Hanif Abdurraqib got into writing through the poetry slam circuit in Columbus, Ohio, which might explain why reading A Little Devil in America, his book of essays on black culture, feels like hearing him speak. He addresses the reader and skates between subjects. He might consider astrology, Michael Jackson, Blade Runner 2049 and the musician Sun Ra in pursuit of a single thought, as if in late-night, errant conversation with a friend.
This is not to say the essays lack discipline. Every subject is carefully chosen in the service of a broader critical project, which is to understand the significance of black performance in the US across media such as music, dance, comedy and even card games. Take the piece on “magical negroes”, a term that is applied to black characters, like Bubba in Forrest Gump, who provide absolution for white protagonists. The magical negro that Abdurraqib is most interested in is the real-life Dave Chappelle, the devilish comic who found success in the 2000s with his TV series, Chappelle’s Show.
The programme had an acid wit: one well-known sketch is about a blind black man who, unaware of his race, becomes a strident white supremacist. White audiences adored it, but were they laughing with or at him? “It took white people loving Chappelle’s Show for it to become worth as much as it was to a network,” Abdurraqib writes, “but it took white people laughing too loud and too long – and laughing from the wrong place – to build the show a coffin.” Abdurraqib recounts how, at the taping of a sketch that made use of a bellboy in blackface, Chappelle noticed a white man who was laughing a bit too much. In satirising his country’s racial politics, he seemed to be giving audiences the wrong kind of permission.
The incident prompted Chappelle’s famous decision to quit and fly to South Africa. Abdurraqib – with help from the plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 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 bind that America had forced him into. Later in the essay he turns to the life of Ellen Armstrong, a “magical negro” in a more literal sense: she was the first black female magician to tour the US headlining her own show. Armstrong would perform to black audiences in the mid-20th century and Abdurraqib considers how her audience’s poverty and experiences of racism would have shaped their response to her tricks, such as conjuring coins out of thin air. “Magic relies on what a viewer is willing to see, and what a viewer is willing to see relies on what the world has afforded them to be witness to. Ellen Armstrong was performing for some people who had seen both too much and not enough.”
One of Abdurraqib’s tasks is to rescue marginalised performers from the condescension of posterity. He does this lovingly in a tribute to Merry Clayton, the singer who provided the famous backing vocals to the Rolling Stones’s 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 19th century, went by the stage name Master Juba and made his skin darker to perform. He may look like a victim of his time, but this account confers on him 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 somewhere along the line Juba took what he could back … And even if the tools were shameful, some small corner of a stolen mythology was dismantled.”
Like the rest of the book, the essay on blackface makes use of confessional autobiography: Abdurraqib recounts a dream in which he tries to drown Al Jolson, that most famous blackface performer, in a bathtub. Elsewhere, he writes of his own mother’s death, his relationships with friends, his different jobs. He excavates images from his life with staying power, such as his father returning from work and “sitting in [their] driveway with the windows up on [their] old van, letting loud jazz fill the car’s interior for a few moments before exiting”. Or his attempt to moonwalk as a child, accidentally falling down the stairs at the Islamic Centre. In these scenes, Abdurraqib is not defaulting to the first-person: there is just no neat separation between his object of study and himself, between those who perform and those for whom the performance is made.
This is an affirmative project, then, but also a melancholic one. Aretha Franklin’s funeral and Michael Jackson’s death furnish important scenes. One of the opening images is of a dancer looking “lifeless” in another’s arms during a Depression-era dance marathon. “I tell my friend that I’m done writing poems about Black people being killed, and he asks if I think that will stop them from dying,” Abdurraqib writes. (It puts one in mind of the scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s now famous definition of racism as a process that makes groups of people vulnerable to “premature death”.) The melancholy may at times be prohibitive. Abdurraqib believes in transformative politics, in “reimagining ways to build a country on something other than violence and power” but chooses not to develop this vision.
There are clues, though. He loves the punk band Fuck U Pay Us, whose gigs are a riotous frenzy of reparative politics. He is seduced by the partisan commitments of Josephine Baker, who spied for the French during the second world war. He spots a type of freedom in the “code-switching” that comes with crossing musical genres, listening to grunge and metal: “We are all outside the borders of someone else’s idea of what Blackness is.” Culture isn’t politics, but it consolidates a community – that agent of political change. Paying attention to culture also sharpens one’s sensitivity to the social shape of the world; it allows Abdurraqib to clarify the many “miracles” that have been performed by artists who shone in a universe not made to their measure.
But he is most invested in what might be called ordinary miracles, the “mundane fight for individuality” against the depersonalising effects of racism. Abdurraqib ends by describing a profoundly moving moment when his brother drove many miles to find him and lift him out the depths of a depressive episode. They held each other tightly and Hanif cried in his arms. Through this performative embrace, this motionless dance, he found his footing for another day.
• A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib is published by Allen Lane (£18.95). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.