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A stirring meditation on Black performance in America from the New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. A stirring meditation on Black performance in America from the New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance. Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.


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A stirring meditation on Black performance in America from the New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. A stirring meditation on Black performance in America from the New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance. Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.

30 review for A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

  1. 5 out of 5

    Traci at The Stacks

    These essays are so damn good. The sentences are gorgeous. The arguments are unique. Also he’s writing about music and dance and culture moments in this way thats so rich and evocative. Which I think has gotta be hard. There’s an essay about Merry Clayton & “Gimme Shelter” and how he describes this song we all know gives the whole thing new life and resonance. He sees and lifts the complexity of Blackness. He delves into grief. There’s so much good here.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steve Haruch

    If you know, you know. So when I say this book is Hanif doing Hanif things, that means the personal is both the political and the poetic — a lens through which, at a dizzying number of focal lengths, music, pop culture and Blackness look sharper, fresher and more nuanced. A Little Devil in America braids history, criticism and fandom into the kind of book only one person could have written, and as always, I'm so grateful that he did. If you know, you know. So when I say this book is Hanif doing Hanif things, that means the personal is both the political and the poetic — a lens through which, at a dizzying number of focal lengths, music, pop culture and Blackness look sharper, fresher and more nuanced. A Little Devil in America braids history, criticism and fandom into the kind of book only one person could have written, and as always, I'm so grateful that he did.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Having grown up in a suburb that had literally built a wall to keep city folk (read: Black people) out, the majority of my adolescence was nothing short of monochromatic (and racist). I went to school with few African Americans, those whose families had disregarded the blatant attempts at diverting them elsewhere for the possibility of a more prosperous future for their children. It made for a rather misleading childhood, one practically without any semblance of diversity – and not just sans Bla Having grown up in a suburb that had literally built a wall to keep city folk (read: Black people) out, the majority of my adolescence was nothing short of monochromatic (and racist). I went to school with few African Americans, those whose families had disregarded the blatant attempts at diverting them elsewhere for the possibility of a more prosperous future for their children. It made for a rather misleading childhood, one practically without any semblance of diversity – and not just sans Black folk, but people of color pretty much as a whole. Thankfully I had entertainment to provide me with an unofficial introduction. My upbringing was defined by pop culture vis a vis sports and music, with Lou Whittaker, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jackson and Prince acting as my teachers. These were figures I not only idolized but learned from, for they taught me to both acknowledge and appreciate their existence, their contributions to society, their greatness. I couldn’t have imagined my life without their influence, even if the town I grew up had all but implored its residents to ignore anyone who looked like them. But even then, my consumption of their respective crafts was only scratching the surface of Black performance’s place within our country’s cultural constitution. Television and records only provided broad strokes, the former oftentimes positioning people of color as either “token” or secondary, the latter offering a prepackaged version of the artist so that it’s fit for public (read: White people) consumption. Nowadays I live in an urban landscape rife with color and culture, and I couldn’t be more thankful to be raising my own child in such an environment. And yet she too has been introduced to Black culture by way of entertainment – and this is despite her having already experienced more diversity within her first year of school than I did my first twelve. Much of this was admittedly my own doing; Cecilia was introduced to the aforementioned King of Pop and Purple One before she could even turn over. Mind you, it was not my intention to use MJ and Prince so much to introduce my daughter to people of color as it was to introduce her to entertainment as a whole. That both so happened to be Black was not only coincidence, but hardly taken into consideration. To me, they were vital simply as artists, not just as Black artists. To exclude them from my daughter’s cultural education would be akin to building my own wall, for American culture would be incomplete without Black performance. And while I may be ill-equipped at teaching my daughter the importance of their contribution, we thankfully have Hanif Abdurraqib to pick up the slack. Though “picking up the slack” is a disservice to the writer’s own contributions to American culture, as he is arguably its finest living essayist. I’ve already gone on record with regards to Abdurraqib’s previous two collections – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest – and how each demonstrated a seemingly innate and certainly genius ability to make “readers, for lack of a better term, give a shit” about subjects that may be only of moderate interest to them. And while yes, from a macro level I did find Abdurraqib’s predecessors to be wholly interesting, it made me wonder just how transcendent I’d find a collection of his should the subject matter be one of personal interest at a more micro level. Well, luckily for me the writer’s latest collection, A Little Devil in America, is precisely that collection. Though billed as “Notes in Praise of Black Performance” A Little Devil in America is so much more. For the work is a performance in and of itself, the result of an artist at the peak of his powers, an apt demonstration of the very subject matter he is praising. With a poetic grace and pugilist’s precision, Abdurraqib rhapsodically raps on the impact and influence of Black entertainers within American culture, all the while juxtaposing his own personal stories of performance, both big and small. Whether it’s a Depression-era dance marathoner’s subsequent influence on the Soul Train Line, or Aretha Franklin showcasing her ability to direct her final performance even in death, or the “magical negroes” whose greatest trick is to entertain white folks all the while being invisible to them, or Josephine Baker’s assertion that being “a little devil in America” caused her departure for another country, etcetera & etcetera & etcetera, each essay captures a moment in time and defines it by its performers in stunning, provocative fashion. And yet I’m hardly doing the respective parts of A Little Devil in America much justice for I found myself so blown away by it as a whole. The collection is just as much a historical text as it is an homage; it’s both well-researched and elegiacally articulated. But where it truly shines is when Abdurraqib takes over the performance for himself, subtly transcending the transcendent with visionary thought and rhythmic delivery. He’s not necessarily challenging his readers to a dance-off a la Sandman; he’s engaging his audience to the point where they can’t look away. Which is to say for all of the names referenced throughout A Little Devil in America, from Buster Douglas to Beyonce, Merry Clayton to Method Man, none shine brighter than that of Hanif Abdurraqib. He’s the greatest entertainer of them all, emceeing an event as culturally significant as the original Woodstock and the first lunar landing combined. American culture as we know and love it would be incomplete without the contributions of its Black performers. Better still, without works such as A Little Devil in America, American culture as we know and love it would be historically inaccurate. Thankfully we have both.

