"I'm Down For a Miracle" — Hanif Abdurraqib

On Imagination, Survival, & His Latest Book A Little Devil in America

Portrait by Megan Leigh Barnard

I met Hanif a few years ago over email when I was working on my first published essay, a piece about black violence and Radiohead’s In Rainbows. For a long while, his essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us had come highly recommended from fellow booksellers. When I finally read it, a new avenue of thinking opened up about music, black lived experience, and where the personal meets the outer world. My first email was as a fan seeking advice from a celebrity. But, very quickly, I learned that Hanif tries to close the gap between himself and others whenever he can. He was gracious, encouraging, but his focus remained on the work, its possibilities, and the preservation of authorial intent.

In the years since, Hanif and I have worked together, played spades together, watched the pathways of opportunity for black writers open and close as the world tries to figure out just how black people should be allowed to exist. Meanwhile, the purview of his work has widened considerably: a poetry collection, a book of essays on A Tribe Called Quest, a stint hosting KCRW’s Lost Notes, the Sonos podcast Object of Sound, the music blog 68to05, and his latest book of essays, A Little Devil in America. Boundless curiosity runs through each of these projects. With A Little Devil, Hanif turns his gaze on the myriad manifestations of black performance, melding poetry with cultural criticism with historical fiction with personal reflection.

A proud Ohian, Hanif has always endeavored to chart his place in history, while also celebrating those who came before him. A Little Devil showcases his endearment with legacy, with loving tributes to Aretha Franklin, Soul Train, Don Shirley, camaraderie through competition, Columbus, and magic. But the book also interrogates America’s perception of blackness, with specific focus on the twinned ambivalence and intentional harm whiteness manifests. As he writes, “Blackness, or a proximity to Blackness, is America’s favorite balm for a painful conscience.”

The following interview is actually a follow-up of a previous conversation: I lost the recording of our first session and Hanif generously agreed to speak with me again.

Nicholas Russell: I wanted to broaden the scope of our discussion from A Little Devil to other things the book is in conversation with, while also touching on things that are important to you. The first of which is organizing. How has that developed in your life? Last week, you talked a little bit about the necessity of dealing with or interacting with people with whom you might not necessarily agree.

Hanif Abdurraqib: I want to be clear that when I say that, I mean people who are aligned with the same or similar ideas of progress that I'm subscribing to. But we might disagree on the nuances of how to arrive at whatever small solutions serve a larger solution. Or we might disagree on a tactic or we might disagree on language. You know, these kinds of things. For me, I have to really approach so many things from the very firm possibility that I am likely wrong. Or, I want to approach things from a level of uncertainty that does not make me feel like an authority. And so when I am spending time with folks who are also curious and imagining a world better than this one, I think that type of curiosity automatically, at least for me, fosters that type of uncertainty.

Knowing that I want to get somewhere better than this, but not knowing how to get there means that I'm constantly questioning even myself. So to remove that kind of certainty from my organizing ethos, and from my political framework, means that I am not only interested in but actually extremely eager to be in a place where I am taking in ideas beyond my own. Then I'm understanding that my lived experiences are miniscule. It's a kernel of a black lived experience, which doesn’t mean I don't believe it's worth celebrating or that I am diminishing my own living. But it means that to have that kind of perspective promotes, within me at least, an eagerness to be in real contact with as many lived black experiences as I can, in an attempt to lessen whatever harm footprint I leave behind.

Has organizing always been a part of your life?

Yeah, I came up in a very intensely activated community. I grew up in an intensely activated era. I remember watching the Los Angeles uprisings after the Rodney King verdict on TV in the morning before school, and being politically educated just through those visuals and through my parents’ reaction to those visuals. So, political action has been at the forefront of my life for years. And, to be clear, it's been at the forefront of the Columbus organizing community. People have been organizing in Columbus for years well before this one. And so the question I feel is always worth asking — that I really believe in — is not “What can I individually do?” but “How can I join the collective that has been moving forward in the time before me?”

I don't think that I have any idea that's original, that's not being fulfilled better by someone else. So then the question is, “How can I support the work?”

