A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Brought to you by Penguin.
An electrifying celebration of Black performances, cultures and communities in the United States, from the New York Times best-selling poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib.
At the March on Washington, Josephine Baker reflected on her life and her legacy. She had spent decades as one of the most successful entertainers in the world, but, she told the crowd, 'I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too'. Inspired by these words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a stirring meditation on Black performance in the modern age, in which culture, history and his own lived experience collide.
With sharp insight, humour and heart, Abdurraqib explores a sequence of iconic and intimate performances that take him from mid-century Paris to the moon - and back down again, to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio. Each one, he shows, has layers of resonance across Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire and his own personal history of love and grief - whether it's the 27 seconds of 'Gimme Shelter' in which Merry Clayton sings, or the magnificent hours of Aretha Franklin's homegoing, Beyoncé's Super Bowl show or a schoolyard fistfight, Dave Chapelle's skits or a game of spades among friends.
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|Listening Length||9 hours and 38 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com.au Release Date||30 March 2021|
|Best Sellers Rank|| 32,688 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
9 in Theatre History & Criticism
16 in Biographies of Jazz Musicians
16 in African American Demographic Studies
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Top reviews from other countries
Also, it's funny and tender as well as being razor sharp, deep, intelligent, profound. loved it.
This is a beautiful, lyrical book and it opens with joy, the joy of dancing and the feeling of 'walking out of a hot sweat-drenched dance party and into a cool night'. The first of the books five movements explores this joy through Don Cornelius's Soul Train, Michael Jackson, Black funerals, and Aretha Franklin's film "Amazing Grace". Later sections explore the various meanings and nuances of performance. Performing for yourself and your people to performing a self to make yourself less threatening, more invisible, or more acceptable to white people.
I learned so much from reading this book and found myself breaking off to google the songs, pictures, and people Abdurraqib discusses (Merry Clayton's vocals on 'Gimme Shelter', Labelle's space outfits, Whitney Houston’s inability to dance, the minstrel act Master Juba, Josephine
Baker, and punks FUPU). I loved the rhythm of his prose and the places and people it evoked. However, Abdurraqib makes it clear that his book and other works are not there to do the job of absolving white readers or making them feel better about themselves, Black people are not 'invisible until they are desired. Where they are an echo of nonexistence until they can fulfil a need, or tell a story, or be a thread in the fabric of someone else’s grand design.' Instead this a work about visibility and making a space that is your own. Black excellence for Abdurraqib 'rests in the mundane fight for individuality':
"Excellence, too is showing up when it is easier for you not be present, especially when no one would notice you being gone. When those same people arise only to applaud you for what they see as your desire to save them from themselves and the growing tab on their endless damage. When your mark is your own, defined by rules of your own making, you build the boat wide enough for your people and whatever you need to survive. You save yourself first."
I picked this up because although I hadn’t read Abdurraqib’s other work, I had heard excellent things about this book from within the Blogsphere so was keen to check it out. I was not disappointed.
The book is organised around 4 movements: Performing Miracles; Suspending Disbelief; On Matters Of Country/Provenance; and Anatomy Of Closeness/Chasing Blood. Each Movement then has a number of essays that riff around a broad theme. Performing Miracles includes essays on dancing and funerals. Suspending Disbelief focuses on black face, illusion and magic, the interaction between Black and white society and culture and space and science fiction. On Matters Of Country/Provenance looks at national identity and what it means to feel that you belong to a country, place or community and how Black people contribute to white success and yet are criticised when they show shortcomings. Anatomy of Closeness/Chasing Blood looks at violence and conflict (with one essay focusing on what it means to have “beef”) and also despair and fear.
In each essay Abdurraqib weaves in profiles of various Black performers and sportsmen - some of whom I had heard of, others (such as the 19th century Black dancer William Henry Lane (who performed as Master Juba), magician Ellen Armstrong and singer Joe Tex) were new to me to illustrate his arguments or depictions of Black experience. He also draws on his own life experiences such as the death of his mother, his relationship with his older and cooler brother and (in a section that moved me the most) his own battles with depression and poor mental health. I have been trying to educate myself on the way discrimination affects the Black community both within the UK and the USA but I have to say that the way he contextualises his examples, biographies and critiques within Black life experience really opened my eyes to layers that I was not previously aware of, highlighting the bonds within the community and what forms it as much as the discrimination that it faces. I should say that while this is a US-centric book, I can well believe that a lot of what he talks about would resonate with Black people within the UK as well.
I will say (and this is my only criticism of the book) that I found the style in the opening chapter a little difficult to jam with. It’s got a real stream of consciousness vibe to it, with ampersands used instead of the word “and” plus it’s one long run on sentence. I did see why Abdurraqib was trying to achieve with it - and it does make it more personal - but, for me, it was a little distancing as an opener (although I should say that when a similar style is used for sections later on, I found them easier to get into and follow).
That aside, what I found particularly notable about the book is how he writes about the celebrities he incorporates. This is not fawning hagiography - Abdurraqib is a serious critic and he draws out the flaws as much as he does the strength. For example, his section of Dave Chappelle (who famously walked away from a high paying comedy deal because he was concerned that white people were not understanding the humour and saw him as “blessing” their racism) mentions Chappelle’s more recent material that has been criticised by the trans-community - particularly pertinent given recent events. Similarly, in a section about Mike Tyson, he gives particular focus to the allegations made by Robin Givens and to Tyson’s own reaction to it during a TV interview with the pair, which became notorious.
All in all, I thought that this was a really insightful, intelligent and moving essay collection that really does make you consider Black experience and the place of Black performance within both the US and African-American communities. Abdurraqib received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2021 and this book deservedly won the 2021 Gordon Burn non-fiction award. I will definitely be checking out Abdurraqib’s other work on the strength of this and I will also make a point of buying whatever book he puts out next.