A Little Devil in America

ebook Notes in Praise of Black Performance

By Hanif Abdurraqib

cover image of A Little Devil in America

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NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • “A masterpiece” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), a “devastating” (The New York Times) meditation on Black performance in America from the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain

WINNER OF THE GORDON BURN PRIZE • LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PUBLISHERS WEEKLY AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY ESQUIRE

“Gorgeous essays that reveal the resilience, heartbreak, and joy within Black performance.”—Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half


At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.

Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.

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A Little Devil in America