A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Hardcover)
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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. “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.
About the Author
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in PEN American, Muzzle, Vinyl, and other journals, and his essays and criticism have been published in The New Yorker, Pitchfork, The New York Times, and Fader. His first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much , was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer book award and nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us was named a book of the year by NPR, Esquire, BuzzFeed, O: The Oprah Magazine, Pitchfork and Chicago Tribune, among others. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award and Kirkus Prize finalist and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, A Fortune for Your Disaster, won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He is a graduate of Beechcroft High School.
“A rapturous exploration of Black genius . . . Whether heralding unsung entertainers or reexamining legends, Hanif Abdurraqib weaves together gorgeous essays that reveal the resilience, heartbreak, and joy within Black performance. I read this book breathlessly.”—Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half
“Abdurraqib is one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever read. A Little Devil in America needs to be on every bedside table, every high school and college desktop—in this age of revolution, this is that one book that everyone needs to read. Pure genius. I’m not trying to get at even some of the brilliance Hanif gets to with this book—there is just too much. From Black exceptionalism to Josephine Baker to old heads—he brings it and clarifies it, then shapes it into every bit of medicine we need right now.”—Jacqueline Woodson
“Staggeringly intimate . . . Abdurraqib shines a light on how Black artists have shaped—and been shaped by—American culture . . . and his prose is reliably razor-sharp. Filled with nuance and lyricism, Abdurraqib’s luminous survey is stunning.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A thoughtful memoir rolled into a set of joined essays on life, death, and the Black experience in America . . . Social criticism, pop culture, and autobiography come together neatly in these pages, and every sentence is sharp, provocative, and self-aware. Another winner from Abdurraqib.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)