From Soul Train to Beyoncé: the joy of black performance in America

In A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib set out to celebrate black artists across music, dance, comedy and more, who succeeded even when their own country refused to honour them

When I began A Little Devil in America, I was thinking about Josephine Baker. The title of the book comes from Baker, from her speech at the March on Washington in 1963. It is a speech that is often overlooked. The legacy of the march so often centres on its male speakers (Martin Luther King Jr, A Philip Randolph), and Baker was well past her most notable prime. At 57, she chose to return to the US from France and make a small speech – but also to confront the country she’d left and vowed to not return to. The speech is at times tender, at times funny, at times teeming with rage. There was a fullness to it; Baker considering the vastness of her life and the many lives she’d lived. Her speech is defiant and brilliant, punctuated by Baker aligning her experiences with the national plight of black people in America:

You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.

Josephine Baker, 1925.
Josephine Baker, 1925. Photograph: Estate of Emil Bieber/Klaus Niermann/Getty Images

Baker was important for me when thinking about this book, because what is it to honour a life, if you do not attempt to honour the completeness of a life? What is a life – particularly a black life – in a moment that is not desirable to the constructs of whiteness, or a life that must exist and live on even when the limited imagination of whiteness is done with it. What was most gratifying about Baker’s speech, looking back on it now, is how it uses her personal history to clarify for the crowd that the America they’re living in isn’t that different from the America she felt compelled to escape. The America where she was kicked out of hotels she was later asked to perform in; the America where she would light up a stage but not be able to get a drink at the bar. Because Little Devil centres on black performance as it relates to America and the American memory, it felt vital to understand Baker’s Washington speech as an indictment of the US’s obsession with forgetting and reframing its histories, in the hopes that it will never be found out. But the thing is that a great many of us have found it out already.

The spirit of Toni Morrison hovers over the book, even though she is not in it. My first impulse was to write a different book. I was interested in the appropriation and transformation of legacies. I had spent some time in Memphis in 2015, and while there, I’d been in the old Stax building, now a soul music museum. I saw the custom Cadillac Eldorado that Isaac Hayes loved so much. He had received it as part of a deal in 1972, but then went bankrupt and lost it years later. And now it sits in a museum, detached from the artist who loved it, a somewhat comical artefact. I began to think about the legacy and treatment of black artists in a place like Memphis, where people line up to get into Graceland, to revel in the safe and sanitised legacy of Elvis Presley.

And so I set out to write an account that was initially propelled by a rageful curiosity. About what can be taken, and what was owed. Americans love to ask questions about the separation of artists from their art, as though it is the great complex inquiry of our time, but the country has extracted black art from black artists without honouring the humanity of the artmakers for years. I thought, initially, that if I set out on a scorching path to unearth the core discomforts I had with this dynamic, something would be revealed to me that might allow me to make peace – with what, or whom, I wasn’t sure. I was seeking a broad, vague comfort.

And then Morrison died, when I had pretty much a draft of the book that I felt fine with, but wasn’t entirely in love with. It was a book of inquiries that felt braided together in a kind of infinity loop of noise, and when I came out the other side of it, I was hungry for more noise. It was occurring to me that all of the answers I needed were already embedded in America’s history and relationship to black people, and that all of my digging, while not entirely futile, was not serving my actual interests.

Morrison often spoke of black writers detaching themselves from an investment in whiteness, and the ideas of whiteness; to ask the question of how the work might be better served if it was not catering to even the presence and potential presence of whiteness. I’d realised that so much of the book, then, was operating in fear. It was using the ominous nature of what could be uprooted and repurposed as a tool of propulsion, and that isn’t what I thought was most fascinating about my pursuits in the moment.

The Soul Train line dance to Jungle Boogie (1973).

What also happened around this time was that I had been sent a hard drive from an old pal. It had an immense archive of Soul Train episodes from the 1970s and 80s. I hadn’t asked for this, I’d just told my friend that I thought I needed to take the work in a more celebratory direction, and this is what he sent. For weeks, I spent hours watching clips. The ecstasy that poured over a room when a performer hit a good groove, or when an interview went in an especially salacious direction. And yes, of course, the beauty of the Soul Train line in all of its glory – dancers showing off their moves as they strut towards the camera - specifically in the 70s, when the construct of the line could be overburdened with joy and come apart, despite itself, flowing bodies on top of bodies for the sake of fighting for a little dance floor to move upon.

It was there, my nightly baptism in the glow of a television screen carrying me back to a place of pleasure, that I decided what I was actually aching for was a book about celebration, about revelling in the many revelations I came towards while watching black people move. Or when thinking about the joy in black people throwing down playing cards on a flat surface. Or when thinking about the moment during “Gimme Shelter” when Merry Clayton must have felt touched by God, entirely invincible. This was what my actual interests were reaching towards. The idea of celebration without consequence. The type of small performances that, even if they could be mimicked, could never be rightfully done by anyone but us.

It was good, for example, to also consider the funeral. A point of grief that I had known many black people to turn into a celebration. To manipulate the idea of loss into something immensely fluorescent and immediately joyous. I had so loved witnessing Aretha Franklin’s funeral and this idea that love means fighting to keep someone alive. The funeral that turns into a concert, into a dance party, into a revelation.

Beyonce performs during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016.
Beyoncé performs during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

There are those who might call this book an archival project, and I think that is generous but also would maybe do a disservice to archivists, who dedicate entire lifetimes to this type of work. I think, instead, the book is a catalogue of excitements – Beyoncé’s Super Bowl show, Dave Chapelle’s standup. I allowed myself the freedom to jump from place to place, from idea to idea, from emotion to emotion. I wanted to populate these essays with as many people as I could, as many images, as many magazine covers and songs and music videos and dance moves as I could.

In the end, I return to Josephine Baker, as I did when I’d changed the direction of the book and had to decide how to shift the tone of some of the pieces I’d already written. I thought the best story to tell about Baker was the story of her coming home, which to me also is the story of what it is to love a place that was not constructed with the interests of serving you. Some might say there is a triumph in overcoming that set of circumstances. But I came to understand the triumph in losing interest in the serving of circumstantial geographies, and instead finding some ground on which you can perform in whatever way serves you, serves your people, serves the terms you wish to engage with.

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance is published by Allen Lane (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Hanif Abdurraqib will be speaking about his book in an online event with the Southbank Centre on 25 March at 7.30pm; book tickets here.

Hanif Abdurraqib

The GuardianTramp

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