A SHOW MUST GO ON
By Yohann Koshy YOHANN KOSHY IS THE GUARDIAN’S ASSISTANT OPINION EDITOR
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, such as 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. 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 Chappelle’s disappearance and reappearance in Africa as a kind of magic trick, an escape from the impossible bind that America had forced him into. 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. 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 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”. This is an affirmative project 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. He 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. 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.