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What Is There to Celebrate? An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

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Hanif Abdurraqib. Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard.

Hanif Abdurraqib spent the winter shoveling. In Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, he often found himself spending hours clearing the snow from his driveway, only for it to start back up again as soon as he was done. Sometimes, his neighbor would be out there, too, and as they braced themselves for the cold and the work ahead of them, they’d exchange a smirk, a raised eyebrow, and a nod, as if to say, Ain’t this some shit. Abdurraqib laughs as he offers this anecdote, not just because it’s funny but because of the simple, effervescent joy that bubbles up from beneath interactions like this—when you’re with your people, and things do not have to be explained, or even spoken, to be understood.

But how do you put these moments into language? In part, this is the project of A Little Devil in America, Abdurraqib’s new collection of essays on the history of Black performance in the U.S. It’s Whitney and Michael, minstrelsy and blackface, school dances and sports games, Soul Train and a spades table, and so many other cultural artifacts held beneath a loving microscope for Abdurraqib’s careful examination. A practiced author, poet, and critic with books such as Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019) and They Can’t Kill Us until They Kill Us (2017) under his belt, Abdurraqib is in complete control here, balancing the personal and the public as he explores the legacy, the nuance, and sometimes, yes, the shame of Black performance while surrendering even himself to scrutiny—the limits of his past self, the limits of all this loving.

When we spoke on the phone earlier this year, we discussed optimism, gratitude, and grace, I was reminded of the Lucille Clifton poem that goes, “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” I thought of it again as I reread the book’s final essay, in which Abdurraqib writes, “Isn’t that the entire point of gratitude? To have a relentless understanding of all the ways you could have vanished, but haven’t?”

Although Abdurraqib admits to feeling cynical sometimes, A Little Devil in America is a testament to still being here, still finding moments to celebrate despite everything else. If you were to transform a head nod into something that could be held within the pages of a book, it would look like this. If you were to tell someone you loved them, you missed them, and you were happy to know them, you would hope it sounded like this. There is no exaggerated sentimentality, but there is—even in the middle of mourning—music, and even dancing.


In A Little Devil in America, you celebrate the joy of Black performance, but you don’t shy away from its difficult history. Can you talk a little about that?


When I was first writing the book, I spent a lot of time in the midst of minstrelsy and blackface. Much of that is still in the finished book, but the original drafts were anchored by it. I don’t want to disparage my past books, obviously, but I do think it was a different type of thrill to spend time deep in the archives of performances that I perhaps would have once seen as only shameful or only frustrating to witness. To add humanity and illuminate some corners of those felt really good. In the accounts I read, minstrel performers often talked about how the stage, in a way, was pulling them closer to a type of freedom they otherwise would not have been able to access. And that kind of reframed my thinking around shame and survival—making something out of what they had at the time in order to ascend to heights that they were denied at every other turn. Which doesn’t mean that I’m, like, coming out in favor of minstrel shows, but it was important to recontextualize, to think about what it was like to be a person who had been enslaved, or had a relative who had been enslaved, and possessed very few resources to perform in a way that provided power to the people.


You spend time with so many different performances and types of performance, both public and private. How did your definition of performance evolve, especially in regards to how it’s embedded in the Black community?


As someone who came up performing in multiple ways—as a high school athlete, as a drama-club member, as a poet who reads things onstage—I wanted to step back and ask myself what I believed the fullest and richest interpretations of Black performance to be and, through those interpretations, how I could celebrate it. Thinking, for instance, about the game of spades as a type of performance brings me closer to a desire to celebrate it or to name the pleasure that comes out of both witnessing and being immersed in it. I love when someone breaks out some new house rules that’s just, like, their shit, and I’m always like, Oh yeah, I know what’s going on. And that, too, is the performance within the performance. Even if I don’t know what the fuck is going on, I’m still going to pretend. And I would prefer that, to fake it until I make it, to being on the outside of the experience—even if that outside is still loving, even if it’s people whom I love and who love me, I still want to be in that fold. Because I know in that fold there’s an affection that cannot be duplicated.


So do you write to the inside or the outside? Is there an imagined audience, and if so, how do you bring them into these more esoteric moments without compromising the intimacy?


