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A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

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NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A sweeping, genre-bending “masterpiece” (Minneapolis Star Tribune) exploring Black art, music, and culture in all their glory and complexity—from Soul Train, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé

ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Morning News, Publishers Weekly

“Gorgeous essays that reveal the resilience, heartbreak, and joy within Black performance.”—Brit Bennett, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Half

“I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too.” Inspired by these few words, spoken by Josephine Baker at the 1963 March on Washington, MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and bestselling author Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.

Touching on Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Billy Dee Williams, the Wu-Tan Clan, Dave Chappelle, and more, Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.


ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, Time, The Boston Globe, NPR, Rolling Stone, Esquire, BuzzFeed, Thrillist, She Reads, BookRiot, BookPage, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, LitHub, Library Journal, Booklist

ISBN-13: 9781984801197

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Publication Date: 03-30-2021

Pages: 320

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in PEN American, Muzzle, Vinyl, and other journals, and his essays and criticism have been published in The New Yorker, Pitchfork, The New York Times, and Fader. His first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much , was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer book award and nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us was named a book of the year by NPR, Esquire, BuzzFeed, O: The Oprah Magazine, Pitchfork and Chicago Tribune, among others. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award and Kirkus Prize finalist and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, A Fortune for Your Disaster, won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He is a graduate of Beechcroft High School. In 2021, he was named a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow.

Read an Excerpt

Soul Train was guided by Don Cornelius, who got his start as a backup disc jockey at Chicago radio station WVON. Cornelius was born in Chicago in 1936, as the era of dance marathons began to die down. He worked primarily as a news and sports reporter, but he spent his downtime emceeing a series of concerts featuring local Chicago music talent. On weekend nights, he would pack as many people as could fit into Chicago-area high schools and put on his show. He called the series “The Soul Train,” and his shows grew in popularity during the late ’60s, with people coming from all over the Midwest to dance to whatever Cornelius decided to spin.

In 1965, two dance programs were running on the upstart UHF station out of Chicago: Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues—both targeted to young people. The latter catered primarily to Black audiences, playing on Friday nights, hosted by Big Bill Hill, a DJ and promoter in the city. Red Hot and Blues featured mostly R&B, and younger kids dancing with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the hits of the day.

This was the seed for Soul Train, but Cornelius was trying to make a show that was distinctly adult, and distinctly rooted in a type of cool that was being born at the turn of the decade, when Black people were redefining themselves once again, after talk of civil rights turned to talk of complete liberation. At his core, Cornelius was a journalist who was driven to journalism by a desire to cover the civil rights movement, with an understanding that the movement was inextricably linked to the music that soundtracked it. It acted as both a call for people to take to the streets and a reprieve after a long day of protest, or marching, or working some despised job. Cornelius was frustrated by the lack of television venues for soul music, and the lack of Black people being their whole, free selves on television, and so he created a venue for it himself. By the time a television deal came knocking in 1970, he’d already established an audience. A people cannot only see themselves suffering, lest they believe themselves only worthy of pain, or only celebrated when that pain is overcome. Cornelius had a vision for Black people that was about movement on their own time, for their own purpose, and not in response to what a country might do for, or to, them.

It did help that Don Cornelius was cool. His name itself seemed like something passed through a lineage of motherf***ers who wore their hats low and kept lit cigarettes in their mouths that never burned all the way down. His full name—Donald Cortez Cornelius—might have been even cooler than the one he’s most known by, but I suppose even the freshest among us have to give people a break sometimes. He was a lanky six foot four and walked with slow, long strides. Don Cornelius didn’t dance much; he preferred instead to give the floor to the many people who spilled onto it during each taping of Soul Train once the show got picked up by television and became a breakout success. But you knew Don Cornelius could dance. There are people who you don’t even need to see move to know that they are one with rhythm, and Don Cornelius was one of those people, in part because he always looked so well put together, but also not so put together that he might shy away from f***ing up a dance floor. He’d wear velvet sport coats and keep his afro picked high and flawless. His round-framed glasses sat evenly on his face and never needed to be adjusted.

Beyond all of his aesthetic cool, Cornelius was a poet speaker, toying with melody and syntax in his introductions and interviews. At the start of each episode, the voice-over would introduce Cornelius as the camera zoomed in on him smiling easy. Then he’d take a deep breath before unfurling a long, winding sentence along the lines of

HEYYYY welcome aboard I guarantee yous’ll enjoy the ride especially if you like your soul ice cold ’cuz we got none other than the iceman himself here and he’s gonna be lookin’ ya right D-E-A-D in your eyes after this very important message.