I wonder how you keep in touch with what's happening in your community, in Columbus specifically, and how you expand those networks. Does social media play it at all? It seems like that’s the go-to for younger generations.

Increasingly, I think social media is a treacherous place to expand those networks for me, to be honest. I'm not as confident in social media as a tool to expand networks of organizing, of writing, of community. Now, granted, it does happen and it has happened. But Twitter is a weird source of anxiety for me. I mean, I still use it so I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus. But I do think the emotional and mental constraints of the pandemic have taken a toll in a way that I see showing up in my own approach to that platform, in others’ approach to the platform. I find that I have to check myself when I'm not centering kindness.

I just don't want to be a person who reads everything in bad faith. If that means I get fooled every now and again, then I would rather that. To be clear, I'm not talking about large scale things. Notably, people will say that I'm too cynical, so clearly I'm doing some bad faith readings of, like, the American Empire, the political theater of America and all that. Those are some things I’m comfortable doing bad faith readings on. But when it comes to individual interactions, I want to cultivate a better faith reading of people because I think that was something I was very good at, at one point. I think I've been a bit hardened by the past year, and I would like to shake that free.

It’s been interesting to see how different writers and activists have been maintaining the work, and expanding upon the work. I’m curious about how you’ve been keeping up with people in isolation.

There's a group chat that a good group of pals are in and we communicate throughout our day. These are the people I talk to maybe more than anyone. I'm a big email sender. One thing I've been on, not just during the pandemic, is sending emails to people whose work I’ve read and loved. Like, reaching out immediately and letting them know how much it means to me. That feels like it shrinks the world a bit. I think it feels good to let people know that their work has done something to illuminate a corner of the space here, especially if it's not always an ideal space.

This must also extend to your correspondence with incarcerated peoples, yeah?

It's an exchange, right? Unraveling and detaching these correspondences, all of them, from the idea of hierarchy and what we can do for each other. I have homies who are incarcerated or have been incarcerated, folks I’ve been writing to for years and years. So I’m familiar with what it is to have these lasting relationships with folks who are inside.

As someone who, for a brief part of my life, was incarcerated, I know how isolating it is to be in a cage and to be dehumanized. And so much of that dehumanization is tied to small denials that add up. Large denials too obviously, the largest possible denial. But under the umbrella of those very large denials are also smaller ones. Removing the ability for contact and removing ability for conversation and inability of closeness. So I know how important these kinds of correspondences are. But this is an exchange like any other friendship for me. These are my homies. We argue about basketball and give each other movie recommendations. A couple of the folks I write to are also writers. A homie of mine, I edited his book a bit ago. So it's not like, “What am I doing for these folks?” It’s a simple exchange of affection.

From Wu-Tang Clan's music video for "Triumph", off their 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever

Do you feel that you’re trying to eliminate a hierarchy between yourself and others wherever possible?

Of course. A big part of the reason why I struggle with the idea of academia is because the one thing I really value is deconstructing and breaking down all of these hierarchies. I’m just too curious to be wrapped up in this thing where there's an instructor and everyone in the room is supposed to follow the lead of the instructor. I’ve been teaching at Kenyon Young Writers for the past few years. These are 16, 17, 18-year-old writers from around the world, and every first day, I always tell them, “If you’re in here, you’re a writer. So your task is also to push me.” I give them my work to edit. They are not encouraged to edit each other because it's maybe not the move to have 16-year-olds who don't know each other editing each other’s intimate work. But I print out copies of the stuff I write with them and have them edit my work.

In A Fortune For Your Disaster, there are two poems edited by those young folks. Like, edited all the way through too; they did three rounds of edits on these joints. Because these are my peers, right? They're writers who I am eager to learn from. If I write a poem in the midst of the workshop that we do together, and I'm like, “Damn, I like this poem. I think this could be something”, then I owe it to the people in the workshop to be like, “I wrote this poem, in the ecosystem that we built together, and I would love your help carrying it to whatever the finish line is.” So I have no real interest in any hierarchies, especially ones defined by unimportant things like “success” or things that are better fleeting. I'm into relationships that can sustain and hold up, beyond whatever measures of “success” might bring.

How do you see that play out in your work with KCRW, Sonos, or 68to05?

