Hanif Abdurraqib's new book of essays, A Little Devil in America : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Hanif Abdurraqib's latest book is A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. In it, Abdurraqib researches the impact of Black performers on American culture throughout the past several hundred years, touching on everything from minstrel shows to Soul Train, the concept of the "Magical Negro," and playing spades. Sam talks to Abdurraqib about lesser-known performers like Ellen Armstrong, the first Black woman magician, and they revisit the mythology of household names like Whitney Houston. Plus, they share aspects of Black performance they've missed most in this pandemic year.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.
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Hanif Abdurraqib's Rabbit Holes into Great Black Performance

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Hanif Abdurraqib's Rabbit Holes into Great Black Performance

Hanif Abdurraqib's Rabbit Holes into Great Black Performance

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Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here. And to start this episode, I want to tell you the story of a blackface performance that happened on live TV back in the day for President Ronald Reagan. I know. Crazy, right? Let me explain.


SANDERS: Flashback to January 1981. Ronald Reagan has just won an election, and he is being inaugurated as president. He attends this inauguration concert thing broadcast on ABC. And one of the performers at this concert is Ben Vereen, a renowned Black actor in that day.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Ben Vereen was still riding high off of critical acclaim from his performance in "Roots," which got him an Emmy nomination.

SANDERS: That is Hanif Abdurraqib. He tells this story in his newest book, "A Little Devil In America."

ABDURRAQIB: He decided to perform at the inauguration honoring Bert Williams, who was an old Black vaudevillian performer. And, you know, as a solo act in the early 1900s, he would darken his face to work.

SANDERS: So Ben Vereen is introduced by Johnny Carson of all people.


JOHNNY CARSON: And here tonight to play tribute to Bert Williams is Ben Vereen.


SANDERS: Vereen comes out in full blackface, shuffling and grinning.


SANDERS: And Ronald Reagan and all of his supporters and friends...

ABDURRAQIB: Are laughing.

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. They're, like, fully enjoying it, you know?

SANDERS: And this is on ABC. This is prime-time television. The country is watching. And then Ben Vereen sings this song called "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee."


BEN VEREEN: (As Bert Williams, singing) We all go over (ph) to the good ship Robert E. Lee. Oh, get on board.

SANDERS: It gets even weirder after this 'cause, Hanif says, Ben is trying to make a big point

ABDURRAQIB: After performing "Waiting For Robert E. Lee" (ph), there's kind of a volta. There's, like, a turn in the performance where he, still in character as Bert Williams, attempts to have or pretends to have an interaction with an imaginary bartender, offering to buy the mostly white, wealthy Republican crowd a drink as gratitude for watching him perform.


VEREEN: (As Bert Williams) Yes. Yeah, you. Yeah. Set 'em up. Say what? Oh, no, no, man. I say, I'm buying. Yeah. No, no, sir. These here - these here - these my friends.

SANDERS: Wow. There's layers to just that. Oh, my goodness.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. But then he turns to the audience and makes it clear that he cannot buy them a drink. He wanted to, but the bartender won't serve him because of his skin color.


VEREEN: (As Bert Williams) No, sir. No, sir. That's quite all right, sir. I just forgets my place sometimes.

SANDERS: Ben Vereen goes on to sing this song called "Nobody," this very sad song all about the isolation of being ignored. And while he's singing, he is wiping off his blackface in front of a mirror and in front of Ronald Reagan and all of Reagan's friends.


VEREEN: (Singing) When life is full of clouds and rain, and I am filled with naught but pain, who soothes my thumpin', bumpin' brain? Nobody.

SANDERS: There's supposed to be layers upon layers of meaning here. But...

ABDURRAQIB: No one really saw it - that back half, at least - because it got cut off during the broadcast of the performance.

SANDERS: What do you think he was trying to do with that?

ABDURRAQIB: Well, I mean, simply put, I think he was attempting to perform in a way that let the audience know that they were the joke and not him. But, you know, in order to do that, your audience has to have a conscience. And while I think there's a lot of brilliance in that performance, I don't know if I would ever advocate for the degradation of self in order to prove a point to an audience that I believe will not get the point no matter what I do.


