cover image A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

Hanif Abdurraqib. Random House, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-98-480119-7

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.)