"Whitney Houston Could Not Dance"
On A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
The first Hanif Abdurraqib piece to make me cry was “Fall Out Boy Forever.” I read it from his first essay collection, 2017’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, in a laundromat while my clothes were spinning in a washer in Kingston, Ontario. In a short amount of time, Abdurraqib had somehow managed to write about his love of maligned emo pop-punkers Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz, as well as the death of one of his best friends. When I got to the last paragraph, I had tears in my eyes, the washing machines I was surrounded by hardly the only vessels with a rush of water flowing through them.
It didn’t take me long to start crying while reading Aburraqib’s latest essay collection, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. In this collection, he takes on a non-linear analysis of Black musicians, dancers, singers, and magicians, as well as the performances of Black labour, grief, and gender. I cried at the first essay, then the second, then the third, composed myself for a while, and then absolutely lost my shit reading about Merry Clayton. What else can be expected from a poet and critic who said that all of his books, no matter the subject matter, are about heartbreak, feeling unlovable, and “the miracle that anyone could find love at all”?
Abdurraqib is an American writer and poet, who was born, raised, and still currently resides in Columbus, Ohio. A Little Devil in America is his fifth book; he has written two other essay collections, as well as two books of poetry. In a virtual conversation with Brit Bennett for Loyalty Books, he said that all of his other works had been difficult to write, since they were so steeped in loss and grief (he referred to the process of writing and reading They Can’t Kill Us as “a tour of endurance). With A Little Devil in America, however, Abdurraqib said it was much easier to write since it “was so steeped in the word celebration.” He said that the book was born out of watching YouTube clips of Soul Train and Josephine Baker (who the book is dedicated to) and taking pleasure from them. He also said that in this project, he wanted to bridge his serious writing style with his more playful personality.
A Little Devil in America is an essay collection divided into five movements that each start with an essay titled “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance.” It’s not the first time Abdurraqib has used repeating fragments throughout a collection to make his point. He is arguably best known for his series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” from his 2019 poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, as well as for his repeating essay about the sound of fireworks and the murder of Marvin Gaye from They Can’t Kill Us. In A Little Devil in America, it’s just as effective as ever, particularly when he blows up his own premise in the final essay of the book.
Of the five movements in the collection, my favourites were the first, “Performing Miracles,” and the third, “On Matters of Country / Provenance.” The essays of “Performing Miracles” are a punch right to the gut. “On Marathons and Tunnels” wrestles with Depression-era dance competitions, Soul Train producer and host Don Cornelius and the dances that Abdurraqib’s high school would hold in the middle of the day to keep the students out of trouble. “On Going Home as Performance” follows swiftly after, covering the ceremony of Muslim and Black funerals, as well as the deaths of Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin. (Of the song “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” he writes, “A river must be built out of what the dancing can offer so that we might float once again off grief's island," which might be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read about the power of what a pop song can do.) In the third movement, “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs” explores Whitney Houston and the public perception of her Blackness in the early days of her career, of which he writes, “You may not know that Whitney Houston could not dance, but I am telling you that she could not dance to save her life.”
To read Abdurraqib’s work is to read about tenderness, and about heartbreak, and about how one manages to go on in a world that wishes the worst for them. It is to read about grief, and loneliness, and friendship, and togetherness, and temporality. It is to see old stories anew, to reconsider with fresh eyes what you might have never once stopped long enough to look at correctly, with the proper respect. It is to tie disparate topics together in a way that after you read them next to each other, you wonder why you ever thought they were disparate in the first place. This is Aburraqib’s ultimate magic trick, where in one paragraph you laugh when he says he is not a good poet for not caring about the moon, only to be struck a few pages later by his heartbreaking description of the photo of Trayvon Martin at space camp.
It is a trick that worked the best for me in “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses,” an essay about the singer’s background vocals on “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. Merry Clayton’s vocals on this song were connected to one of the biggest rock myths of the late ‘60s. The legend was that Mick Jagger phoned Clayton at midnight when she was five months pregnant, asking for her to provide backing on the song. She went to the studio, laid down one track, then laid down another after Jagger asked her to “really give it everything she had.” She tried again, laying down the take that would end up on the song that would score a thousand mob movies after. The next day, Clayton miscarried.
In the essay, Abdurraqib clears up that while this myth continues to this day, Clayton herself never believed it to be true. She moved on, recording her own version of “Gimme Shelter” and released her debut solo album in 1970, a year after The Rolling Stones put out Let It Bleed. In the ‘80s, she continued to sing professionally, in the gospel group Brilliance, as well as for big hits from film soundtracks. She was featured in the 2013 documentary about backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom, and was due to make a comeback commercially. Tragically, Clayton was involved in a near-fatal car accident only a year later and had to have both her legs amputated at the knee. She is still alive today, and her impact still reverberates throughout the culture, but nowhere near the level that it should. As Abdurraqib writes,
“I want Merry Clayton to be as big as the Rolling Stones. I want teenagers to wear her face on T-shirts, and I mean her good face with her good afro and her fur coat and her father’s eyes. I want record stores to stock the solo records of Merry Clayton in the front case and I want them to play all of the songs she sang alone, with no one else. I want enough roses to build headstones for everyone I love. I want the moment when the drums kick in on any version of “Gimme Shelter.” I want that feeling in my chest to always remind me what I’d miss if it were taken from me. I want shelter, and I don’t even know what that means anymore. I want nowhere, nothing sacred.”
After reading all of his books, I would say that A Little Devil in America is his most personal. While Abdurraqib’s writing is brutally honest with the emotion and pain and loss that comes with being alive, he is often intentionally vague about the specific circumstances and situations. In this book, however, we learn much more about him than we ever did before: that he is a Scorpio, that he worked for a health tech start-up in the 2010s before releasing his first book, that he worked at an outdoor boarding school where he slept in a small house he built himself out of trees (“I rarely tell people about this time in my life, because it doesn’t seem real, even to me.”)
The magic of Abdurraqib’s writing lies in his tricks, how he weaves together both the mundane and the heartbreaking, the high and the low, the historical and the contemporary, the personal and the political, the emotions and the critique, all at once, across decades, and in this book, across centuries. I love his writing because his inner world is so populated with pop culture and history that he can’t separate them from himself, a fate I also suffer from. There is no critic writing as Abdurraqib does, and he will undoubtedly go down as one of the greats of our time.
For more Hanif Abdurraqib:
Listen to his podcast from last fall, Lost Notes: 1980
Listen to his current podcast, Object of Sound
Listen and read through his essay and playlist project, 68to05
Read an excerpt from A Little Devil in America, the essay “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades”
What Else I’m Reading: “The Pandemic Isn’t Over until Everybody Sings” by Mel Woods, “Inside the Bizarre World of Celebrity Impersonators on Cameo” by Zach Schonfeld, and “Here It Is. My Favourite Screenshot I’ve Ever Taken” by Dan Ozzi, which made me giggle uncontrollably.
What I’m Listening To: I’ve been loving ICYMI, a new podcast from Slate about Internet culture hosted by Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher. I especially loved the episodes “How Babby is Formed,” “A Vaccine is Not a Personality,” and “Everything is Tumblr Now.”
What I’m Watching: Tragically, I’m watching the new season The Circle on Netflix, even though it is extremely cringe. Why are they all screaming all the time?!
What I’m Cooking: I’ve peer-pressured my entire cooking group chat into making this black pepper tofu and asparagus stir fry, and now I’m peer-pressuring all of my newsletter subscribers into making it too.
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