Norman Warwick finds clues in the work of Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib, The Guardian reminded us recently, ´is a poet and essayist´ on wide ranging topics  like ´the history of black performance, the meaning of miracles and the enigmatic brilliance of Whitney Houston´. This ´cultural critic´ is based in Columbus, Ohio. and his first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much(2016), was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer book prize and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright legacy award. His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017), was named a book of the year byO, the Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork and the Chicago Tribune among others. His 2019 follow-up, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest,debuted on the New York Timesbestseller list. His new bookA Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, weaves together moments of personal recollection with a profound meditation on the performances of black American artists from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé.

His interviewer, Ashish Ghadiala, from The Guardian skilfully drew interesting and provocative responses from Hanif and began by asking what inspired him to write a book about black performance.

´I’d gotten into reading about minstrelsy and minstrel shows – journals of old minstrel show performers, some of them talking about how they did not only feel shame when performing. That interested me. I was raised of course to imagine the minstrel show as only shameful. But in a way, for these performers who were either recently enslaved or were coming from a people who were enslaved, the stage was where they had a little bit of power, even if they had to dehumanise themselves in the process. I was fascinated by that and by who then got to define what was and wasn’t shameful, and I got to thinking about how often black performance and black performers now are considered as shameful only when pushed through the lens of what whiteness deems as appropriate, as upstanding.´

Because the opening section of Hanif´s book deal with the concept of miracles he  was asked how he defines the term miracle.

´I’m someone who struggled a lot. I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, but a good family, a family that cared deeply for me. In my late teens and early 20s, I was in trouble a lot. I was incarcerated from time to time. I was un-housed for a bit. People have an idea of what a writer is and how someone becomes a writer, but you know, I was someone who struggled to not only understand the world but also struggled to fit into the world, and through those struggles often felt very ´on the outside´. I used writing to get to the heart of why I felt that way. I do think that it is miraculous that I am here talking about something that I wrote because for so long writing was a way for me to survive, not in a financial sense, but to survive a world that I felt I was not made for.

I’ve written about Whitney Houston a lot and every time I return to her I come to a different conclusion´.

Hanif then explained to the reporter how that ´sense of miracle´ informs his book.

´I talk in the book about Ellen Armstrong, the magician, operating in the early 1900s, who would pull coins from behind the ears of her audience members – poor black folk, exhausted by the world, who needed to see a miracle performed by someone who looked like them. That particular trick said you had nothing and now you’ve got a little something. That echoes throughout much of the black life I’ve known, be it having parents who when the refrigerator appeared empty could still get a meal on the table, or times when I didn’t have rent but could hustle my way towards it in a day or two. So much of what I understand a miracle to be, in terms of black existence, is a closed palm opening and something existing there that wasn’t there before.´

Whitney Houston

Ashish guides Hanif back to the topic of Whitney Houston and tells him ´The way you write about Whitney Houston really jumps off the page´, before asking him when he first came alive to that particular miracle.

´I love Whitney Houston. She is one of my favourite pop stars. When I was young I remember my mother singing along to her and that is how I knew she was a pop star, because someone I loved was singing her songs. As I got older, I felt so connected to her not only musically but as someone who really came into different versions of herself. I’ve written about Whitney Houston a lot and every time I return to her I come to a different conclusion not just about her work but also about myself and about the multiplicity and the multitudinous nature of black people and black women´.

Hearing Hanif mention the quantity of his writing has Ashish asking whether he is a write every day kind of guy or does he simply resond when the  when the muse calls?

´I don’t write every day! I wish I had it in me. It’s kind of rare for me to sit down and write one thing from start to finish. I write in vignettes. Part of it is because I’m always attempting to be present and to keep everything I am doing fluent and fluid. I also like to break my writing up in terms of word count and task. So if I tell myself my goal for this essay is 6,000 words, I never think, I’ve got to write 6,000 words. I like to say I have to write 600 words 10 times.´

´Its funny you peeped that. Yeh, my sport isSoccer. I played in high school. A little bit in college. I played defensive midfielder, which is a lot of running but it’s also a lot of very quick decision-making. It’s also a position where, if you have a really big fuck-up, that is all people are going to remember.