SANDERS: On this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR, more on Black performance, on who sees what and why, on objectification and subversion and celebration and joy. My guest is Hanif Abdurraqib. He's a poet and a music writer and podcaster, and his new book is called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." And this book digs deep into some iconic Black performers and Black performances in America's history. It is also a look into Hanif's life and the way that just being Black can sometimes be performance as well. Later in this chat, we're going to talk about some other performances, like Whitney Houston at the Soul Train Awards. Stay tuned.

So your whole book is about Black performance, and you highlight stories like Vereen's. Why dissect this moment in your book and not any number of others? I'm guessing there was a certain conscious effort to assemble the right mix of performances to break down. Like, how does Vereen fit in that, and what was the strategy there?

ABDURRAQIB: Well, Vereen fit into that particular piece because I was trying to think of as many ways as possible that I could present this large idea of blackface and who is in - large scare quotes - "in on the joke" of blackface and who is isolated from the, quote-unquote, "joke" of blackface. And at one point, the book kind of centered on minstrelsy in blackface, and to immerse myself in that as the book's central concern was just not where I wanted to go. It wasn't celebratory. It did not feel good to write or pursue.

But in this one piece, "The 16 Ways Of Looking At Blackface" (ph), I asked myself the question that I kept returning to, which is who is laughing? What are they laughing at, and why? And I kind of return to that a couple points in the book, this curiosity I have with people who are laughing at things that they cannot explain or who feel free to laugh at things that they perhaps cannot speak out loud or just people who adorn themselves in blackface in the modern era. This - you know, my greatest fascination with blackface wasn't even that historical. It was very much in the modern era. I feel like there was a stretch where politicians - white politicians kept coming out, a small handful, being like, oh, in college I did blackface. Or like...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: There was the one who was like, oh, in college I did blackface as Michael Jackson.

SANDERS: It was the Virginia governor, Northam.

ABDURRAQIB: Northam - Northam, yeah. And he was like, oh, but I can still dance like Michael. It was during the press conference.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You danced the moonwalk?

RALPH NORTHAM: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you still able to moonwalk?

PAMELA NORTHAM: In appropriate circumstances.

R NORTHAM: My wife says in appropriate circumstances.

ABDURRAQIB: His wife had to tell him, like, don't do that. Just don't do that here. You know, like - and I was so fascinated. And so in order to give proper scaffolding to that fascination around the, again, large scare quotes, "joke" of blackface, I needed to give some historical context to the ways that Black folks who had to darken their faces to perform took so much care with the covering of their skin, which was both tender and horrifying for me. But then I would contrast it against, you know, examples of modern blackface with white people just kind of haphazardly slapping whatever on their faces unevenly. You know, and it - I mean, like I wrote in that piece, it drew this...

SANDERS: They don't do it right. Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I mean, it drew this thing in my head. It's like they're doing this haphazardly because this is what they think of us. This is what they think we look like.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. In the performances that you highlight in the book, if you had to say which of these performers had the most clarity, perhaps, between the message they intended audiences to get and the message that audiences received?

ABDURRAQIB: Well, I think a lot about Ellen Armstrong, who is someone I got really obsessed with as I was working on this book. She was the first Black woman magician to headline a show. She came from a family of magicians, and when her father passed, John Hartford Armstrong, she took over his show. And, you know, it's so hard to find information on her. I was, like, cold-calling magic historians, which - they exist.

SANDERS: Really?

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. There are...

SANDERS: OK. Sounds fun.

ABDURRAQIB: And I would, you know, I would do these really deep dives and just kind of cold-call them and ask about Ellen Armstrong. And there's just so little information, but in part, it's because she performed primarily for Black people in the early 1900s in churches and in barns. You know, magic has evolved, of course, but one trick that has endured is a trick of, like, making a coin appear where there was not a coin before. And that was kind of one of her go-to tricks was kind of pulling a nickel or something from behind the ear of one of the Black people at her shows.

And I've spent so much time thinking about this trick as it is reflected in that era, where the Black folks coming to her shows did not have a lot, were, you know, not far removed from enslavement in some cases...


