Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of long-lasting poetry, The crown is not worth much (2016), was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award 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 book of the year by Or, Oprah magazine, Los Angeles review, Pitchfork and the Chicago Tribune among others. Your 2019 follow-up, Forward in the Rain: Notes for a Tribe Called Mission, debuted in the New York Times list of bestsellers. His new book, A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, intertwines moments of personal memory with deep meditation on the performances of black American artists from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé.
So what inspired you to write a book on black acting?
I started reading about minstrels and minstrel shows, diaries of former minstrel show performers, some of whom talked about how they didn’t just feel shame when they performed. That interested me. Of course, I was raised to imagine the minstrel show as embarrassing. But somehow, for these artists who were recently enslaved or who came from a town that was enslaved, the setting was where they had a bit of power, even if they had to dehumanize in the process. I was fascinated by that and who came to define what was and what was not embarrassing, and I got to thinking about how often acting and black artists are now considered embarrassing only when pushed through the lens of what whiteness deems appropriate. , as honored.
The first section of his book is titled Performing Miracles. What is a miracle?
I am someone who fought 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 a lot of trouble. I was incarcerated from time to time. I was homeless for a while. People have an idea of what a writer is and how someone becomes a writer, but you know, I was someone who struggled not only to understand the world, but also struggled to fit into the world, and through those struggles I often felt very outside. . I used writing to get to the heart of why I felt this way. I think it’s a miracle that I’m here talking about something I wrote because for so long writing was a way to survive, not in a financial sense, but to survive in a world that I felt I wasn’t made for.
How does that sense of miracle influence your book?
I speak in the book about Ellen Armstrong, the magician, operating in the early 20th century, pulling coins from behind the ears of her audience members – poor black people, world-exhausted, who needed to see a miracle performed by someone. that looked like them. That particular trick said you had nothing and now you have something. That resonates throughout much of the black life I’ve known, whether it’s from having parents who when the refrigerator seemed empty could still put a meal on the table, or times when I had no rent but could rush to it. in a moment. day or two. Much of what I understand to be a miracle, in terms of black existence, is the opening of a closed palm and something that exists there that did not exist before.
The way you write about Whitney Houston really jumps off the page. When did it first come to life for that particular miracle?
I love Whitney Houston. She is one of my favorite pop stars. When I was young I remember my mother singing to him and that’s how I knew he was a pop star, because someone he loved was singing his songs. As I got older, I felt so connected to her, not just musically, but as someone who really had different versions of herself. I have written a lot about Whitney Houston and each time I return to her I come to a different conclusion, not only about her work, but also about myself and about the multiplicity and the multitudinous nature of blacks and black women.
Are you a guy who writes every day or is it more when the muse calls?
I don’t write every day! I wish I had it in me. It’s kind of weird for me to sit down and write one thing from start to finish. I write in bullets. In part, it’s because I always try to be present and keep everything I do fluent and fluid. I also like to break down my writing in terms of word count and homework. So if I tell myself that my goal for this essay is 6,000 words, I never think, I have to write 6,000 words. I like to say that I have to write 600 words 10 times.
That comes from athletics, right?
It’s funny that you saw that!
What is your sport
Football. I played in high school. A little bit in college. I played as a defensive midfielder, which is a lot of running but also makes a lot of decisions very quickly. It’s also a position where, if you have a big shit, that’s all people will remember.
So how did you start writing?
There was a big community of slam poetry here in Columbus and this thing where if you wanted to compete in slam poetry you had to bring a new poem a week. I just got into it.
Who were the writers that most influenced you in your childhood?
Zora Neale Hurston was huge for me. Drink Moore Campbell. Virginia Hamilton. Toni Morrison.
And what are the books that you have closest to your pillow right now?
Profit – Prophet by Patrick Blagrave. All heathen by Marianne Chan, who has a poem called In Defense of Karaoke, which is one of my favorite poems. Inheritance by poet Taylor Johnson. I’ve read that book a lot, but I read a couple of poems every night before bed.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance It is published by Allen Lane (£ 18.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
Hanif Abdurraqib will speak about his book at an online event with the Southbank Center on March 25 at 7:30 pm; book tickets here
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