Tuesday, November 30

Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America Review: A Celebration of Black Acting | History books


Hanif Abdurraqib began writing through the slam poetry circuit in Columbus, Ohio, which might explain why reading A little devil in America, his book of essays on black culture, feels like listening to him speak. He addresses the reader and skates between topics. I could consider astrology, Michael Jackson, Blade Runner 2049 and the musician Sun Ra in search of a single thought, as if it were a wandering conversation late at night with a friend.

This is not to say that essays lack discipline. Each topic is carefully chosen in the service of a broader critical project, which is to understand the importance of black acting in the US through media such as music, dance, comedy, and even card games. Let’s take the article on “magic blacks”, a term applied to black characters, like Bubba in Forrest Gump, which offer absolution to the white protagonists. The magical black Abdurraqib is most interested in is the real-life Dave Chappelle, the diabolical comedian who succeeded in the 2000s with his television series. Chappelle show.

The show had an acid wit: a well-known sketch is about a blind black man who, unaware of his race, becomes a raucous white supremacist. White audiences adored him, but were they laughing with him or at him? “It was necessary for the whites to love Chappelle show to be worth as much as a net, “writes Abdurraqib,” but the whites laughed too hard and too long, and laughing from the wrong place, to build a coffin for the show. ” Abdurraqib recounts how, in recording a sketch using a black-faced bellhop, Chappelle noticed a white man laughing too much. By lampooning the racial politics of his country, he seemed to be giving the public the wrong permission.

The incident prompted Chappelle’s famous decision to resign and fly to South Africa. Abdurraqib: with the help of the plot of the 2006 Christopher Nolan film The prestige – encourages the reader to think of Chapelle’s disappearance and reappearance in Africa as a kind of magic trick, an escape from the impossible predicament America had forced him into. Later in the essay, she focuses on the life of Ellen Armstrong, a “magical black woman” in a more literal sense: she was the first black magician to tour the United States as the headliner of her own show. Armstrong would appear before black audiences in the mid-20th century and Abdurraqib considers how his audience’s poverty and experiences of racism would have shaped his response to his tricks, such as conjuring coins out of thin air. “Magic is based on what a viewer is willing to see, and what a viewer is willing to see is based on what the world has given them to witness. Ellen Armstrong was performing for some people who had seen too much and not enough. “

One of Abdurraqib’s tasks is to rescue marginalized artists from the condescension of posterity. He does so lovingly in a tribute to Merry Clayton, the singer who provided the famous backing vocals for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter.”. He also does this for William Henry Lane, in an essay on the history and legacy of blackface. Lane, who was born a free black man in the early 1800s, called himself Master Juba and darkened his skin to perform. You may seem like a victim of your time, but this story gives you independence of thought and action. Abdurraqib delights in recounting how Lane defeated an arrogant white minstrel performer, John Diamond, in a series of dance competitions. “All I’m saying is that at some point Juba took what he could get back … And even if the tools were embarrassing, a little corner of a stolen mythology was dismantled.”

Like the rest of the book, the essay on blackface makes use of a confessional autobiography: Abdurraqib recounts a dream in which he tries to drown Al Jolson, the most famous blackface artist, in a bathtub. Elsewhere, he writes about the death of his own mother, his relationships with friends, his different jobs. He excavates images of his life with staying power, like his father coming home from work and “sitting in [their] driveway with windows open [their] old truck, letting the loud jazz fill the interior of the car for a few moments before leaving. ” Or his attempt to walk on the moon as a child, accidentally falling down the stairs at the Islamic Center. In these scenes, Abdurraqib is not abandoning the first person: there is simply no clear separation between his object of study and himself, between those who perform and those for whom the performance is performed.

This is an affirmative project, then, but also melancholic. The funeral of Aretha Franklin and the death of Michael Jackson provide important scenes. One of the opening images is of a dancer appearing “lifeless” in the arms of another during a Depression-era dance marathon. “I tell my friend that I have finished writing poems about the death of black people and he asks me if I think that will prevent them from dying,” writes Abdurraqib. (Remember the now famous definition of racism by scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore as a process that makes groups of people vulnerable to “premature death.”) Blues can sometimes be prohibitive. Abdurraqib believes in transformative politics, in “reinventing the ways of building a country on something other than violence and power,” but chooses not to develop this vision.

However, there are clues. He loves the punk band Fuck U Pay Us, whose concerts are an unbridled frenzy of restorative politics. He is seduced by the partisan commitments of Josephine Baker, who spied for the French during World War II. He sees a kind of freedom in the “code shifting” that comes with crossing musical genres, listening to grunge and metal: “We are all outside the boundaries of someone else’s idea of ​​what Blackness is.” Culture is not political, but it consolidates a community, that agent of political change. Paying attention to culture also heightens sensitivity to the social form of the world; allows Abdurraqib to clarify the many “miracles” performed by artists who shone in a universe not made for them.

But he is more involved in what might be called ordinary miracles, the “worldly struggle for individuality” against the depersonalizing effects of racism. Abdurraqib ends by describing a deeply moving moment when his brother drove many miles to find him and lift him out of the depths of a depressive episode. They hugged each other tightly and Hanif cried in his arms. Through this performative embrace, this motionless dance, found its balance for another day.

Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance is an Allen Lane post (£ 18.95). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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