Hanif Abdurraqib: ‘I was fascinated by who got to define shame’

Hanif Abdurraqib: ‘I was fascinated by who got to define shame’

The Guardian

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The poet and essayist on the history of black performance, the meaning of miracles and the enigmatic brilliance of Whitney Houston

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016), was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer book prize and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright legacy award. His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017), was named a book of the year by O, the Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork and the Chicago Tribune among others. His 2019 follow-up, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. His new book, A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, weaves together moments of personal recollection with a profound meditation on the performances of black American artists from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé.

So what inspired you to write a book about black performance?
I’d gotten into reading about minstrelsy and minstrel shows – journals of old minstrel show performers, some of them talking about how they did not only feel shame when performing. That interested me. I was raised of course to imagine the minstrel show as only shameful. But in a way, for these performers who were either recently enslaved or were coming from a people who were enslaved, the stage was where they had a little bit of power, even if they had to dehumanise themselves in the process. I was fascinated by that and by who then got to define what was and wasn’t shameful, and I got to thinking about how often black performance and black performers now are considered as shameful only when pushed through the lens of what whiteness deems as appropriate, as upstanding.

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