Hanif Abdurraqib centers joy in ‘A Little Devil in America’

The author, poet and cultural critic appears in virtual conversation with Sharon Udoh at 7 p.m. tonight via Two Dollar Radio

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Hanif Abdurraqib

When Hanif Abdurraqib sat down to begin work on the essays that would become A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, he had an entirely different book in mind.

“It was going to be about minstrelsy and appropriation and the history of appropriation,” said Abdurraqib, who will celebrate the release of A Little Devil by joining musician Sharon Udoh in virtual conversation at 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, March 30) via Two Dollar Radio. “But that wasn’t as interesting to me to write, because, whether or not I wanted to, that approach was so intensely centering whiteness … to a point where it felt like it was robbing the book of its built-in possibility. And I wanted to write something that felt celebratory.”

Abdurraqib said he started to unlock this potential when, following the advice of his editor, Maya Millett, he divided an essay that initially tied together “Soul Train” founder Don Cornelius and pop superstar Whitney Houston, giving each artist their own individual space within the collection. “And that was it. It was this idea that, without even knowing or realizing it, I was limiting the amount of affection I was showing individual people and their stories,” said Abdurraqib, a Columbus native who grew up on the East Side. “To free myself of that was thrilling, and suddenly it was like, oh, the excitement resting in this book can be limitless.”

The essay on Cornelius lands early in A Little Devil and helps establish a tone for everything that follows, particularly as Abdurraqib writes about “Soul Train’s” trademark line dance, which he describes as “Black people pushing other Black people forward to some boundless and joyful exit,” and how he viewed Cornelius’ larger creative vision, writing, “Don Cornelius saw in Black people a promise beyond their pain.” These themes surface time and again throughout the collection as Abdurraqib writes about a multitude of Black performers being joyfully whisked forward in their endeavors by their ancestors, along with the greater sense of escape afforded to each by the stage. 

“The Black dancers who Lindy Hopped in segregated ballrooms or casinos were about celebrating their ability to move like no one else around them could move, for whatever time they could,” Adurraqib writes about early Black marathon dancers. “Pushing themselves to the brink of a short, blissful exhaustion.”

At times, Abdurraqib writes breathlessly, particularly as he recounts his own experiences in long, unbroken sentences dotted with ampersands, passages that propel the reader roller coaster-like through the text while simultaneously sending them spinning into the past. Always a vividly descriptive writer, Abdurraqib reaches new heights here, setting the reader alongside him as he Moonwalks into a pile of shoes at a high school dance, and again as he pulls down a pair of long-stashed dress shoes from high up in the closet, only to have mud accrued during his mother’s funeral a year prior fall off and brush against his face.

Abdurraqib said the book’s more descriptive flair is a byproduct of the research process, during which he would spend hours online watching “Soul Train” dancers and live performances by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Josephine Baker and Beyonce, among others.

“So much of my research on other books has been text-based, like the flower poems in [A Fortune for Your Disaster], where I was literally researching flowers,” Abdurraqib said. “But the research for this book was intensely video-based and visual-based, and being led through visuals was more exciting and more robust, and I think if there’s a way the writing has changed in this book, it’s because I spent so much time immersed in a visual world, which required me to write visually in order to give people access to what I was seeing."

Witness, for one, the way Abdurraqib describes the power Josephine Baker had to render an audience mute: 

It is said that whenever Josephine Baker was on a stage, there was no one else on the stage. All of the other bodies blended into whatever background was created by her furious whirling or sly and calculated romancing of an audience. It is possible to teach dance, of course. But it is impossible to teach a natural ability to calculate the many ways you can get an audience to watch you, mouths hanging open, unable to speak.

Moving forward, Abdurraqib envisions these newly attained skills, which he described as part of an ever-growing toolkit, bringing greater depth and clarity to future works, discussing the writing process as one of constant evolution, and one that has occasionally left him feeling distant from the past arguments and stances he has taken in print.

“Truth be told, I hope I grow and evolve through my work, and so this book, with any luck, will open a path for me to write whatever is coming next, and in that process I might learn some things about myself and what I believe that will render parts of this book obsolete,” Abdurraqib said. “And that’s just a part of the process, and it’s one I think should be celebrated.”

Though some of the ideas explored in A Little Devil, and particularly those about locating joy amid painful circumstances, can be applied to parts of the last year, Abdurraqib completed most of the work prior to 2020, with early sketches of some essays dating back as early as 2016.

During these years, and particularly during a whirlwind 2019 broken up with numerous book tours, Abdurraqib lived an unsettled existence. “I felt like I was floating in a way, where it was like, well, if I need to move for any reason, I can,” he said. This changed when the writer, poet and cultural critic purchased a home in Columbus last year, putting down roots and establishing a sense of routine that has brought with it a growing sense of comfort, even as he continues to struggle with the issues of gentrification and racial injustice that have long plagued both the city and the nation at-large.

“I’m so routine-based and I didn’t know that before, because my routine was chaos and therefore my life was chaos,” said Abdurraqib, who typically starts most days either by meditating or by making 30 jump shots at Blackburn Park, a basket whose unforgiving rims can force similar levels of concentration, after which he’ll write through the early afternoon. “There’s something to be said for what it’s felt like to be grounded in my house, and writing in my house and in a city I love now. The circumstances [in Columbus] are less than ideal, and I do wish there were less anxieties and suffering revolving around this particular moment, but I think I’ve found a good way to live.”