ABDURRAQIB: ...If she performed up and along the Southern coast. These were folks who maybe spent the little bit of money they had to come see something miraculous, and there was a way that, for some of them, there was an immediate return on that. There was someone saying, where you had nothing, now you have a little something back. And there's a miracle in that that feels familiar to me when I think about my Black lived experience - basketball shoes that appear by the door the day before tryout even though payday's not for another week, that kind of thing.

And so I think Ellen Armstrong is someone who had such a - who seemed to - because there's so little on her, I feel like I can't even speak definitively, but who seemed to have such an acute understanding of her audience and that audience's needs and how to author wonder and excitement at a time when that was hard to come by for some of them.

SANDERS: I love it. What made you want to write the book? Was there a particular moment of inspiration, a certain performance, a certain part of history?

ABDURRAQIB: Well, really, the book actually was first the book about appropriation and the book about how Black performance has been manipulated by whiteness. And that was inspired by a trip to Memphis I took in 2016. And I was in the Stax Museum. And I saw Isaac Hayes' Cadillac, which was repo'ed (ph) from him. He couldn't afford it. And so it was taken from him. And it was just put in this museum. And that weirdly bothered me.

And, you know, I had spent some time around Graceland. And I had begun to think of these parallels between Memphis as such an interesting city due to its rich Black music history that is often overshadowed by its music history that is not centering Black folks. And I'd wrote this long piece about Justin Timberlake and Al Green, a piece that did not make it in the book. It's not in the book at all...


ABDURRAQIB: ...Because halfway through, I realized that to take that track, it wasn't really celebratory. It was a book that even in its celebratory moments, these anxieties about whiteness are permeating the narratives. And I thought, well, what if I just - you know, I'm a big Toni Morrison disciple, like very, very big Toni Morrison disciple. And Ms. Morrison always talked about removing whiteness from the imagination and seeing what the work does from there. And so at a certain point, like, halfway through the book, I was kind of like, what if I just remove these hovering anxieties about the presence of white appropriation and just actually get to the work of honoring these performances or these lives, you know?


ABDURRAQIB: That's so much easier and more comfortable to write about and more exciting to me and more thoughtful.

SANDERS: Coming up, Hanif and I go deep on Whitney Houston. Y'all know I love doing that. Stay tuned.

So I want to talk about the Whitney Houston chapter, the Whitney Houston essay. It's really, really, really good. And I will talk about Whitney Houston whenever I can. So can we for a little bit?

ABDURRAQIB: Of course. Of course.

SANDERS: OK. So I want to have you describe the visuals of that Grammy performance and set the scene and what Whitney is doing and not doing at the Grammys in that performance.

ABDURRAQIB: So 1988 Grammys, they had Whitney Houston open the show by performing "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It was the first performance. It was kind of like, welcome to the Grammys. Here's a thing, boom.



ABDURRAQIB: It's highly choreographed, of course, because this is a song about movement. But she looks really unsettled. She's, like, in these very high heels. She's, like, holding the mic really tensely close to her. There's a lot of, like, really stiff movement. There's a lot of awkward steps.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Don't you want to dance?

ABDURRAQIB: The performance is split into two parts because they needed to give space to the announcer to be like, tonight, at the Grammys, we'll have this long list of people.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Robbie Robertson, Diana Ross, Run-DMC.

ABDURRAQIB: And then Whitney Houston comes back out for the final chorus.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, with somebody who loves...

ABDURRAQIB: But what happens when she comes back out is she's in a dress that's a bit more conducive to movement. She just looks looser and looks freer. And she kind of, like, shakes herself out and makes her way down to the top of the stage, where she finds one tall, Black dancer. And they have a moment. They have, like, a choreographed moment that doesn't - like, by the end, it doesn't seem choreographed. Like, they grab hands. He twirls her.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: So she kind of, for a really brief moment, seems immensely free.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Don't you want to dance? Say you want to dance. Don't you want to dance?

ABDURRAQIB: It seems as if she's thinking, I know I'm not the best dancer, but I'm having a great time, which is a moment that I have gotten to in my life, a moment that so many folks I know have gotten to in their lives.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, I want to dance.


ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, that performance endures because of that one moment.