I think a lot about what will serve the people who not only know what I’m attempting to do but also don’t need an explanation. There’s something really celebratory about coming to the page and knowing that you’re in conversation with someone who trusts you, who understands that you do not need to be walked through something that you lived, and who isn’t trying to waste your time. Now, there are some things I don’t mind building scaffolding around for the sake of historical context, but I’m not going to explain the rules of spades or a certain dance move when I can paint a picture of a time or a person. Like, to describe Don Cornelius—in voice, in stature, in elegance—does a greater service to a reader than explaining what Soul Train is. It’s in service of people who have an understanding of where I am trying to take them, who, instead of looking for explanation, are perhaps looking for an image that will enliven their memory of something or someone. And as a writer, I think my voice can be a lot more playful when I feel like I’m in a conversation with people who know what I’m talking about. I can write as though I’m in the room and we’re laughing across the table. And that is what I wanted to replicate—the feeling of being in a room with my people, going back and forth over something inconsequential that to us, in that moment, means the world.


Can communities, even if they’re of affection and love, sometimes be alienating?


Alienation is a harsh word, but I don’t mind being on the outside of a community that I would hinder with my presence. Sometimes—for me, at least—the best move is to move, to be out of the way. And to be frank, there are some groups and communities that I am not equipped to be a part of or don’t want to be a part of, because community to me has always felt, and still feels, like a very intentional project of care and of holding your people close.

There’s a self-awareness that I strive for, perhaps in understanding what I can offer to whom and when I can offer it. Other than that, sometimes the best thing to do is to stay on the outside of something. There’s an idea of performance as a barrier to keep out those who perhaps do not understand every mode of interaction and are not required to, and I think the approach to the book was similar. I could only write about the portions of performance, and the witnessing of performance, as I saw it. So I never wanted to come across as an expert, but I did want to present myself as someone who had been thinking a lot about performance and survival through different generations.


Still, with all the eras and generations the book spans, so much of it feels rooted in your own adolescence. You give a lot of grace to that period, that stumbling process of figuring out what you liked and what you were like, especially when both might have been flawed.


I really revel in the opportunity to go back and say, Well, I was wrong about this, but I was wrong about it due to a set of circumstances. Sometimes not even saying, I did the best with the tools I had at the time, but instead saying, The tools I had at the time were faulty, and I didn’t do the best with them, but now I’m interested in reformatting that something from the past mentally, without stripping myself of what it did mean to me when I first encountered it. For example, I don’t really feel the way about Michael Jackson that I did when he died. But in the book, I write about his death and his funeral because of what that moment did to propel my thinking about death and funerals. I’m never beholden to anything I believed once. Instead, I feel more beholden to the search for new information and then an adjustment based off of that information. But I certainly don’t feel beholden to like, Well, I believed this or felt this once, so I have to carry it with me for the rest of my life or I have to feel bad about it. I think in between there lies a more interesting examination—why I believed something. And if I measure that up against what I believe now, what can be exhumed from that? Which is more worthwhile than just wagging my finger at my past self.


What about the stakes of performance and representation right now in media and culture?


My big thought always is that whatever representation is or could be, if it is not serving the eventual liberation of and ability for Black folks to determine their own paths, then I don’t know if it’s really useful. The politics of representation—I mean, particularly literally in politics—has so often stifled progress. I’ve seen it stifle progress for people who are on the ground working, for people who have been organizing in their communities for decades, for generations of people who have been uplifting Black folks in their communities. My hope is that people continue to resist being satisfied by the optics of representation, and always return to the work. Because there’s always going to be more work to be done.

I’m someone who has organized his community and continues to and will continue to, and I think one thing that’s helped me is being in contact with folks who are already on the ground here and continually asking what the people here need and how I can be of service to empowering and liberating these folks. I’m proud of this book, and I love this book, but me writing a book doesn’t do anything material in terms of broad-strokes liberation or the people I care about, particularly here in Columbus, but also nationally, globally. I’m not trying to disparage the work I did—I’m very proud of it—but I’m trying to separate the work I do as a person who creates things from the work I am striving to do that will hopefully outlive whatever I produce on the page.


In one of the sections about Whitney Houston, you write, “No matter how much our people love us, they can’t protect us.” So what can we do? What can love do?


