Hanif Abdurraqib took to writing through the poetry slam circuit in Columbus, Ohio, which might explain why read A little devil in America, his essay book on black culture, wants to hear him speak. It is addressed to the reader and skates between the subjects. He might consider astrology, Michael Jackson, Blade Runner 2049 and musician Sun Ra in pursuit of a single thought, as in a wandering late-night conversation with a friend.

That’s not to say the essays lack discipline. Each subject is carefully chosen in the service of a larger critical project, which is to understand the meaning of black performance in the United States through media such as music, dance, comedy, and even card games. Take the article on “magical negroes,” a term that applies to black characters, like Bubba in Forrest Gump, who provide absolution to the white protagonists. The magical negro that interests Abdurraqib most is the real Dave Chappelle, the evil comic who found success in the 2000s with his TV series, Chappelle show.

The program had an acidic spirit: a well-known sketch tells of a blind black man who, unaware of his race, becomes a strident white supremacist. White audiences loved him, but were they laughing at him or him? “It took the whites to love Chappelle show for it to be worth as much as it is for a network, “writes Abdurraqib,” but it took whites laughing too loudly and too long – and laughing in the wrong place – to build the spectacle into a coffin. Abdurraqib recounts how, while recording a sketch using a black-faced groom, Chappelle noticed a white man laughing a little too much. By satirizing his country’s racial politics, he seemed to be giving the public the wrong kind of permission.

The incident prompted Chappelle’s famous decision to quit and fly to South Africa. Abdurraqib – with plot help from Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film Prestige – encourages the reader to think of Chapelle’s disappearance and reappearance in Africa as a sort of magic trick, an escape from the impossible bond America had forced him into. Later in the essay, he turns to the life of Ellen Armstrong, a “magical negro” in a more literal sense: she was the first black magician to headliner in the United States of her own. show. Armstrong would perform to a black audience in the mid-20th century, and Abdurraqib considers how his audience’s poverty and racist experiences would have shaped his response to his tricks, like conjuring coins out of thin air. “Magic is based on what a viewer is ready to see, and what a viewer is ready to see depends on what the world has allowed them to witness. Ellen Armstrong was playing for some people who had seen both too much and not enough. “

One of Abdurraqib’s tasks is to save marginalized artists from the condescension of posterity. He does it with love as a tribute to Merry Clayton, the singer who provided the famous backing vocals for the 1969 Rolling Stones hit “Gimme Shelter. He also does this for William Henry Lane, in an essay on the history and legacy of the Black Face. Lane, who was born a free black in the early 19th century, was called Master Juba and made his skin darker for playing. He may look like a victim of his time, but this narrative gives him independence of thought and action. Abdurraqib is delighted to share how Lane defeated arrogant white minstrel performer John Diamond in a series of dance contests. “All I’m saying is that somewhere along the line Juba got what he could … And though the tools were shameful, a little corner of a stolen mythology was dismantled.”

Like the rest of the book, the Black-Faced Essay uses a confessional autobiography: Abdurraqib recounts a dream in which he attempts to drown Al Jolson, the most famous black-faced performer, in a bathtub. Elsewhere, he writes about the death of his own mother, his relationships with friends, his different professions. He searches through images of his life with endurance, like his father coming home from work and ‘sitting in [their] driveway with open windows [their] old pickup truck, letting loud jazz fill the interior of the car for a few moments before exiting ”. Or her attempt to walk on the moon as a child, accidentally falling down the stairs at the Islamic Center. In these scenes, Abdurraqib is not lacking in the first person: there is simply no clear separation between his object of study and himself, between those who perform and those for whom the performance is made.

It is therefore an affirmative project, but also a melancholy one. The funeral of Aretha Franklin and the death of Michael Jackson provide important scenes. One of the opening images is of a dancer looking “lifeless” in the arms of another during a depression-era dance marathon. “I tell my friend that I have finished writing poems about black people who are killed, and he asks me if I think that will prevent them from dying,” writes Abdurraqib. (This is reminiscent of researcher Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s now famous definition of racism as a process that makes groups of people vulnerable to “untimely death.”) Melancholy can sometimes be prohibitive. Abdurraqib believes in the politics of transformation, by “reinventing the means of building a country on something other than violence and power” but chooses not to develop this vision.

There are clues, however. He adores the punk band Fuck U Pay Us, whose concerts are a frenzy of restorative politics. He was seduced by the partisan commitments of Josephine Baker, who spied for the French during World War II. He identifies a type of freedom in the “code-switch” that accompanies the crossing of musical genres, listening to grunge and metal: “We are all outside the boundaries of the idea that someone else is does what Blackness is. ” Culture is not politics, but it consolidates a community – that agent of political change. Paying attention to culture also sharpens its sensitivity to the social form of the world; it allows Abdurraqib to clarify the many “miracles” that were performed by artists who shone in a universe not made to their measure.

But it is above all invested in what one might call ordinary miracles, the “banal fight for individuality” against the depersonalizing effects of racism. Abdurraqib ends by describing a deeply moving moment when his brother traveled many kilometers to find him and bring him out of the depths of a depressive episode. They hugged each other and Hanif cried in her arms. Through this performative embrace, this motionless dance, he found his balance for another day.

A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib is published by Allen Lane (£ 18.95). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.