Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib: 2021 Autobiography Finalist

By Anita Felicelli

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House)

Hanif Abdurraqib’s hybrid book, A Little Devil in America, reflects on a life and a selfhood shaped by Black performance in America. The book is an astonishing high-wire act that dances between obsessions, yet somehow, miraculously, stays in balance and aloft. It showcases Abdurraqib’s own capacity to perform in several different modes. Here, he is raconteur, essayist, observer, critic, historian, fan, elucidating performances that range from the hostile—the dozens, beef, boxing, spy craft, and spades—to the emotionally expressive forms of song and dance. 

Fittingly, perhaps, for a memoir by a critic, A Little Devil in America constructs its author’s life more as a matter of sensibility, than a string of chronological events. It starts with the history of dance marathons in white farm towns before dipping into Don Cornelius’s vision for Soul Train as a venue for Black people to move “on their own time, for their own purpose, and not in response to what a country might do for, or to, them.” This vision is Abdurraqib’s in the book, too. He moves fluidly into a consideration of the performance of partnership, a consideration that reverberates through the book, calling up surprises. There are literal performances: dancers on Soul Train, virtuoso Whitney Houston. 

But Abdurraqib also examines growing up in a Black neighborhood where there was no need to code-switch. He explains, “Many in my crew now might not admit it, but when we were kids—depending on where we grew up—to pin dressing white, or talking white, or acting white on someone who was not white felt like one of the most visceral of insults.” 

It’s a natural segue then to critiquing performances of respectability in The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air before settling into the nonfictional tensions of Abdurraqib’s own coming-of-age. He comments on an older generation’s “love that tells people that who they are isn’t enough, but that they can at least perform in a way that will make others believe they are.” The younger generation has another take: “Everyone putting different masks for different worlds and calling it freedom.” 

Abdurraqib handles moments of unmasking in his personal life as no less worthy of keen observation than Merry Clayton’s vocals in “Gimme Shelter.” He recounts a game of spades among poet friends. He loves their ability to be real with one another when their guards are down—partnership with no need to code-switch.

The book miraculously calls up a deeper substrate, the life running underneath shows. Shadows of precise reflections on others’ performances are strewn with personal memories of Abdurraqib’s mother’s death, his crews, and a restrained melancholia broken, in moments, by joy. For it’s his dreamy, personal longing for something more magnificent, freer, than the dictates of American society that is the foundation of the book. “This reckless and gasping pursuit of a world beyond this world. I am interested in what it feels like to imagine yourself as large and immovable as the sky.”

Buy this book now at Bookshop.