´I got into poetry through a huge poetry slam community here in Columbus and this thing where if you wanted to compete in the poetry slam you had to bring a new poem a week. I just got into it.

Writers that influenced me most when I was growing up includedZora Neale Hurston was huge for me. Bebe Moore Campbell. Virginia Hamilton. Toni Morrison.´

This fascinating list of names had Ashish asking the poet and essayist about the books currently lying on his pillow and Hanif´s response suggested he is as prolific a reader as he is writer.

´Profit – Prophet by Patrick Blagrave. All Heathens by Marianne Chan, which has a poem in it called In Defence of Karaoke, which is one of my favourite poems ever. Inheritance by the poet Taylor Johnson. I’ve read that book a bunch but I read a couple of poems from it every night before bed´.

Hanif´s latest work,  A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance is published by Allen Lane (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

In The Guardian books review page recently that headlined his current work as covering everything From Soul Train to Beyoncé: the joy of black performance in America, Hanif spoke in even greater depth about the writing of A Little Devil in America.

When I began A Little Devil in America, I was thinking about Josephine Baker. The title of the book comes from Baker, from her speech at the March on Washington in 1963. It is a speech that is often overlooked. The legacy of the march so often centres on its male speakers (Martin Luther King Jr, A Philip Randolph), and Baker was well past her most notable prime. At 57, she chose to return to the US from France and make a small speech – but also to confront the country she’d left and vowed to not return to. The speech is at times tender, at times funny, at times teeming with rage. There was a fullness to it; Baker considering the vastness of her life and the many lives she’d lived. Her speech is defiant and brilliant, punctuated by Baker aligning her experiences with the national plight of black people in America:

You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.

Baker (left) was important for me when thinking about this book, because what is it to honour a life, if you do not attempt to honour the completeness of a life? What is a life – particularly a black life – in a moment that is not desirable to the constructs of whiteness, or a life that must exist and live on even when the limited imagination of whiteness is done with it. What was most gratifying about Baker’s speech, looking back on it now, is how it uses her personal history to clarify for the crowd that the America they’re living in isn’t that different from the America she felt compelled to escape. The America where she was kicked out of hotels she was later asked to perform in; the America where she would light up a stage but not be able to get a drink at the bar. Because Little Devil centres on black performance as it relates to America and the American memory, it felt vital to understand Baker’s Washington speech as an indictment of the US’s obsession with forgetting and reframing its histories, in the hopes that it will never be found out. But the thing is that a great many of us have found it out already.

The spirit of Toni Morrison hovers over the book, even though she is not in it. My first impulse was to write a different book. I was interested in the appropriation and transformation of legacies. I had spent some time in Memphis in 2015, and while there, I’d been in the old Stax building, now a soul music museum. I saw the custom Cadillac Eldorado that Isaac Hayes loved so much. He had received it as part of a deal in 1972, but then went bankrupt and lost it years later. And now it sits in a museum, detached from the artist who loved it, a somewhat comical artefact. I began to think about the legacy and treatment of black artists in a place like Memphis, where people line up to get into Graceland, to revel in the safe and sanitised legacy of Elvis Presley.

And so I set out to write an account that was initially propelled by a rageful curiosity. About what can be taken, and what was owed. Americans love to ask questions about the separation of artists from their art, as though it is the great complex inquiry of our time, but the country has extracted black art from black artists without honouring the humanity of the art-makers for years. I thought, initially, that if I set out on a scorching path to unearth the core discomforts I had with this dynamic, something would be revealed to me that might allow me to make peace – with what, or whom, I wasn’t sure. I was seeking a broad, vague comfort.