I will say that I'm pretty discerning at this point in my life. And discernment is a privilege because I've maybe gotten some cultural capital that allows me to say what I can and cannot stand for, what I can or cannot do. But I believe that if I have that privilege, I'm going to utilize it and wield it to offer chances to collaborate with other people who I'm really excited about, people who I want to clear the schedule for.

A couple weeks ago, I did a talk with Harmony Holiday. She's someone where it’s like, I don't care what else I got going on, everyone else can wait. Because I know that when I talk to her, I'm gonna leave smarter. There’s a lot of folks like that, folks who I want telling me what they think about things. Not so that I can mimic their opinions, but so I can have a better understanding of the fullness of my own ideas, or the flaws in my own ideas.

When I opened up 68to05 to pitches for work about albums from ‘68 to ‘79, part of it was like, I want to just see what people do. I want to see what albums people are excited about, I want to see what people are thinking about. There's a young writer named Matt Mitchell. I like his work. He has this really earnest investment in music in general, but music from the 60s and 70s in particular. So it was like, “Yo, when I’m putting out this call for pitches, I'll pay Matt a really good editor’s rate to help me work through these pitches.” I want to work with someone like Matt, who is eager to get to the heart of what people are invested in. Like, he also has a care for what people are excited about. That’s what I want to be around. I've been able to seek out collaboration on terms that feel really good to me. And that's been enjoyable.

"Godmother of Soul" Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, a 1960s & 70s disco-funk group
that later came to be known simply as Labelle

68to05 feels like a project that’s very much in conversation with A Little Devil. Both of them born from this curiosity and excitement and openness. And imagination, as well. Have you felt that drive has been sustainable in quarantine?

I think I've had to expand my imagination. My world is smaller. My country is my living room or my country is my kitchen or my country is the little shelf I keep my records on. I need my imagination to filter into those spaces so they feel less alone, so they feel alive. I need to figure out what it takes to furnish my shrinking world with enough emotionally and physically propulsive items to keep me going.

So, in some ways, my curiosity is deeper and further than it's ever been. I'm not that interested, right now, in spending time getting further into myself. I've reached the point of saturation with the knowing of myself, at least, for the past 12 months. Any further I go and I think it will unearth some things I don't want to reckon with, at least not now. My therapist would suggest otherwise. But I think I know myself. I know how far I can push myself in the name of emotional self discovery. So, with that puzzle complete, with what I know about myself, how can I deepen that knowing? How can I go deeper without necessarily going further? And that, to me, takes some imagination and curiosity that I am still chipping away at.

Do you feel like you apply that same feeling with each project? I’m thinking of the difference between They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and A Little Devil in America. On their face, people might see them as similar projects.

The biggest difference with those is the emotional tone. They Can’t Kill Us was a hard book to write and it was a hard book to survive. And I think that shows up in the book. I think there's a difficulty and a kind of hardness that I have had a hard time reckoning with as I've aged away from it. I’m still proud of that book, immensely. But it's hard to have a book that is celebrated but tied to a really challenging time.

Fortune is the same way, perhaps even more so. I was so nervous about A Little Devil because it felt so good to write. I hesitate to say the word “easy” because the actual capital-W writing wasn't easy. But the way the work came to me and then came out felt easier. I've never experienced that before. It's like being in a relationship that works for the first time in your life. I was talking to a writer friend of mine and telling them about this process as I was writing the book. I was like, “I'm having so much fun, I feel excited about the book. I feel excited to write it. Every time I finish a piece, I grieve a little bit because I want to stay in it.” And they were like, “That's how it's supposed to feel. You just don't know any better, because every other book was traumatic in some way or the other.” Particularly, They Can’t Kill Us and Fortune. I do think these books are different, but they speak to the emotional comfort of the eras I was in.

The legendary Soul Train line

I know the typical supposition would be to say that you had to write They Can’t Kill Us and Fortune to get to A Little Devil, but do you feel that applies to you?

Oh, yeah. I'm very much someone who believes in the journey of the work and believes that work begets work. I find that I am constantly in a battle with the reality of the world that I see and understand and my desire, my very real desire, to be tender, to approach something that feels like tenderness, consistently. I think I'm learning that as I get older, but I'm writing my way towards that.

