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

Finalist, National Book Awards 2021 for Nonfiction

ISBN 9781984801197
Random House / Penguin Random House
Hanif Abdurraqib. (Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey) author photo
Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. A New York Times bestseller, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest was Longlisted for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. More about this author >

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At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech 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. Inspired by these 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 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.

Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians 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.

Judges Citation

A Little Devil in America is awe-inspiring as much for its comprehensive documentation of Black performance as for Hanif Abdurraqib’s spellbinding prose and intellectual heft. Whether the topic is Dave Chappelle and white audiences’ responses to his humor, the recording industry’s marketing of Whitney Houston as the “ideal Black diva,” the soul-saving expatriatism of Josephine Baker, or the influence of Black art on Abdurraqib himself, the essays in this brilliant collection instruct as they dazzle, explicate as they delight, preach as they sing.


Hanif Abdurraqib, 2021 NBAwards Nonfiction Finalist, reads from A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA