A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib. New York: Random House, 2021.
Summary: A celebration of Black performance and its significance for Blacks in America.
Just over a year ago, I read a couple of Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays in an anthology of Columbus writers. Little did I realize how much I would encounter this Columbus writer’s name in the next year, culminating in his recent award of a MacArthur Fellowship (a five year, $625,000 grant) and this week’s award of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction by the American Library Association for A Little Devil in America. He was born and grew up in the same city we moved to thirty-one years ago. If nothing else, it’s exciting to see an Ohio author from Columbus do so well!
This is an extraordinary book. It’s major subject is a survey of black performance in many genres from dance to magic to music. The title is drawn from a statement by Josephine Baker, who by 1963 had danced across the stages of the world. Speaking at the March on Washington, she proclaimed, “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too.” The statement speaks of the passionate, celebratory, and resistant character of Black performance.
Abdurraqib takes us through this history with chapters reflected well-researched descriptions of performers from the dance marathons of the ’20’s and the 30’s through to Don Cornelius’s Soul Train and how in Black neighborhoods across the land, young men and women danced, desired and sometimes found and sometimes lost love. In later chapters, he projects that forward to the clubs and masses of bodies moving together to the music.
Then there is Aretha. He looks back from her funeral to the film Amazing Grace and the short distance “between soul music and music of the soul.” One of the most riveting stories is that of Merry Clayton, who recorded the background vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, even while very pregnant. The intensity in which she sings the words “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is something I never heard before reading Abdurraqib. I had to go back and listen to music I knew from my teens. I had never paid attention to what an extraordinary singer she was. Abdurraqib chronicles her efforts to move from the background to a solo career that never took off. But he also draws us into that moment, the third time she repeats the word “murder” in a “voice cracking howl”–no longer just fear, but anger, and even glee.
He takes us through the rivalry between Joe Tex and James Brown, the inability of Whitney Houston to dance and how Beyonce, a supporting act to Coldplay steals the show and owns the Super Bowl and makes a powerful Black power statement remembering the Black Panthers. Then there is the incomparable Michael Jackson, and Abdurraqib’s own miserable attempt to “moonwalk.”
He moves between the famous and the marginalized. We learn of Ellen Armstrong, a black female magician, and William Henry Lane, who out-danced the white performer John Diamond. Lane, under the stage name, Master Juba, wore blackface, perhaps a subtle or not so subtle criticism. He reflects on the actor Don Shirley, and the movie he wishes could be made where no Black suffers, where they simply live. He remembers fellow Columbus native Buster Douglas’s stunning defeat of Mike Tyson twenty-eight days after his mother’s death–and how he could see the change in the eyes of a man who no longer feared.
Abdurraqib dedicates the book to Josephine Baker and the book’s central chapter focuses on her extraordinary dancing career–the vaudeville performer who flees to France, first entertaining Black servicemen in World War I and then making it her performing home, and using her talent and celebrity to act as a spy in World War II. Abdurraqib reflects on his own departure and return to Columbus as he traces Baker’s return to the U. S. Each section begins with “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” most of which reflect Abdurraqib’s poetry slam experience, having the feel of spoken word performance.
He moves seamlessly between profiles of performers and his varied life experiences. He reveals the kind of Black performance that goes on every day, whether in a game of spades or “beef” and the thin line that often runs between love and hate, closeness and violence, and the possibility that it could all end, as it had with so many friends. The book captures the range of emotion from exuberant joy to rage, from soulful hope to the gritty resistance that runs through both Black performance and Black life in America. There is the apprehension of the sweetness of life and love, made all the more so because it can be snuffed out in a moment and that “no job can stop a bullet.”