  4. 5 out of 5

    brenda

    If, as Basquiat said, art is how we decorate space and music is how we decorate time, then perhaps writing is how we decorate memory. And no one’s writing does that quite the way Hanif Abdurraqib’s does. His writing somehow feels tangible, words crafted and woven in a such a way as to provoke Stendhal syndrome. Often, I found myself breathless after a sentence, in complete awe of his language. It’s not just that his prose carries the cadence of poetry — “I want, instead, to fill my hands with wha If, as Basquiat said, art is how we decorate space and music is how we decorate time, then perhaps writing is how we decorate memory. And no one’s writing does that quite the way Hanif Abdurraqib’s does. His writing somehow feels tangible, words crafted and woven in a such a way as to provoke Stendhal syndrome. Often, I found myself breathless after a sentence, in complete awe of his language. It’s not just that his prose carries the cadence of poetry — “I want, instead, to fill my hands with whatever beauty I can steal from all of your best moments” —, it’s that it is an experience. His sentences weave moments out of everything that is intangible, and what can also be touched. This one took me a while to read, because I had to savour it, experience it as much as I could. I found myself pausing to listen or watch what Abdurraqib referenced, with reverence; A Little Devil in America gave me memories of moments I hadn’t lived before, like live performances in a time before I was alive, the height of Soul Train, the loud shouts at a massive concert, all through the very personal and intimate lens of Abdurraqib himself. A Little Devil in America is an archive, collected with love and anger and more love. And it is beautiful. Thank you to Netgalley for the ARC.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Michelle (bookishinthebay)