Well, I try to be very thoughtful about the limits of love and the limits of excitement and the limits of my own curiosities, too. And the limits of what I believe freedom to be. In some ways, this is because I am admittedly too cynical, though I don’t believe myself to be pessimistic. I often run up against understanding the limits of how far a love for any people and any people’s love for themselves can carry them. I do think love can carry us very far, but we all come up against our individual limits—limits that have been heightened by the past eleven or twelve months in particular. At the end of last summer, I think those limits were stretched beyond even what many people thought they could be because we were operating in a country that, by design, is not built to reciprocate whatever love is poured into it. And even if the love is not poured, even if that love is withheld, the country can still punish at a level that does not match the withholding, that is significantly more severe than the withholding—on a community level but also on a very individual level.

So much of my investment in the celebratory nature of the book, or in the hope that the majority of the book is celebratory, was trying to come to terms with the limits of my affections, and writing with the understanding that—this does feel very cynical to say—I don’t want to take for granted the pleasureful curiosity I have, because it’s not promised, it’s not guaranteed. I saw the way the world and the country were just grinding away at the people I love, and continue to grind away at the people I love, and in my brain and in my heart, I am always in celebration of what my people have done and can do, but I worry that I will one day run out of language for that excitement. I’m not near that now, but I worry that due to the exhaustion of having to endure, witness, and be a party to a struggle braided with a history that existed before I was born and will exist likely after I’m gone … I just don’t want to take celebration for granted when I can still summon it. And I don’t want to take these small moments of pleasure that spill over beyond the rage or beyond grief or beyond mourning for granted as long as I can still articulate and illuminate them with some type of beauty. And that’s what the pursuit of this book was. And again, understanding that it’s not going to save anyone or change the materials of the machinery that many people I love are still caught in actually opened me up to more effusive joy and a broad-reaching understanding of celebration and the nuances of small movements.


You say you feel cynical, but the book does such a good job of being celebratory and feeling so generous and thoughtful. Where do you find that celebration?


There’s a cautious optimism, almost. I don’t call myself a pessimist only because I grew up around so many people who found optimism when there was none to be found. It was important for me to write about Ellen Armstrong and her well-known trick where a coin materializes from behind the ear of an eager bystander. It was particularly important to me that she was doing this trick for Black folks, and for poor Black folks, who didn’t have a lot of money, and making them feel as though they were walking around holding more than they ever knew they had.

I grew up with people who I watched make things materialize out of thin air when it felt like things were dire, and almost certainly they were. And I’m not talking about the kind of empty but true sentiment of, Well, at least you have your health. I mean in a very specific and material way. Like the lights go out because the electric bill can’t be paid, but this means we can break out the candles and hear a good story from someone, this means we can convene and connect with an ancestor through storytelling. That to me feels like optimism, or optimism materializing out of a situation that is dire. I see it reflected in some of my actual behaviors now. And to be clear, I’m not an optimist—I’m just not a pessimist. I’m somewhere in between. I live alone, and I’m taking to the winter pandemic months with less enthusiasm than the warmer months, but I’m still finding small pleasures that don’t divorce me from the treacherous nature of the lived moment, ones that get me from one breathing exercise to the next. I need that propulsion, but I never want to be so optimistic that I am detached from the reality of a situation


How do you balance optimism with cynicism—especially now, in the wake of the past year?


The book went through a lot of changes. There was a draft that I thought was too centered on whiteness, and there was a draft that was just steeped in grief—and I’ve already written a book that has a lot of grief in it. Obviously, the book was finished by the time the uprisings began last year, but toward the end of last summer, I was in the streets with folks, and at the end of one night—and this was a night when the cops were out beating people’s asses as they had been all summer—someone got out a radio and just set it down on the street and started playing music. And almost like clockwork, like a ripple effect, a couple folks started dancing, a couple more folks started dancing, and a circle formed. And then it became a whole thing. And this was at the end of the night, right? This was after people had to flush out folks’ eyes from tear gas, and after people had to put coats over those who were trying to protect their faces. And there was still energy after that, after the grief and after the weight of having to be out, the energy to feel something moving us toward celebration. Even though the casual bystander who maybe doesn’t know the intricacies of Black celebration might have looked at us like, What is there to celebrate? It felt steeped in tragedy, of course, but it felt in some way like home. Because without even speaking, someone brought out music, and that was the cue. People just started dancing and formed a circle to protect the people dancing. That is a perfect example of what does not need to be spoken or explained. And through that, through the withholding of explanation, there is a pleasure that exists, I think, just for us.


Langa Chinyoka is a writer living in New York City.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

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