Hanif Abdurraqib is many things: a poet, an essayist, a culture writer, a music critic, an Ohioan. But in an April 1 Scripps Presents reading of his new book on Black performance, “A Little Devil in America,” Abdurraqib was, for a moment, an orator above all else.
Read aloud for the first time, the book’s seventh essay, “The Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface,” came alive on the virtual stage.
Abdurraqib’s words flowed quickly and seamlessly, the powerful analogies and personal anecdotes integrated so thoughtfully that the intricacies of his words barely had time to resonate with the audience before another line caught their attention.
“How even the attempt to mimic cannot be done with enough care for the skin of the mimicked, because I cannot take off my skin. I asked my homies for a skincare routine.”
The fast-paced delivery that Abdurraqib seemed so immersed in stopped abruptly.
“I do want to be clear and say that now, years later, I have a very rigorous and thoughtfully put together skincare routine that has changed two times during the pandemic,” Abdurraqib said.
After that light-hearted interjection, he returned to his reading without missing a beat, setting up the multifaceted discussion with author Chris L. Terry that was to follow.
“Hanif, that was great — I was waiting for the applause to die down, and then I was like, ‘Oh yeah,’” Terry said, joking about the fact that he and Abdurraqib were alone in a Zoom webinar.
“My dog was hanging out and listening for a bit, and then she walked away,” Abdurraqib said. “Rejection knows many forms.”
Terry casually started the official Q&A by asking Abdurraqib if he’d seen the recent Ghostface Killah vs. Raekwon rap battle.
“A Little Devil in America” devotes a moment to the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 “Triumph” music video, specifically the moment where Ghostface kisses groupmate Raekwon. Abdurraqib said he’s “constantly thinking about” how amusing the inclusion of the kiss is in such an “aggressively hetero-masculine” video.
“There’s a really tender moment, where it almost seems like Ghostface is in awe of Raekwon, and he doesn’t know how to show that excitement in any other way except kissing him,” Abdurraqib said.
Terry pointed out the possibility that many of the well-known hip-hop groups can be seen as examples of friendship.
“I think that I looked to these collectives to get ideas around community in what it is to be from somewhere and, by virtue of being from somewhere, have the good fortune of finding kinship with folks who you get to watch evolve,” Abdurraqib said.
In getting initial ideas for “A Little Devil in America,” Abdurraqib expanded on how limited and often misconstrued histories of Black artists and performers were early hurdles.
For example, in researching the life of Ellen Armstrong, a Black magician of the mid-1900s, Abdurraqib wanted to learn more about Armstrong and the effect her work had on poor Black audiences. He ended up speaking to several “historians of magic” — which do exist, he assured the audience — to search for any knowledge they might have about her, but the true impact of her life’s work was frustratingly difficult to uncover.
“So much of my research was driven by this immense hunger to correct the record.” —Hanif Abdurraqib
“So much of my research was driven by this immense hunger to correct the record,” Abdurraqib said. “Ellen Armstrong deserves something more than what exists.”
Later on, Abdurraqib shared that the fundraising dance marathons of the Great Depression, the focus of one of the book’s essays, were a complete shock to him. The partner aspect of the dance marathons held an especially significant place in his essay, considering that such a dark time as the Great Depression could still advertise romanticism — until Abdurraqib realized how inextricably linked romanticism and horror are.
“I’m always surprised with myself [by] how quickly I try to retreat into romantics when horror is the thing that’s in front of me,” he said.
From there, the conversation flew, covering Abdurraqib’s love for sneakers, the complexities of heartbreak and its ability to present as inconsequential — such as when Abdurraqib’s new sneakers arrived and he didn’t like how they looked — and the experience of Black soldiers in world wars and their influence on cultural movements.
“The machinery of war hums under so many movements of American culture,” Abdurraqib said.
Terry asked Abdurraqib audience-submitted questions, which led Abdurraqib to discuss being both a poet and a non-fiction writer, the history of women in rap and writing a profile on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings that highlighted their ability to simplify ideas of America through their music.
“I resist the simplicity of the American idea, but I do like a song that can orbit it,” Abdurraqib said.
The event was coming to a close, but the questions continued to trickle in, so Abdurraqib happily agreed to stay for a few extra minutes and do a speed round of questions — which subsequently lasted about 25 minutes.
With time no longer an issue, Abdurraqib spoke to the audience about his strategies for being kind to himself and to others and his favorite foods; he even looped back to his skincare routine.
“I’m just trying to stay as OK-looking as I can for as long as I can,” Abdurraqib quipped.