Hanif Abdurraqib Celebrates Black Performanceavril 2, 2021
A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA
Notes in Praise of Black Performance
By Hanif Abdurraqib
John Hartford Armstrong was a Black conjurer. In the 1920s and ’30s, he traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard performing magic tricks for Black audiences that would pack into churches to watch him make things disappear. One of the highlights of his show was his daughter, Ellen Armstrong, who joined as her father’s assistant when she was just 6 years old. Later she developed her own bit, zigzagging through the crowd professing to be a mind reader. She’d touch people’s heads and claim to know what they were thinking about the person sitting next to them. Ellen’s father, known as the “King of the Colored Conjurers,” died suddenly in 1939 when she was 25. Everyone expected the show to end, but Ellen kept it going for another 30 years. Perhaps it was her most impressive trick.
Ellen Armstrong is one of multiple extraordinary Black performers whose lives are chronicled by Hanif Abdurraqib in his new book, “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance.” In it, this poet, cultural critic, essayist and music buff uses the tales of Black performers to make poignant observations about race in America while using Black performance as a metaphor for the transcendent imagination, gliding through television, music, film, minstrel shows, vaudeville and even space. The book is also a candid self-portrait of Abdurraqib’s experience as a Black man, written with sincerity and emotion.
Sun Ra, the avant-garde composer, is among the Black performers profiled by Abdurraqib. He was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 Birmingham, Ala., and named after another popular Black magician of the early 20th century, Black Herman. Black Herman’s main act was being buried alive. And apparently he was so good at it that when he died onstage in 1934, no one in the audience believed he was truly dead. Sun Ra wasn’t a magician, but he did claim to have experience on the other side. In his case that meant in space. He liked to tell people he had been abducted by aliens who sent him back down to Earth “to speak through music.” His music became a conduit for Black people and the cosmos. “I’ve run out of language to explain the avalanche of anguish I feel when faced with this world, and so if I can’t make sense of this planet, I’m better off imagining another,” Abdurraqib writes.
Josephine Baker was earthbound, but no less remarkable in Abdurraqib’s eyes. She dropped out of school, became a waitress and performed on street corners hoping for a big break. At times she was so broke she would rummage through garbage for food and shelter. She eventually made her way to Paris at 19, when the city was still in love with jazz and Black culture. And yet what fascinates Abdurraqib about Baker is what happened after her success. Baker became a spy for the French Resistance during World War II, hiding freedom fighters in her basement and using her charms to get men in power to reveal intelligence to her. America couldn’t offer her a big enough stage. But in France, “she crafted the version of herself that felt most true to what she wanted.”