I needed to write Fortune more than I needed to write any other book. I needed to detach myself from the feeling that I'm entitled to love, or that I'm entitled to having anyone love me. To unhook that weight from myself opened up so much gratitude for me that I have not yet even considered I can approach. And I say this to say that working through Fortune was devastating. I don't ever want to write a book that makes me feel the way that book felt. But I think I needed to massage out those small entitlements around love and around relationships. In doing so, it has made me create a pathway where I can look at the world with a little more wonder and a little more tenderness and a little more excitement — with the understanding that I have gratitude for the fact that there are people who still managed to love me, despite my many messes. Through that, I think I owe the world something more than just rampant cynicism.

Do you feel there was a revelatory need with A Little Devil?

Yeah, just like, the pursuit of excitement. To say, for the first time writing a book, look at this thing I feel good about. Nothing is preventing me from entering that conversation and feeling some pride in that.

Merry Clayton is an actress and American soul singer from New Orleans who's
widely lauded for her vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones

Do you feel like pride is something that you shy away from?

Well, it depends on what I'm being prideful about. I'm not an overly proud person. But I will say that to let go of my ego allows me to get a little bit closer to wonder, which removes me from the type of bitterness that envy can create. Instead, it allows me to walk me closer to the waters of gratitude. The poet Marianne Chan has this book All Heathens and the second-to-last poem is called “In Defense of Karaoke”. And I had a real moment where I was like, “Yo, I can't believe I didn't write this poem.” But that wasn't out of rage or bitterness. It was awe. This poem was written for me. What a miracle I get to celebrate this poem. That's kind of what I’ve gravitated towards.

Do you feel rage still motivates you? Or that when you’ve finished a piece, you’ve exorcised a certain emotion? I think of a passage in A Little Devil where you talk about Don Shirley or some of your IG posts where you talk about overlooked figures like Arthur Lee. Sometimes, it feels like there’s wonder and other times it feels like there’s something else under the surface. I’m curious if, in the way other writers have spoken about the Why of their work, cleansing is part of it for you.

Those feelings are always present. I don't think completion means that I am further away from an emotion or even deeper in it. I also just redefine the idea of completion. Like, I'm thinking, “Have I gotten to the end of one curiosity in an angle through which that curiosity can be approached?” And that's not necessarily completion. That's just saying, “I'm done with this for now.”

There’s a piece in A Little Devil about the magical Negro. I could have written that essay 20 different ways and I still think about it. You know, it’s so funny. The Queen’s Gambit came out and everyone was gushing over and I watched it and I was like, “Yo, there's a whole motherfuckin’ magical Negro trope that no one has mentioned except for like the one black reviewer.” That was Gloria Oladipo writing for Bitch Media. And it dawned on me that the public still doesn't really know what the magical Negro trope is and how it's executed constantly. Whether that’s a willful ignorance or not. That was one of those moments where I was like, “Damn, I already finished that essay. The book is already circulating and I can’t revisit it.”

But these things evolve, right? That's why I think it's important to say that I'm never done with anything. And things certainly are not done with me.

Josephine Baker, who performed in Parisian nightclubs with Chiquita —
her pet cheetah, who wore a diamond-studded collar

Can you talk a little bit more about that piece? I thought your ruminations on Dave Chappelle were really inspired.

Oh, I think about Chappelle all the time. My fellow Ohian. I think about Chappelle’s Show, which in some ways certainly has not aged well, but in some ways certainly has. And I think about his acute awareness of a white audience. Some would argue maybe too aware. Because I think when one becomes too aware of white consumption, even if they're acting in opposition to that, they're still acting with the centering of that consumption in mind.

But [that essay] made me think a lot about Chappelle as he existed then and as he exists now. As someone who I don't think, like a lot of comedians, has evolved with the time. That's something I think comedians struggle with. Because so much of the work of the comedian is to offer commentary on the world as it is. And then they sometimes struggle with the world as it evolves. Dave Chappelle is still offering commentary on the parts of the world as it is, that have not evolved, and really struggles with the parts of the world that have evolved.