    “...there is no church like the church of unchained arms being thrown in every direction…” This is my first time reading Hanif Abdurraqib and I am absolutely BLOWN AWAY. I have already added all of Abdurraqib’s collections to my TBR because I need more. A Little Devil in America is an essay collection, a poem, a song, centered around all aspects of Black performance; on the stage, on the screen, in life. This is Abdurraqib’s declaration of love for music, art, his family, his people. The essay ‘Give “...there is no church like the church of unchained arms being thrown in every direction…” This is my first time reading Hanif Abdurraqib and I am absolutely BLOWN AWAY. I have already added all of Abdurraqib’s collections to my TBR because I need more. A Little Devil in America is an essay collection, a poem, a song, centered around all aspects of Black performance; on the stage, on the screen, in life. This is Abdurraqib’s declaration of love for music, art, his family, his people. The essay ‘Give Merry Clayton Her Roses’ left me speechless and listening to Gimme Shelter on repeat for hours; sending chills up and down my spine starting at the 2:48 mark every. single. time. In ‘On Going Home as Performance’, Abdurraqib recalls when Michael Jackson died, Aretha Franklin's Homegoing, his own mother’s Homegoing. From dance marathons to Soul Train, Whitney to Beyoncé, Sammy Davis Jr. to Don Shirley, (I could go on) Abdurraqib gives us a detailed history of Black art and seamlessly weaves it with deep personal reflections from his own life and what it means to be Black in America. Thank you Random House & NetGalley for the e-ARC.

  6. 5 out of 5

    jeremy

    and no one knows what to make of this, really. what to do when someone has committed themselves to sympathy, but not to mercy. collecting over twenty pieces essayistic and autobiographical, hanif abdurraqib's new book, a little devil in america, examines, celebrates, and considers the past and present of black performance. whether discoursing on dance marathons, soul train, the queen of soul, al jolson, blackface, whitney houston, "black people in space," josephine baker, don shirley, merry c and no one knows what to make of this, really. what to do when someone has committed themselves to sympathy, but not to mercy. collecting over twenty pieces essayistic and autobiographical, hanif abdurraqib's new book, a little devil in america, examines, celebrates, and considers the past and present of black performance. whether discoursing on dance marathons, soul train, the queen of soul, al jolson, blackface, whitney houston, "black people in space," josephine baker, don shirley, merry clayton, beyoncé, joe tex, wu-tang, afropunk band fuck u pay us, times he's forced himself to dance (or didn't)–or frankly anything at all–hanif's work is always intriguing and insightful. one of the most remarkable elements of hanif's writing is his ability to mine his own past for perspective, while teasing out the nuance of whatever subject he's expounding upon, mingling the personal, the political, and the poignant. i am afraid not of death itself, but of the unknown that comes after. i am afraid not of leaving, but of being forgotten. i am in love today but am afraid that i might not be tomorrow. and that is to say nothing of the bullets, the bombs, the waters rising, and the potential for an apocalypse.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Glennys Egan

    Hanif has done it again.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jeché

    No one currently writing is better at blending poetry, memoir and appreciation than Hanif. This one took me a while to get through, as I’d often stop, Google or YouTube performances referenced in the book, even the familiar ones; just to determine how Hanif possibly arrived at his conclusions. I’d always come away with fresh perspectives. Even in our weary existence, Hanif reassures us how liberating and empowering performance can be.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Zoe

    I foolishly finished this book in the bathtub although maybe it was not foolish as it meant my tears were embraced by the water. Every time I read Abdurraqib's work I feel more understood and more understanding. I know everyone is sick of me going on about his excellence but I have no interest in stopping. If you have any investment in history or the present or the future then this book will help you. I foolishly finished this book in the bathtub although maybe it was not foolish as it meant my tears were embraced by the water. Every time I read Abdurraqib's work I feel more understood and more understanding. I know everyone is sick of me going on about his excellence but I have no interest in stopping. If you have any investment in history or the present or the future then this book will help you.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Luke Spooner

    I loved this. So many of these hit hard. I will be thinking about 'I would like to give Merry Clayton her Roses for a while' I loved this. So many of these hit hard. I will be thinking about 'I would like to give Merry Clayton her Roses for a while'

  11. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    Hanif’s writing is excellent as always! This essay collection wasn’t quite about what I thought it would be about. It wasn’t strictly about Black musicians and dancers, it was more about the performances Black Americans do day in and day out to exist in the American culture that doesn’t quite want or love them. I didn’t have enough brainpower for this book right now, but it was still great and super thoughtful. Some essays held my attention more than others.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Justin Hairston