SANDERS: Yeah. It's so interesting to think of Whitney Houston in this moment because she is performing a song from an album that was decidedly mainstream and crossover pop, which annoyed some Black listeners and, on music's biggest stage, performing this song that some would say was kind of whitewashed. She can't even dance to it. Like, what do you imagine Black people watching the Grammys back then were thinking about all of this as they saw it?

ABDURRAQIB: Gosh, you know, some ways it seems like there was a confirmation that Whitney was not Black enough that was kind of being sought out through a lot of these processes - right? - of, well, look; she can't dance or she can't - you know? And I do think there have been really generous and thoughtful corrections made on this, particularly after Whitney's passing. But even when she was alive, I think there was some reckoning with the way she was treated in the kind of early moments of her career and recalculating these kind of assumptions that were placed upon her. But, I mean, in the moment, yeah, I think it just added to the uncertainty that many Black folks - well, I don't want to say many. Let me correct myself. The uncertainty...


ABDURRAQIB: ...Some Black folks expressed towards Whitney's kind of bona fides and her credentials.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, even in spite of the not dancing, this song is obviously a humongous hit. And the Grammys overall, over the course of her career, they like her, right?


SANDERS: But at the same time, Whitney Houston, this record-breaking Black performer, she is having a big problem with the all-Black or mostly Black Soul Train Awards. Some folks there don't like her, and they boo her. Like, explain. Set that up.

ABDURRAQIB: Two years in a row. And I feel like what gets the most attention is the 1989 booing 'cause it's like, you know, the clearest one. But in 1988, if you listen closely, they booed when the sound system played "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and the video was laid on the screen.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Whitney Houston, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."


HOUSTON: (Singing) ...To last. So when the night falls...


ABDURRAQIB: So there's a light booing in 1988. But in 1989, she got booed when they announced her single...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," Whitney Houston.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Can they find their way home?


ABDURRAQIB: It's one of those things where that audience still was not sold on or comfortable with Whitney Houston. I feel like Black folks that I know and have known are so unafraid to express their displeasure. I mean, in the book, another point of the book, I talk about the Apollo, which is just...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: It functions on these expressions of displeasure.


ABDURRAQIB: It's a type of truth telling, right?


ABDURRAQIB: Which I - you know, to be frank, like, now, I've never been booed off a stage, but I have been told to tighten up, you know, in ways that are not gentle by Black folks in my life, and I appreciate that. Granted, would I appreciate getting booed at the Soul Train Awards? No, but I think that language translates across eras in many styles.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What does it say about the ways in which America consumes Black performance that an artist as big and, in some ways, transcendent as Whitney can, in the same period of time, go from opening up an awards show and being the queen of the night and then go to another awards show down the street and get booed? What does it say about just the way that we accept or don't accept Black performance, period? Like, does any Black performance ever make everybody happy?

ABDURRAQIB: No, of course not. And thankfully not. I'm happy that there's no Black performance that makes everyone happy or that makes everyone feel satisfied. It's vital. It's vital to the ecosystem of how we understand each other, I think. Now, again, I feel like I have to again clarify that I'm not advocating for the booing of Whitney Houston at the Soul Train Awards.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ABDURRAQIB: But I am saying that I do think that if I'm removing Whitney from the equation and speaking at large, I do think that anything that gets the public further away from an understanding that Black people are not a monolith is good.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: If that means discord and disagreement over Black - capital-B Black art, that's important, particularly - and I can't stress this enough - if it means discord in political and social movements.


ABDURRAQIB: You know, I still to this day see Black folks and have been a Black folk criticizing Barack Obama and having white people be so amazed that that is possible, you know? Because there's no real understanding of that kind of discontent, which is, to be clear, prominent among many, many Black organizers and Black folks, you know?


ABDURRAQIB: And so anything that removes this notion, particularly among ourselves - like, we don't have to center whiteness or white people in this - to detach ourselves from that is good and to detach ourselves from that knowing that, at least in my case, in my life, it has led to really fulfilling - when I say I don't like something, it rarely is a dead end. It is sometimes me aching for a conversation with someone who maybe did enjoy it, and I find that those conversations among Black folks have been so fulfilling for me in my lifetime as a writer, as a thinker, as someone curious about popular culture.

