Q&A with with Hanif Abdurraqib, author of ‘A Little Devil in America’

Black Americans have shaped the pop culture landscape, which poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib says can be traced back to Black innovation. 

Megan Leigh Barnard/Random House
Hanif Abdurraqib appears with his new book, "A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance."

In his book “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance,” poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores how Black Americans have shaped the culture, music, and entertainment in the United States in indelible, but unappreciated, ways. Mr. Abdurraqib touches on everything from turn-of-the-century minstrel shows to TV’s “Soul Train,” which aired from 1971 to 2006. The book’s title comes from a speech that singer Josephine Baker gave at the 1963 March on Washington. 

Q: How is Black performance woven into the fabric of America?

The history of American music cannot be separated from the history of Black music. So much of what I see in the American pop culture landscape today – and growing up, through most of my life – can be traced back to and tied to Black innovation and invention. But the country doesn’t always value Black people as it does Black art, or Black creation. And so I’m constantly thinking about how to honor those things.

Q: How did the book evolve?

Initially I was writing mostly about dance as performance, but then I was thinking about emotional performance, or the performance of having to live in a world where you see yourself one way, but there are many people who perceive you another way. And so the central question of the book became: How do I define performance, and what are the multitude of ways that I have to fit into those definitions and that I’ve seen other Black folks fit into those definitions, in ways that are, to me, joyful or pleasure-bringing, and not just painful or stressful? 

Q: Are you applying a wider definition of the idea of “performance”?

I grew up as a Black person in America, performing in a multitude of ways. And I also have an investment in the ways that Black art and music and performance have been commodified by America in ways that don’t benefit the people who invented the performances. And so it was important for me to uplift and uphold not only the ways that I’ve performed, but some of the ways that I’ve seen my people perform, you know, for the greater good of ourselves, for the enhancement of ourselves and not for the sake of anyone else. 

Q: Did you have a favorite performance?

Writing about “Soul Train” was cool, because I got to watch a bunch of “Soul Train” videos. There’s an archive of them online, but I tracked down a VCR to play old VHS tapes of the show. That for me was the most exciting part of this whole process, doing archival work and digging up visuals of these performances.  

Q: What were some unifying themes that you found in writing the book?

I think innovation is the one unifying theme. How Black folks have made space for their folks and the things they enjoy, the things they love, sometimes out of nothing. ... Innovation as a gateway to pleasure is maybe the one thread that feels present through the whole book.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I hope they understand what stories get prioritized and privileged in pop culture narratives, and which ones don’t. I also hope there’s some discovery in this book, because for me writing it, there were moments of discovery that were thrilling. My hope is that there can be those moments of discovery for other people, be it wanting to go look at photos, or wanting to go watch a video, or wanting to remember.

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