    The process of rating art - a process of confining it and squeezing it through the filter of some arbitrary scale, and a process I repeatedly (and sometimes shamefully) embrace - can become a prison in an instant. Like maybe you’re reading A Little Devil in America, the latest essay collection from one of your all-time favorite authors, Hanif Abdurraqib, and maybe it’s taking you a little longer than it usually does to totally click into the rhythm of the book, and maybe it’s right at the exact The process of rating art - a process of confining it and squeezing it through the filter of some arbitrary scale, and a process I repeatedly (and sometimes shamefully) embrace - can become a prison in an instant. Like maybe you’re reading A Little Devil in America, the latest essay collection from one of your all-time favorite authors, Hanif Abdurraqib, and maybe it’s taking you a little longer than it usually does to totally click into the rhythm of the book, and maybe it’s right at the exact moment you’re realizing that when you simultaneously realize you’ve never awarded one of Hanif’s (non-poetry) books less than a 5-star rating on Goodreads. And suddenly that hill the book was already climbing to totally grab your attention just got a lot steeper, or else was flattened into a downward grade, depending on whether you want to lean into the break from tradition or resist it. And then maybe you do start locking into the book’s tempo in the way you always expected to, except by this point you’ve got the whole 5-star thing in your head and so you can’t avoid suspecting your new enjoyment as some sort of self-deceiving ploy to maintain a pattern that makes no imprint whatsoever on the world outside your head and your Goodreads feed. All of that to say: you could count all 5 of those stars up there and reasonably conclude that they’re there to continue a streak, or else to help me maintain the idea that this is one of my favorite authors and he couldn’t possibly miss even one shot. And there’s obviously a part of me that wonders if that’s true, so I could hardly blame you for thinking it. But I’m writing this now to say that for once, I’m consciously freeing myself from the shackles of a too-thought-out rating system and giving this book 5 stars simply because I want to, and simply because I think the book deserves it, far from my preconceptions of what it would read like as it may be. All of that mess might lead you to believe this book doesn’t have a bounty of fascinating stories, recollections, and histories, or that it doesn’t have prose like a waterfall, gorgeously cascading from one seemingly unrelated topic to another, connecting them with fluidity and grace - but that’d be wrong. The genius of Abdurraqib’s book - if you can pinpoint it to only one area - is in the associations he effortlessly draws between impossibly disparate ideas, people, and themes. Cleverly marking an astral through-line from MJ’s moonwalk to Billy Dee Williams’ space cavorting, or from the rules of Spades to the Vietnam war and back to Black experience in America - all, meanwhile, shading in the triangulated middle spaces with rich portraits of humanity. The reasons I think this didn’t rock me as quickly as his other books are twofold, and each ultimately lead to a greater appreciation in the end: one, that it’s clear Hanif has grown as an artist but not in the exact same direction I’ve grown in, moving undeniably upwards in his craft but with his artistic focus drifting away from some of the cultural touchpoints we share. This was always inevitable in that I’m not Black, nor from Colombus, Ohio, nor have I been previously involved in any punk scenes, and so our experiences/interests Venn diagram was always bound to have a healthy non-overlapping portion awaiting the spotlight of Hanif’s lyrical attention. But what superficially feels like the loss of shared references ends up being expansive in the way it allows me a new portal into enjoyment of his work: it’s the difference between talking with a friend about something you’re both