SANDERS: I love hearing you say that because Whitney Houston's relationship to the Soul Train Awards - it also was not a dead end. You write that after she's booed, she ends up making an album that sounds a little Blacker. It got some new jack swing going on. She's got Babyface and others helping her produce it. And she wins the Soul Train Award. And then she gets up there to give a speech, and it stops everyone in their tracks. What does she say?

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, well, she gives a speech that first opens up by talking about Sammy Davis Jr. and about how he performed in nightclubs for white folks. But...


HOUSTON: African American customers could not go through the front door of the same club to see the performance.

ABDURRAQIB: You know, such a good speech to watch because she was really performing it, like really, really performing it, you know, because at that point, she had had some film roles. And so she knew her pauses and knew her - knew where to land, you know? And there's this point in the speech that I love where she talks about how Sammy Davis Jr. not only had to endure the humiliation of discrimination from white folks...


HOUSTON: He not only endured the humiliation of discrimination.

ABDURRAQIB: ...But also insults of his own people.


HOUSTON: He endured the insults aimed at him by his own people, who blamed him for trying to rise above the ignorance and hatred not with rhetoric but through his work.

ABDURRAQIB: And when she says the words his own people, she raises her eyebrows and kind of does a quick scan of the audience just to let them...

SANDERS: She's saying, I'm talking about y'all (laughter).

ABDURRAQIB: Almost like - yeah, just to let them know that she didn't forget. It's, like, such a subtle thing in the speech. But it's my favorite thing because, you know, there is a piece in this book that got pulled because I couldn't make it work about Black facial expression and how so much can be expressed without language. You know, it's warm out here in Columbus. So I've been taking walks again.


ABDURRAQIB: And I've walking with my headphones on. And I live in a Black neighborhood. I live in one of the old historically Black neighborhoods in the city. And when I pass Black folks on my walk - the other day, I was walking. And, you know, I'm a sneaker guy. So I had on some sneakers or whatever, and another Black person passed me. They had on headphones, too. And without even saying anything, we kind of made that eye contact where it's like we pass a certain threshold of seconds where we have to physically acknowledge each other. And they gave me a nod and then gave a quick nod down to my shoes and another nod, and that was it. And there was - there were full sentences in that exchange, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: This is another one of those moments where Whitney - yes, there is language because she was saying his own people, but the real language is in the look that she gives. And she does it without bitterness. Like, the speech is still steeped in gratitude.

SANDERS: Yeah, and they still love her for it. They still give her an ovation when it's all done.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, because they - you know, they know.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's the last question for you. It is a little ironic and a little sad, you know, that you have this book all about Black performance coming out when we've all just lived a year where we really couldn't see too much actual performance out in the real world at all. What elements of Black performance have you most longed for in this past pandemic year?

ABDURRAQIB: I miss, weirdly - you know, I wrote about spades in the book. I miss playing cards with my friends. The idea of playing cards with people and exchanging - you know, everyone's touching everything, and everyone's - you know, that whole thing. That's another one of those things where I'm like, man, isn't it wild that we used to just kind of like all touch the same cards and then touch our faces and then pass a cup around the table?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: But I miss that. I would love to return to that.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I miss, like, spontaneous group dancing, where, like, one person starts, like, a line dance of some sort, and over the course of the song, you figure out who knows it well enough to jump in. And then 45 people are doing it, and there's a grandmother in there who you didn't even know could move like that.


SANDERS: I miss that. I really miss that.

ABDURRAQIB: Soon, though. Soon. One day. Maybe.

SANDERS: One day. One day.

Thanks again to my guest, Hanif Abdurraqib. His new book is called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." It is out today. In this book, Hanif dives into so many other great performances. He looks at folks like Aretha Franklin and Dave Chappelle and Josephine Baker and the guy who made "Soul Train," Don Cornelius. It's a good book. Go check it out.

All right. This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis and edited by Jordana Hochman. Special thanks to NPR's research team, especially Colette Rosenberg and Will Chase. Thanks also to Edgar Arceneaux and Vielmetter Gallery. Edgar is an artist who made a stage performance titled "Until, Until, Until..." It is based on Ben Vereen's televised performance back from 1981.

All right. Listeners, until Friday, be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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