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

Random. Mar. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781984801197. $27. MUSIC
Poet, essayist, and cultural critic Abdurraqib (Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest) studies the impact of Black performers throughout U.S. history, sharing his own poignant stories along the way. Inspired by Josephine Baker’s extraordinary life and her self-proclaimed title of “little devil in America,” Abdurraqib pens respectful, heartwarming essays that reflect on other giants in music, television, cinema, and even magic. From intense dance marathons to afternoon sock hops, from the funerals of Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin to games of spades to barroom brawls, he examines the feeling of invisibility that haunts so many Black Americans. He scrutinizes ways in which Black artists subverted racial stereotypes, such as Josephine Baker’s banana skirt performance, which tackled the assumption of Black people as primitive and made it “so absurd that it circled around to desire.” The author also calls out the use of blackface and the sanitization of race relations in today’s films and laments the exploitation of violence against and by African Americans.
VERDICT Told with humor and grace, Abdurraqib’s stories will inspire and provoke thoughtful meditations on how Black lives matter in all areas of life and art.
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