And then Morrison died, when I had pretty much a draft of the book that I felt fine with, but wasn’t entirely in love with. It was a book of inquiries that felt braided together in a kind of infinity loop of noise, and when I came out the other side of it, I was hungry for more noise. It was occurring to me that all of the answers I needed were already embedded in America’s history and relationship to black people, and that all of my digging, while not entirely futile, was not serving my actual interests.

Morrison often spoke of black writers detaching themselves from an investment in whiteness, and the ideas of whiteness; to ask the question of how the work might be better served if it was not catering to even the presence and potential presence of whiteness. I’d realised that so much of the book, then, was operating in fear. It was using the ominous nature of what could be uprooted and repurposed as a tool of propulsion, and that isn’t what I thought was most fascinating about my pursuits in the moment.

What also happened around this time was that I had been sent a hard drive from an old pal. It had an immense archive of Soul Train episodes from the 1970s and 80s. I hadn’t asked for this, I’d just told my friend that I thought I needed to take the work in a more celebratory direction, and this is what he sent. For weeks, I spent hours watching clips. The ecstasy that poured over a room when a performer hit a good groove, or when an interview went in an especially salacious direction. And yes, of course, the beauty of the Soul Train line in all of its glory – dancers showing off their moves as they strut towards the camera – specifically in the 70s, when the construct of the line could be overburdened with joy and come apart, despite itself, flowing bodies on top of bodies for the sake of fighting for a little dance floor to move upon.

It was there, my nightly baptism in the glow of a television screen carrying me back to a place of pleasure, that I decided what I was actually aching for was a book about celebration, about revelling in the many revelations I came towards while watching black people move. Or when thinking about the joy in black people throwing down playing cards on a flat surface. Or when thinking about the moment during “Gimme Shelter” when Merry Clayton must have felt touched by God, entirely invincible. This was what my actual interests were reaching towards. The idea of celebration without consequence. The type of small performances that, even if they could be mimicked, could never be rightfully done by anyone but us.

It was good, for example, to also consider the funeral. A point of grief that I had known many black people to turn into a celebration. To manipulate the idea of loss into something immensely fluorescent and immediately joyous. I had so loved witnessing Aretha Franklin’s funeral and this idea that love means fighting to keep someone alive. The funeral that turns into a concert, into a dance party, into a revelation.

There are those who might call this book an archival project, and I think that is generous but also would maybe do a disservice to archivists, who dedicate entire lifetimes to this type of work. I think, instead, the book is a catalogue of excitements – Beyoncé’s Super Bowl show (right) , Dave Chapelle’s standup. I allowed myself the freedom to jump from place to place, from idea to idea, from emotion to emotion. I wanted to populate these essays with as many people as I could, as many images, as many magazine covers and songs and music videos and dance moves as I could.

In the end, I return to Josephine Baker, as I did when I’d changed the direction of the book and had to decide how to shift the tone of some of the pieces I’d already written. I thought the best story to tell about Baker was the story of her coming home, which to me also is the story of what it is to love a place that was not constructed with the interests of serving you. Some might say there is a triumph in overcoming that set of circumstances. But I came to understand the triumph in losing interest in the serving of circumstantial geographies, and instead finding some ground on which you can perform in whatever way serves you, serves your people, serves the terms you wish to engage with.

Primary Source for this work was The Guardian and its Book Reviews

In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.

Those hard working ladies and gentlemen and ladies at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival remind us of another giant step on the road back to what serves as normality on their local jazz scene by announcing a great double header gig.

Next Friday 3 September – 19:00 to 22:00

It’s our first gig in over 18 months and we want to welcome great music back. This is an amazing event with 2 quintets, Lukas Oravec and Nishla Smith all for £10 (members) – £11.50.

At our normal club gigs people turn up at the door but we need you to buy them now, over this weekend before Tuesday 31st Aug, so The Grand can make preparations and create a safe environment for everyone.

The Grand reception isn’t open yet so please buy tickets online here:


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.