When it comes to the plight of black men in America specifically, Chappelle can still be spot on. And to some extent, when it comes to the plight of black folks facing violence from outside of our communities. But he hasn’t evolved when it comes to the violence that black trans women face, or violence that descends on black women, the harm against black folks in general. But I was interested in in that era of Chappelle, particularly that “Nigger Family” skit, which I'll never be able to get out of my head. It is so layered and uniquely crafted to hit on this exact thing where white people laugh, but are not sure what they're laughing at. Or, are maybe too sure but could not say it out loud. Like, if I were to hit up a white person who watched it and laughed at it and say, “Tell me in your words what's funny about that”, now we’re in a different ballgame. Chappelle knew this. He was opening up a doorway for people to laugh at things that they could not, in good faith, explain on their own.

It feels like the other side of the coin that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO plays on, this laughter oriented toward a white audience that feels more comfortable letting go because they actually think racism is being vilified. You write about that movie a bit in A Little Devil too.

With Three Billboards, I'm very genuinely like, “I don't know which part of this is the punch line.” Is it the people of color torturing thing? Is that funny and if so, why? Someone's got to make me understand why this is funny. Because when I was in the theater, a lot of people were laughing, and I was like, “Y'all help me out.” But I do think a central part of that kind of joke, especially when it's white people making a joke and laughing at a joke, is that it does not at all require any kind of engagement. Beyond just plainly being like, “I'm gonna laugh because this is making me laugh.” The next step of critical thinking does not really go far beyond that.

Can we talk about The Prestige? You use it as a formal structure in Fortune and reference it in the Magical Negro section of A Little Devil. I’m fascinated by your fascination with it.

I think I'm just obsessed with magic. The idea of the magic trick. And it's not like I go to magic shows or whatever. But I think the idea of a miracle attracts me. I'm drawn to the idea of miracle because I think I've seen a miracle manifest itself up close. I've seen the survival of black folks who I know and love that can be only considered a miracle. My survival is sometimes miraculous to me. I've seen things materialize where there were no resources before to serve the people. So I'm down for a miracle and I'm down for the execution of a miracle and the witnessing of that execution.

You go on to write about Ellen Armstrong, a black woman magician. I had this recurring feeling of guilt as I made my way through the book that I didn’t know who some of these people were. But there was also a strong sense that A Little Devil is turned toward a specifically black audience and that the process of discovery for that audience is meant to be a joyous one. We’ve talked before about how you don’t generally consider the audience of your work, but it feels different here.

Yeah, I’m writing against explanation, always. But also, explicitly for people who don't need to have the nuances explained to them. And so I'm thinking of audiences that will not be served by explanations.

Do you feel like there’s a community to your writing process? Or, a kind of communal understanding, if that makes sense.

I'm doing some seeking for myself. But I am also not trying to do that alone. It feels like a communal and ancestral practice, this brand of seeking. And so, the work for me then feels like, “How can I fill this path with my interest and my investments?” It's a little too bone-on-bone to be doing this kind of self-seeking without the kind of emotional, mental, or obsession-level lubricant of something else. I need something else to bring me closer.

One last broad question before we go: What’s been on your mind?

I'm interested in the future of touch. I see all these people — and this isn't an indictment of those people, I think I feel this — who are like, “Yo, when the vaccine hits, I'm hugging everyone. I’m gonna kiss my friends” and all this. There's a real tentativeness that I am feeling when it comes to wanting to pull people close. There's still a tentativeness with touch that I think I will feel for a very long time. And I think this will have after effects, or ripple effects, for years. I think about the kids of my friends who have had to grow up with this kind of tentativeness and how that might live in their bodies for a long time.

So I've been thinking a lot about touch as someone who places a high value on intimacy and has had to relearn modes of intimacy over the past year. I don't know if I'll be better or worse off because of that. I'm very invested in finding out.

(All images relate to essays within A Little Devil in America.)

Nicholas Russell

is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Reverse Shot, The Point, Triangle House, Columbia Journal, and 68to05, among other publications. He's currently a contributing editor at Burrow Press Review and a bookseller at The Writer's Block in Las Vegas.

All contributions from Nicholas Russell

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