Hanif Abdurraqib on the Many Modes of Black Performance

Jesse Bernard
·9-min read
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson

From Esquire

After reading A Little Devil in America, the new collection of essays by critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, I was brought back to a memory of Tupac Shakur. This is his Abdurraqib's eighth book, and in it he explores the many modes of performance that take place in the daily sphere of life, with a particular focus on the many intimate and more communal ways it is expressed among Black people.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib reflects on his own upbringing with his brother in a Muslim household and his later life, drawing parallels with the wider narrative of Black performance. In many ways, the writing feels testimonial. We learn to find the difficulty of moving through life without observing the ways in which we perform, and what those performances demand of us in any given moment.

There is a special focus on Soul Train, card games, and Whitney Houston’s inability to dance despite the urge to dance with somebody expressed in one of her biggest hits. Abdurraqib deftly examines the role in which performance dictates how we respond to these moments, what they mean to us as individuals and a society. Which is what brought me back to Tupac Shakur.

Shakur was born, in 1971, into the ideologies and principles of the Black Panther Party. Following his incarceration in 1995, we witnessed a transformation in real time towards gangsta rapper, with an emphasis on the prefix. Who was he performing for? I wondered. Why was he performing this aspect of himself that was imagined? In observing his life through this prism of performance, we’re able to come to a more compassionate understanding as to why he’d make that decision, that in a moment he believed that the performance would protect him. Ultimately, that choice could be described as being a contributing factor in his demise, but in each of our lives, we opt to perform because it’s relatively safer to do so. At work, we do so because to reveal our true selves is often contradictory to the mission of the organisation.

Readers learn that it’s not just people who perform, but place can as well. Depending on where we are in the world, that often informs the level to which we reveal and hide our true selves. In a world that’s increasingly dictated by online culture and discourse, performance still exists, but the mode in which it is carried fundamentally changes due to its ephemeral nature. I caught up with Abdurraqib ahead of the release of A Little Devil in America to discuss the way performance manifests in our lives.

What brought you to encounter this idea of Black performance now, at this moment in history?

When I set out to write this book, the world was in a very different way, I mean this was 2017 when I first started. I was thinking about performance differently and through the writing of the book, I believe that I evolved my stance on what it is, who it serves and who performance can benefit.

In what ways did it evolve?

I was initially interested in narratives around appropriation and how Black performance is honoured throughout history and how it’s repurposed, transformed when it's torn from the hands of Black performers. Then, it became more intricate in the celebratory nature of Black performance and honouring the many modes of it, independent of the appropriation. How can I get into the nuances of a game of spades? Which is a type of performance, it’s just not serving the benefit of the performance of affection, what it means to fight someone because you want them to love you. All of these things were thinking about the way people have performed their emotions in service of masking other emotions, and that feels important too.

Based on your own upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, has this expanded your idea of Black performance?

Definitely, I think expansion is the best way to put it because I’ve had to perform in so many different ways as I’ve gotten older. I’ve had to consider the ways that performance impacts my life and those around, specifically about having a job I don’t love or having to move through microaggressions, but my keeping of that job is serving something other than myself. That feels, to me, like a less joy-bringing type of performance and I’ve been thrust into that my whole life. But there’s the performance that’s immensely pleasurable that I’ve also been thrust into so it feels as though I’m honouring all of those aspects.

In the way the digital world has reshaped our lives, to what extent has performance been laid bare when we look at how Black people exist both online and offline?

Black people in some ways innovate the online space, if you want to talk about celebration of performance. I’m online to a point but I orbit the space enough to know that in the same way that Black people set trends in pop culture, it happens in the online space and they don’t always get the proper due for their innovation. I do think that there’s a level of performance but it’s often for the benefit of a very specific group of people and then it’s manipulated. That’s just the way of the world we’re operating in.

I guess with social media and online, we shroud ourselves because of the perceived anonymity and protection it can bring. Does Black performance still remain authentic when we’re having to do that?

I’m not entirely sure what genuine performance means and that’s something I started to discover as I was writing A Little Devil in America. Those two things are often at odds with one another. I do think a performance can come from a genuine place and can be emotionally affecting but a part of it is to present a version of the self that is, at least, a little bit transformed from the actual self and I don’t think that’s bad. The word ‘performative’ has a negative connotation but I don’t believe that performance on its own is entirely negative. People are eager for authenticity but it seems hard for me to understand and align with an authenticity that is rooted in performing a version of one’s self.

That had me thinking about the idea of performance when we’re by ourselves. Is that the moment when we can be free of that?

I also believe that I’ve performed my way out of self-realisation where it causes me to confront something I don’t want to. I live alone and have done throughout most of the pandemic. That’s a lot of time with myself and I’m comfortable with that, but it requires a level of detachment so I’m not as immersed in the mess of my life. I believe that requires a level of performance. It requires a robust imagination to take myself to a different place than the one I’m currently in and the journey there is a type of performance. I don’t have any shame around that and I can acknowledge that it’s coming from a place where I’m not entirely wanting to be where I’m at that moment.

Photo credit: Megan Leigh Barnard
Photo credit: Megan Leigh Barnard

In some ways, imagination is self-performance.

For me, it can be. I can only speak for myself but anything takes me out of one world and inserts me into another, in order to get there I’m asking myself to perform something. Or it takes a level of awareness to know that I want to detach from something else and that feels like a genuine realisation and through that, there is the work of that detachment.

In the book, you focus on Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, [French civil rights activist] Josephine Baker and [Soul Train creator] Don Cornelius. Why these names in particular and what is it about their performances that struck you?

In all of their cases, it wasn’t just them as people broadly but it was something nuanced about the lives they lived that fascinated me. Whitney Houston not being able to dance and what that said about the broader life she lived as a Black performer who was looked at, by other Black folks, as someone who had to earn entry into Blackness. With Don Cornelius, I was absolutely fascinated by the concept of the Soul Train Line and how it freed people in that brief moment. We talk about the concept of getting free, which is a real thing, and in watching the Soul Train Line, you could see it happening in real time and I was interested in the way Don Cornelius offered that to people.

It’s interesting because in that line, you’ve not just got the people on either side watching you but you have cameras and millions of people in their homes watching and often that can bring fear. Don Cornelius offered something different with that.

I watched so much Soul Train while writing this book and it’s just the whole concept of the show, it was a communal coming together. You were dancing with strangers but in that moment, you probably felt like homies and there’s something about crafting that kind of space that made Don Cornelius interesting to me. It felt even more interesting when it was thrown up against the contrast of the dance marathons of the Twenties. I felt like I chose a curiosity that I was pursuing and in that, I was led to the lives these people lived and the ways their lives intersected with those curiosities.

The breaks where you lend yourself to prose poetry, what was the thought process behind that approach?

The concept behind those was performing a funhouse version of my memories where I’m exaggerating, using comedy and drama for effect. But I not only wanted to switch the form of writing but imagine myself standing in front of a mirror and having my memories distorted and illuminated in a different way and that still served the idea of performance.

Now that the book is finished, has your approach to writing changed in any way in regards to this idea of performance? In some respects, writing is a particular type of performance.

I think what’s evolved is the generosity I have around witnessing and watching performers and performance as a type of escape. Also, the ways I’m gentle with myself when I feel more pulled towards seeing or performing or wanting to be in the midst of an exaggerated version of myself to help live up to how I wish I could be in my mind. I’ve created a greater generosity towards the many modes of living that might look like performance.

All we can really do is give space to the different ways it can come to life.

Absolutely.

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