Early in "A Little Devil in America," the new book from Hanif Abdurraqib, the author considers the midday sock hops his high school would sometimes hold. He and his fellow students would dance in the dark of the school auditorium, then return, worn out and sweaty, to their regular classes. "It occurs to me now that this was the real joy of dancing: to enter a world unlike the one you find yourself burdened with, and move your body toward nothing but a prayer that time might slow down," Abdurraqib writes.
It's a fitting beginning to Abdurraqib's book, which blends elements of memoir and criticism to reflect on the experience of Black performance in the U.S. It's an absolutely brilliant book from a critic who's become one of the country's most essential writers.
Abdurraqib covers a wide variety of topics in "A Little Devil in America," from Aretha Franklin to "Soul Train" to Mike Tyson. In one essay, he writes about Josephine Baker, who left America at 19. Abdurraqib considers Baker's relationship with her home country in contrast with his own love of his hometown, Columbus, Ohio: "I maybe find myself envious of Josephine Baker because she was unafraid to leave. … She made herself bigger and more desirable than anywhere she could have been or been from."
Abdurraqib proves to be remarkably gifted at exploring all angles of a topic, linking them in deft and unexpected ways. In one essay, he writes about seeing the 2004 film "Crash," and deciding to leave early because he "had seen enough of the old gag about how white people and Black people are different and ain't that just the weirdest thing."
From there, he considers films like "Green Book," and ends by talking about the movie he'd like to see made about musician Don Shirley, who was portrayed by Mahershala Ali in that Oscar-winning film.
"Mostly, I want a movie about Don Shirley that allows for him to be seen through worthy eyes," Abdurraqib writes about the pianist and psychologist. "I want a Don Shirley movie that isn't tasked with solving any problem it didn't create." It's fascinating to witness Abdurraqib go from place to place and end up somewhere unexpected, but somehow perfect.
In one of the most powerful pieces in the book, Abdurraqib reflects on performances of softness, drawing on topics like his mother's death and the Wu-Tang Clan's music video for "Triumph." It ends with a litany of friends he's lost, and he concludes, "I know now that I have always loved you and now you are gone. ... I have drawn the tattoo a thousand times, boys. I haven't yet found the skin worthy of your names."
It's a heartbreaking moment that's also a perfect example of Abdurraqib's talent — he's a brilliant writer, but also a deeply generous, loving one. Critics, as Abdurraqib would know, are taught to avoid superlatives, but sometimes there's no other choice. To call Abdurraqib anything less than one of the best writers working in America, and to call this book anything less than a masterpiece, would be doing him, and literature as a whole, a disservice.
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Texas.
A Little Devil in America
By: Hanif Abdurraqib.
Publisher: Random House, 320 pages, $27.