Hey there it’s time for another sweeeet ride on the soul train and you gotta hold right on to that spot ya got because you’re not gonna wanna miss your spot we’re gonna be here alllllll night.

It also helped that Cornelius didn’t take himself too seriously. Like Soul Train itself, he was aiming to show the multitudinous nature of Blackness, and sometimes that meant he’d put on clown-shoe-sized basketball kicks to do a bit where he plays a game of H-O-R-S-E with a friend. His presence as host served the show first, without question. But he also gave enough of himself to the viewers at home to make them feel like they were in the room as well, no matter what time or era they were watching the episodes in. For a couple of hours on some scattered Sundays in my youth, I was there with the dancers in their thick ties and butterfly collars, or I was there with Earth, Wind & Fire playing “September” and an audience washing themselves with the sound like it was the sweetest thing they would ever hear. I was there, every time, at the end, with Cornelius giving his signature send-off:

We’ll be back next week and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and souuuuuullllllll!

A major feature of Soul Train was the Soul Train Line, which anchored the program. It was simple, on its face: two lines are formed, and two dancers peel off from the end of the line and dance their way to the opposite end, until the line naturally dwindles. The participants in the line don’t have a long stretch of time to make their way down, and they have to do it smoothly. Everyone is watching, at home and in the line itself. As people move down it, the waiting participants clap to the music to help keep them on beat. The history of the line itself was born out of the Stroll, a dance that gained popularity in the late ’50s and extended to the late ’60s. “The Stroll” was a 1958 song by the Diamonds, and it hit big on American Bandstand, where the dance craze gained momentum. Videos of the original Stroll don’t bring forth much excitement. The two lines are far apart, and most dancers, upon meeting in the center, simply hold hands and walk somewhat melodically down, sometimes swinging an arm or two for effect. All of the dancers are white, and the waiting dancers kick a leg out from time to time instead of clapping. In the black-and-white videos, most of the dancers look like they barely even want to be there. Like this particular song demanded a labor out of them that they were never fully committed to.

Still, the line formation itself was of interest to Cornelius, and the concept, it seemed, could be better served with some small adjustments. If the space in the line was tighter, for example. Or if the line existed outside the concept of a single song that made the movements feel like an obligation. The Stroll was slow and a bit tedious, but there was something insistent about the Soul Train Line. The songs were faster, sure. But the people inside danced with a clear urgency. Showing off their best moves as if they might forget how to do them at any moment. The people on the ends beating out a percussion with their open palms. The hand and the voice and the body, the sweetest instruments. The instruments from which all other instruments are born.

The line was an instant hit because it afforded each person their own time to shine. There were dancers who returned multiple times, and watching reruns, I was always delighted to see them reappear in the line a few weeks in a row. But I was never as happy as I was watching a new person in the line for their first time, which could sometimes be given away with an excess of flourish, or an even greater urgency spilling forth from their movements. Someone who savored their time in the line, maybe twirling sideways for a bit in order to milk just a few more seconds before finishing their turn. Someone who maybe heard stories of the line’s mythology and made a pilgrimage to see it for themselves. As the line evolved, people got more and more creative about how they chose to use it. Dancers began to bring props. The moves got more acrobatic. The couples began to coordinate outfits. The Soul Train Line became an essential part of the Soul Train viewing experience. Black people pushing other Black people forward to some boundless and joyful exit.

Table of Contents

Movement I Performing Miracles

On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance 3

On Marathons and Tunnels 5

On Going Home as Performance 23

An Epilogue for Aretha 36

Movement II Suspending Disbelief

On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance 47

This One Goes Out to All the Magical Negroes 49

Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface 68

On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs 89

Nine Considerations of Black People in Space 112

Movement III On Matters of Country / Provenance

On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance 139

The Josephine Baker Monument Can Never Be Large Enough 142

It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades 161

My Favorite Thing About Don Shirley 176

I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses 191

Beyoncé Performs at the Super Bowl and I Think About All of the Jobs I've Hated 205

Movement IV Anatomy of Closeness // Chasing Blood

On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance 221

The Beef Sometimes Begins with a Dance Move 225

Fear: A Crown 238

On the Performance of Softness 250

Board Up the Doors, Tear Down the Walls 264

Movement V Callings to Remember On Times I Have Forced Myself Not to Dance 281

Acknowledgments 285

Credits 287

Index 289