At the March On Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was 57 years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech at the march, she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. From those few words, 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 27 seconds in “Gimme Shelter” where 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 culture, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.
Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians who he loves. 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.