A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
- By Hanif Abdurraqib
- Random House
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Colin Asher
- May 14, 2021
A brilliant, multilayered ode to African American genius.
Of all the writers currently working on the American scene, there are few capable of producing prose I admire as much as Hanif Abdurraqib’s and none whom I have less interest in trying to emulate. His perspective is idiosyncratic and coolly confident. He gives the impression that he can transfer his entire self onto the page and remain completely at ease while doing so. His store of knowledge is intimidating, and his style inimical.
I figured that Abdurraqib’s third book, Go Ahead in the Rain, would be his masterpiece. And if he were any other writer, it would have been. As that book’s cover explains, "it is a love letter to a group, a sound, and an era.” Its subtitle is “Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.”
That’s “notes to,” not “notes on” (as most similar titles are rendered): a tiny rhetorical distinction, but a meaningful one. It was a signal that Abdurraqib intended to address his subjects directly, as peers, rather than observing them and their work from a discreet, academic distance. And as promised, the book is confessional, impressionistic, and inspired — never dispassionate or blandly objective.
Go Ahead in the Rain traipses through time and space with ease and plays with tone and rhythm; and it is thick with insight and revelatory swatches of history, anecdote, and memoir. Among a great many other things, it contains a brief history of the African origins of American music, a reference to the minimum number of samples on each track of Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” (three), and an account of the author’s high school musical preferences.
Reading that book was humbling. It transported me back to the year I enrolled in community college, began reading seriously for the first time, and started trying to puzzle my way through the mechanics and the purpose of composition. It was a wonder to me, and every few pages, I found myself thinking, as I had in that earlier era: How did he make that work? Is that allowed? Can a book do that?
But Abdurraqib’s newest, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, is an even more impressive work. It shares much with Go Ahead in the Rain — sharp reasoning and keen observation, moving lyrical passages, and confessional sections of memoir — but its scope is more ambitious and, as it turns out, the author’s talents are well suited to a large canvas.
There are no cultural spaces in America untouched by Black creativity and genius, so no single book could contain a definitive account of Black performance. Wisely, Abdurraqib has not attempted to write one. He selected his subjects — Sun Ra, the magician Ellen Armstrong, Don Cornelius, the dancer William Henry Lane, Merry Clayton, and others — according to his passions and makes no attempt to justify his enthusiasms or force them into a theoretical framework.
A Little Devil in America has no single thesis, but Abdurraqib revisits a number of themes within its pages, folding new meaning into his observations each time he adopts a fresh perspective. He writes about the relationship between Black performance and freedom; the need for “a people” to embrace joy, “lest they believe themselves only worthy of pain”; and the fraught relationship between Black performers and white audiences. And he weaves his own story through the text as he does so, adding emotional resonance to the book by tying his observations and his characters’ stories to his lived experience.
Abdurraqib possesses both a conversational narrative voice and great faith in his readers, the combination of which can be deceptive. Often, it seems that he’s meandering along with no terminus in mind, slipping from subject to subject and latching onto stray details as his curiosity dictates. But just when it appears that he’s hopelessly lost in his narrative, he’ll deliver an insight of such clarity that he stops you dead. And it’s then that you realize he had been building toward a point all along, that every word of preamble had been carefully selected.
A section that begins with an account of Don Shirley’s career (musician, psychologist, musician again) and then moves onto a discussion of, among other things, the critical success of the films “The Help,” “Crash,” and “Remember the Titans,” comes into focus with these lines:
“To push those performances to the forefront prioritizes a cycle that gives value to the roles Black people play when they are a part of work that reframes and recasts racism in service of white comfort. The awards, the notoriety, it all aims to soften the landing. History, both the arm holding down the drowning body and the voice claiming the water is holy.”
And a section that opens with Abdurraqib attending a punk show headlined by the band Fuck U Pay Us (its name is a reference to reparations) takes a detour through his childhood, including an account of his parents’ divergent punishment philosophies, then returns to the band and coheres with this statement:
“This is what I had been looking for. Rage to the untrained eye and ear, yes. But also a deep, deep love for anyone who knows better. Anyone in a room, shouting about burning it all down while being affirmed by the people around them. Anyone who has beaten their fists against a wall, hoping it might crack and reveal to them a place for their people to live unburdened, whoever their people might be.”
With his greatest and most ambitious work (to date) now in print, Hanif Abdurraqib has undoubtedly become a part of the history he chronicles in A Little Devil in America — a Black artist who has revealed himself to a country that has yet to reconcile itself entirely to the fact of his humanity, never mind his talent. And that raises the uncomfortable possibility that his fate will echo that of the artists he has written about, too many of whom crafted their greatest works from their suffering, were denied their dignity and never acknowledged for their genius, or were too quickly forgotten.
But I hope he’s able to defy those precedents — that his work continues to be praised for years to come, that he earns what he deserves and never has to write a word he doesn’t believe in, and that no one with ill intent ever opens one of his books and attempts to convict him on the basis of his confessions. And as he said while wishing good fortune upon the supremely talented but unlucky Merry Clayton: “I don’t want to hear from any motherfucker who isn’t with the program.”
Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren. His writing has appeared in the Believer, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and many other publications.