suspending Disbelief; On Matters Of Country/Provenance; and Anatomy Of Closeness/Chasing Blood. Each Movement then has a number of essays that riff around a broad theme.  Performing Miracles includes essays on dancing and funerals.  Suspending Disbelief focuses on black face, illusion and magic, the interaction between Black and white society and culture and space and science fiction.  On Matters Of Country/Provenance looks at national identity and what it means to feel that you belong to a country, place or community and how Black people contribute to white success and yet are criticised when they show shortcomings.  Anatomy of Closeness/Chasing Blood looks at violence and conflict (with one essay focusing on what it means to have “beef”) and also despair and fear.  

In each essay Abdurraqib weaves in profiles of various Black performers and sportsmen – some of whom I had heard of, others (such as the 19th century Black dancer William Henry Lane (who performed as Master Juba), magician Ellen Armstrong and singer Joe Tex) were new to me to illustrate his arguments or depictions of Black experience.  He also draws on his own life experiences such as the death of his mother, his relationship with his older and cooler brother and (in a section that moved me the most) his own battles with depression and poor mental health.  I have been trying to educate myself on the way discrimination affects the Black community both within the UK and the USA but I have to say that the way he contextualises his examples, biographies and critiques within Black life experience really opened my eyes to layers that I was not previously aware of, highlighting the bonds within the community and what forms it as much as the discrimination that it faces.  I should say that while this is a US-centric book, I can well believe that a lot of what he talks about would resonate with Black people within the UK as well.

I will say (and this is my only criticism of the book) that I found the style in the opening chapter a little difficult to jam with.  It’s got a real stream of consciousness vibe to it, with ampersands used instead of the word “and” plus it’s one long run on sentence.  I did see why Abdurraqib was trying to achieve with it – and it does make it more personal – but, for me, it was a little distancing as an opener (although I should say that when a similar style is used for sections later on, I found them easier to get into and follow).

That aside, what I found particularly notable about the book is how he writes about the celebrities he incorporates.  This is not fawning hagiography – Abdurraqib is a serious critic and he draws out the flaws as much as he does the strength.  For example, his section of Dave Chappelle (who famously walked away from a high paying comedy deal because he was concerned that white people were not understanding the humour and saw him as “blessing” their racism) mentions Chappelle’s more recent material that has been criticised by the trans-community – particularly pertinent given recent events.  Similarly, in a section about Mike Tyson, he gives particular focus to the allegations made by Robin Givens and to Tyson’s own reaction to it during a TV interview with the pair, which became notorious.

All in all, I thought that this was a really insightful, intelligent and moving essay collection that really does make you consider Black experience and the place of Black performance within both the US and African-American communities.  Abdurraqib received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2021 and this book deservedly won the 2021 Gordon Burn non-fiction award.  I will definitely be checking out Abdurraqib’s other work on the strength of this and I will also make a point of buying whatever book he puts out next.   

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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