A Little Devil in America: The double-edged nature of black performance

Hanif Abdurraqib approach big themes stealthily, often from an unusual angle

One of the questions posed in Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America is this: who is the audience for a piece of writing, or music, or a comedy sketch – and what happens when that audience expands? You tell a joke that makes the people you know best crack up. That joke might then be broadcast to millions – by which point you can’t tell who’s laughing with you, and who’s laughing at you.

When comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from his successful Comedy Central television series, one of the reasons for his decision was that he noticed a white crew member laugh first and loudest at the Black Pixie sketch, which played on racist tropes. (The sketch consisted of a tiny version of Chappelle in blackface trying to convince the comedian to choose chicken instead of fish as an in-flight meal.)

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