passionate about, and listening to a friend talk about something they’re passionate about - both fulfilling if you’re listening with eager ears. and two, that part of the magic trick of Hanif’s book relies on an elaborate set-up: the slow placement of essays (full of Black performers and Black performances, of humorous stories and brutal legends, of global concerns and personal reflections) in concentric circles moving outward from an unseen center. It’s only with time, and as the space between the essays becomes more visible in the contrast, that we realize what they actually are: a constellation of two-way mirrors, pointing both outward toward the larger arc of history and inward towards the now-revealed author at the center of its orbit. It’s this latter quality that lifts the book to its most dizzying heights. In widening his scope, Hanif explores a dioramic landscape and finds increasingly creative routes back to the personal territory where he always buried his best gold. I can wax neurotic all night long about the logical points in this book’s favor, but all of that is cave painting compared to the way Hanif’s writing moves me. As a music critic (among other things), Hanif writes often of performers and their intuitive ability to command and catalyze a crowd’s collective emotion. What he conveniently leaves out is the fact that his own unsurpassable skill as a writer affords him the same power. In such control of his abilities with a pen, he seamlessly shifts between postures, tricking us into letting our guard down with straightforward, informative passages before pulling the rug and suckerpunching us with emotion. The turn is so quick sometimes (the time, essentially, between the gasp of a knife being pulled and the violence of its attack) that it seems random at first, until you trace the sentences back and realize the clues were all there for what Hanif was aiming at. The deftness and the prodigiousness of his writing simply blurs everything in beautiful motion until the moment it all snaps into jarring focus. I could write more, you see. Because if nothing else, Hanif’s writing makes me want to write, and pushes me (perhaps foolishly) into believing I can write. To feel words like these inside my head - even borrowed secondhand - is proof enough that I could make some of my own someday. If that’s a questionable conclusion, well - please let me draw it. Because a spade is a spade, and if Hanif taught me anything in this slowly miraculous book, it’s that if you find yourself in possession of a spade, you don’t question that sucker for a second before making the most of your hand.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    Simply put this collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraqib is spectacular. A five star read so bright, it's blinding. It is unapologetically and blatantly Black. A collection filled with the emotion and vulnerability that African Americans need to express. Part memoir, history book and love letter, A Little Devil in America takes you through Five Movements that are linked by moments of black performance in America and the relationship between then and now. Be prepared to pause while reading so tha Simply put this collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraqib is spectacular. A five star read so bright, it's blinding. It is unapologetically and blatantly Black. A collection filled with the emotion and vulnerability that African Americans need to express. Part memoir, history book and love letter, A Little Devil in America takes you through Five Movements that are linked by moments of black performance in America and the relationship between then and now. Be prepared to pause while reading so that you can Google the images he beautifully describes. I had to witness them for myself and see if I would be as moved as he. Unfamiliar with Mr. Abdurraqib's work, this was a treat to consume and a fitting introduction that will have me reading more of his work. Lastly, I love the cover!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Cunningham

