After several books of poetry and essays and a New York Times bestselling meditation on A Tribe Called Quest, acclaimed author and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib was halfway through his fifth offering—an exploration and critique of the history and dynamics of Black performance in America—when he suddenly “shifted the spirit of the book.”
“At first...my thought was that I was going to write a book about appropriation and minstrelsy, and the ways that Black performance has been uprooted from Black performers and repurposed through the white gaze and white lenses and profited off of,” he shares on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “But then I was like, that wasn’t that fun of a book to write, because in order to follow that line of inquiry, I realized that I had to center whiteness even if I didn’t want to—or I had to offer too much space to whiteness, even if it wasn’t centering. And I had to offer, like, more space to it that I was actually interested in. And I was kind of, you know, in my head, I was like, ‘this isn’t really fun,’ you know...it’s more upsetting than anything. And around that time, I was thinking a lot about Ms. Toni Morrison, who talked so much about removing whiteness from the imagination and then seeing how much room we have.”
That revelation happened coincide with the arrival of a gift; a hard drive containing almost every Soul Train episode from 1971 to 1989. Revisiting the groundbreaking and deeply inspiring Black entertainment series, the equally inspiring A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance was born.
“I think through watching and through witnessing some of these things, I grew a sense of wonder and awe with the generosity of black evolution; in the way that black folks are not monolithic in that evolution,” Abdurraqib explained. “I could have watched all those Soul Train episodes with the sound off and still have gotten a feel for how Black fashion, Black hair, Black politics, Black performance evolved in those years, you know—and that was just like an 18-year window. And so that that was so much of the research, was just being in awe of performances and then running to the page to share what I’d witnessed,” he continued, adding: “I don’t know if I can ever write a book like this again, because so few other books I think that I’m interested in would call for me to really just steep myself in miracles and then run to the mountaintop and shout about the miracles.”
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You can hear more about the miraculous work of Hanif Abdurraqib in Episode 38 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!:Hanif Abdurraqib Illuminates the History of Black Entertainment with ‘A Little Devil in America’, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this episode.