55 pages 1 hour read

Hanif Abdurraqib

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 2021

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2021, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib is a collection of 21 essays drawing on the author’s personal experiences as a Black man and his expertise in music criticism. The collection was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The book won the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the Gordon Burn Prize.

Abdurraqib uses confessional autobiography and examinations of pop culture and historical figures to explore the different meanings of performance, the mundane search for individuality, and the will to survive and thrive. Abdurraqib locates his examination firmly in America, where Black people are often treated as both unimportant and troublesome—themes the book’s title reflects in its combination of the words “little” and “devil,” which evoke the patronizing derision of white Americans. The subtitle also plays with the multiple meanings of words: For example, “Notes” describes both the essay form and the components of music, a driving consideration in this collection. Abdurraqib’s writing is often itself musical, with its own varying rhythm and tempo.

This study guide uses the 2021 edition published by Random House.

Content Warning: This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word and examines the stereotypical trope of the “Magical Negro.” The essays also discuss police killings of Black men, the beating death of Meredith Hunter, anti-Black racism, antisemitism, racist stereotypes, self-harm, and suicide.


Abdurraqib breaks the collection into five Movements—a term that recalls both the self-contained section of a larger musical piece and the physical movement of a dancing body. Each Movement opens with a different essay titled the same thing: “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance.”

The first movement, “Performing Miracles,” uses dance and music to examine Black emotions. It includes four essays. “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance” describes Abdurraqib’s failed attempt to use the moonwalk to impress girls. “On Marathons and Tunnels” considers Depression-era dance marathons and the dance TV program Soul Train to contrast the different ways and reasons Black and white people dance. “On Going Home as Performance” explores the intersection of death and music. Black mourning, as exemplified by the reactions to the death of figures like Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin, is filled with music. Finally, “An Epilogue for Aretha” compares the experience of watching Aretha Franklin record an album in a documentary to a mourning ritual.

The second Movement, “Suspending Disbelief,” considers the many ways that Blackness is performed for white audiences. “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” shows how Black language is policed by white people, enforcing a cultural segregation that ignores overlaps in class and location. “This One Goes Out to All the Magical Negros” examines how Blackness is used to help the journey of a white protagonist and thus serves white American comfort. To demonstrate his ideas here, Abdurraqib cites examples from film and real life, applying the structure of a magic trick from the movie The Prestige to Dave Chappelle’s career. “Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface” considers how Blackness is performed and received by white audiences, using makeup as a symbol. “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs” looks at code switching in Black performance. Abdurraqib’s example is Whitney Houston’s appearances at the 1988 and 1989 Grammys: As she entered the mainstream and rose to prominence, Houston’s performance of Blackness was minimized to the point of invisibility for her new white audience. “Nine Considerations of Black People in Space,” the last essay in the Movement, reflects on how performances of Blackness in white spaces impact Black people. Abdurraqib contrasts images of hope, like Billy Dee Williams as a Black hero in the sci-fi fantasy Star Wars, with those of danger, like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the compulsion to use images to define his Black identity.

The third Movement, “On Matters of Country / Provenance,” focuses on the relationship between Black Americans and America. Its version of “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance” is a vignette about Abdurraqib eating with a group of older Black people at a Memphis BBQ restaurant during President Obama’s 2008 re-election campaign. “The Josephine Baker Monument Can Never Be Large Enough” explores the complicated relationship between Black people, patriotism, and belonging. In “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades,” Abdurraqib uses the shifting rules of the card game spades to discuss the invisible rules for Black people that are embedded in American society. “My Favorite Thing about Don Shirley” illustrates how white audiences demand sanitized portrayals of history and how Shirley’s actual life embodies the rejection of the “Magical Negro” trope used to characterize a fictionalized version of him in the film The Green Book. “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses” is about Black performers being overlooked until their pain can be used. “Beyoncé Performs at the Super Bowl and I Think About All of the Jobs I’ve Hated” looks at how white Americans perceive the mundane pursuit of individuality.

The fourth Movement, “Anatomy of Closeness / / Chasing Blood,” considers conflict in Black communities and the relationship between violence and tenderness. This time, “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance” describes Abdurraqib’s internal conflict at continuing to patronize a barber with anti-gay bias. “The Beef Sometimes Begins with a Dance Move” considers the collateral danger of violent and extended feuds. “Fear: A Crown” contrasts fear and bravery by tying together the Douglas-Tyson boxing match, Bernie Mac’s performance in front of a hostile audience, and Abdurraqib’s own experiences. “On the Performance of Softness” connects aggressive masculinity and expressing affection toward friends. “Board Up the Doors, Tear Down the Walls” reflects on the punk scene in the context of the demand for reparations, the connection between rage and love, and the need for safety and a supportive community.

The last Movement, “Callings to Remember,” includes only one essay. This last instance of “On Times I Have Forced Myself Not to Dance” is a realistic reflection on the struggles of being Black in America and the hope represented by a supportive Black community. The brevity of this Movement suggests that the work and the story are incomplete.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text