    Whew. This book. This book is masquerading as a book of essays, when it is a love letter to a people. It is a song, a poem, and a dance. I ate this book up slowly. Because as much as I wanted to devour it, I knew I would be sad when it was done. So I savoured it like none other. Maybe I’m not telling you about this book the way you’d expect in a review. I don’t really care about that right now. I want you to know this is a book that made me feel the author’s love for music, for art, for family, fo Whew. This book. This book is masquerading as a book of essays, when it is a love letter to a people. It is a song, a poem, and a dance. I ate this book up slowly. Because as much as I wanted to devour it, I knew I would be sad when it was done. So I savoured it like none other. Maybe I’m not telling you about this book the way you’d expect in a review. I don’t really care about that right now. I want you to know this is a book that made me feel the author’s love for music, for art, for family, for people. I want you to read this book to experience the way it’s written. I want you to take a moment to live with this book. This is a book of life, and you don’t know what’s coming in life, you just know you’re alive and it’s happening. That’s how I want you to go into this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Peter Baran

    Its sometimes just about the writing. Don't get me wrong, A Little Devil In America has a subject that interests me, a discussion of Black American culture through performance, which allows it to touch on a multiple number of threads of how Black America infiltrates, is celebrated and also how it is also limited by the act of performance. But this is a discursive book which could feel like a disjointed set of essays if it wasn't for the natural flow of the language used, the occasional slip into Its sometimes just about the writing. Don't get me wrong, A Little Devil In America has a subject that interests me, a discussion of Black American culture through performance, which allows it to touch on a multiple number of threads of how Black America infiltrates, is celebrated and also how it is also limited by the act of performance. But this is a discursive book which could feel like a disjointed set of essays if it wasn't for the natural flow of the language used, the occasional slip into a poetic personal stream of consciousness to give life to the thesis. Hanif Abdurrqib is a poet as well as a critic, so this makes sense, but it marks A Little Devil In America this out in an increasingly crowded area of Black cultural studies as both personal but also authoritative. Some of the subjects here: Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, have been written about endlessly. Some others - Joe Tex, Sandman, Bill Bailey, less so. What I really enjoyed here though was how these performances reflected obliquely on larger Black issues. The frankly very funny section on how Whitney Houston couldn't dance both reflects on the cliche that all Black people can dance, but also gets used to talk about how paying your dues becomes important and how Black talent gets spun for a White audience (and what that might mean to Black audiences). The piece on Merry Clayton' s vocals in Gimme Shelter talks more about missed opportunities and how sublime talent can be used by the White world without too much thought but with much seen and unseen longterm damage. The Josephine Baker section is packed full of incident but the performance he is interested in is a speech about civil rights she did in the fifties on a tour back in the States. What Abdurraqib does in this enjoyable journey is to posit the thesis that Black performance needs a vocal audience. That the constant feedback and support is a direct outcome of and a safety net caused by a structurally racist country with a history of slavery. This at the same time this creates issues around everything being performative - not for nothing does he keep returning to the subheading "On Times I Have Forced Myself To Dance" - but ends with "On Times I Have Forced Myself Not To Dance". I think there is something informative and nuanced about every performance he writes about here, but its as a flowing full piece of criticism and poetry the book really dazzles.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Keely

    In A Little Devil in America, poet Hanif Abdurraqib celebrates a legacy of excellence in Black performance. He also uses cultural touchstone performances, from the dance line on Soul Train, to Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace concert film, to Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam, as a lens through which to examine our culture’s enduring racism, patriarchy, and violence. Aburraqib gets pretty inclusive in what he considers Black performance, even taking an entertaining look at Black funerals as performanc In A Little Devil in America, poet Hanif Abdurraqib celebrates a legacy of excellence in Black performance. He also uses cultural touchstone performances, from the dance line on Soul Train, to Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace concert film, to Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam, as a lens through which to examine our culture’s enduring racism, patriarchy, and violence. Aburraqib gets pretty inclusive in what he considers Black performance, even taking an entertaining look at Black funerals as performance. Other black performers who pop up in the book range from Josephine Baker, to Don Shirley, Wu-Tang Clan, actors who specialized in playing the sidekick “magical negro” character common in mainstream movies, and countless others. Over the course of the book, Abdurraqib gradually reveals his own griefs and struggles as a Black man surviving in a culture in which Black excellence, and even more fundamentally, Black humanity, is not valued like it should be. The essays in A Little Devil in America are all very poetic in their delivery, and they range in tone from funny to poignant. I liked them best when they were really nerding out over some aspect of pop culture, because I enjoy doing that, too. My favorites were an essay about Whitney Houston not being able to dance, and another about backup singer Merry Clayton stealing the show in the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter.” I liked the book overall, but it’s a tough one to summarize. Much like any other great performance, you kinda' had to be there.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Ford

    Another masterpiece from one of the most incisive and talented writers in America. This book, which focuses on the many different permutations of Black performance throughout America’s history, managed to be both a searing critique of the habitual marginalization of Black performers and a celebration of their contributions to American culture. Abdurraqib’s other life as a poet beautifully seeps into even the most straightforward of essays, seamlessly integrating the personal and political. Every Another masterpiece from one of the most incisive and talented writers in America. This book, which focuses on the many different permutations of Black performance throughout America’s history, managed to be both a searing critique of the habitual marginalization of Black performers and a celebration of their contributions to American culture. Abdurraqib’s other life as a poet beautifully seeps into even the most straightforward of essays, seamlessly integrating the personal and political. Every essay is an artful collision of seemingly disparate topics, brought together by Abdurraqib’s astonishing vision. Among my many favorites are “On Marathons and Tunnels,” an essay focusing on dance marathons and Soul Train; “This One Goes Out to All the Magical Negroes,” which ties together the titular racist trope, actual Black magicians, and Dave Chappelle’s career; “Nine Considerations of Black People in Space,” a beautiful consideration of Afro-futurism, science fiction and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk; and “Fear: A Crown,” a searing and poetic essay about violence, gentrification, Mike Tyson/Buster Douglas and Bernie Mac. I’ll be returning to this book early and often.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Isabelle Leventhal

