A Little Devil in America

A Little Devil in America is about Black performances, mostly in America, but there are a few stories of Americans overseas. It covers things like Soul Train, Whitney Houston, Don Shirley, spades, funerals, Merry Clayton on the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, and so much more. Quite frankly, this book is beautiful and you should read it.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, and every word in this book is carefully chosen and strung together especially well. From the page this book happens to be open to right now: “The backup singers, man. They get to be memorable for a few minutes at a time and forgotten all the minutes in between. I want to know if Mick saw every wretched tooth in the mouth of the world’s most wretched beasts trembling and falling to the ground. There is some awful reckoning to be had in a song like that. Some awful things to be lived with.”

The other thing is that there is so much love in A Little Devil in America. Love for Black people, who so often don’t get it. You can tell he loves being Black and being a part of Black culture. “I do remember playing spades until the clouds brightened with the promise of a coming sun. I do remember someone I love falling asleep with their face on the table, among the pile of scattered cards. And I do remember the moment when they woke, there was a single card stuck to the edge of their forehead. I never looked to see, but told myself whatever card it was, it had to be the lucky one.”

A Little Devil in America was wonderful. I’m going to go read the rest of his books now.

History-ish, not really science fiction

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was, as we all learned in history class, the network of people who helped slaves escape the American South. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is a real thing, with tracks and trains running at irregular intervals to which people away to the next station.

Cora is a third-generation slave who decides to use the railroad to escape once it becomes clear that rape is in her immediate future. She runs from Georgia to the Carolinas, to Tennessee, to Indiana to show all of the different ways to be enslaved: plantation labor, in the city (the work program she’s in turns out to be part of a larger eugenics plan), hiding in a small nook in a hot summer attic for weeks on end.

She’s pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher by nature. He’s evil and wears a necklace of human ears to show that he’s also somewhat deranged.

There’s death all over this book. Cora kills a young man who is part of a search party that temporarily catches up with her and her two fellow escapees. Ridgeway kills so many people as he hunts Cora. The town where she hides in the attic regularly lynches anyone even suspected of helping blacks.

Slavery and racism are ugly, violent, brutal things. The Underground Railroad makes that clear. It makes me, the white reader, feel guilty and uncomfortable. And it should. Slavery is one of the foundational sins of America, something we have never fully atoned for. Listening to its stories, bearing witness to something I’ve been taught to look away from is a start. But only a start.