    Don't read this book when you've got something else going on (like moving), this is a book that is meant to be savored. That every word should be lived in and loved because that was clearly how they were chosen. This book is much more lyrical than They Can't Kill Us Until They kill us and just outrageously beautiful. 10/10 would recommend. Don't read this book when you've got something else going on (like moving), this is a book that is meant to be savored. That every word should be lived in and loved because that was clearly how they were chosen. This book is much more lyrical than They Can't Kill Us Until They kill us and just outrageously beautiful. 10/10 would recommend.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Christina Cola

    Whenever I'm getting close to finishing one of Hanif's books I always end up reading it slower because I don't want it to end. Absolutely beautiful from start to finish. The more I read his work the more I have difficulty picking a favorite. It's one of those books you read and wish that you could then erase your memory and read it again so you can enjoy experiencing it for the first time. Whenever I'm getting close to finishing one of Hanif's books I always end up reading it slower because I don't want it to end. Absolutely beautiful from start to finish. The more I read his work the more I have difficulty picking a favorite. It's one of those books you read and wish that you could then erase your memory and read it again so you can enjoy experiencing it for the first time.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ruari Paterson-Achenbach

    Monumental. Every now and then you realise you’ve just read a sentence which will change the way you look at life for the foreseeable future. Among many other things, this book is an amazing piece or archival work. A book of poetry and intimacy. I am very grateful to this book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tessimo Mahuta

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Absolute brilliance. Again.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Bella

    There are some books I know will be five-star reads/lodged in my brain for years to come/utter treasures the moment I start them. This is one.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Straw

    I loved this book so much. The history, the cultural references, the tackling of racism. I'm now going to read everything by this person. I loved this book so much. The history, the cultural references, the tackling of racism. I'm now going to read everything by this person.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    I love Abdurraqib's prose as much as his poetry. This book is beautifully written. I love Abdurraqib's prose as much as his poetry. This book is beautifully written.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    I saw a review that said "If you know, you know." I can't agree more. Leave it to Hanif to make you cry, laugh, reflect, and learn a thing or two as usual. I don't know what else to say other than you should read these essays. I saw a review that said "If you know, you know." I can't agree more. Leave it to Hanif to make you cry, laugh, reflect, and learn a thing or two as usual. I don't know what else to say other than you should read these essays.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Aaaschless

    another enjoyable read from Hanif, provocative and personal

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Incredible

  28. 5 out of 5

    Caleb Bollenbacher

    Absolutely incredible, required reading. A worthy successor to They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Absolutely incredible, required reading. A worthy successor to They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    Gifted writers can make prose shine like poetry. Abdurraqib is such a writer. Each word feels precisely plucked to convey deep emotions that register the weight of history as well as introspection. He presents individual Black entertainers and discusses their contributions to society and threads each essay with personal anecdotes that display a vulnerability hard-won through deep reflection. From James Brown to Wu Tang Clan, Abdurraqib charts the many debts American culture owes to its most prol Gifted writers can make prose shine like poetry. Abdurraqib is such a writer. Each word feels precisely plucked to convey deep emotions that register the weight of history as well as introspection. He presents individual Black entertainers and discusses their contributions to society and threads each essay with personal anecdotes that display a vulnerability hard-won through deep reflection. From James Brown to Wu Tang Clan, Abdurraqib charts the many debts American culture owes to its most prolific Black artists, and invites the reader to examine what makes them great, and what makes them human. Netgalley provided me with an arc in exchange for an honest review.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Madeline

    so so good!!! as usual. i loved the form of the mike tyson/bernie mac piece

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