November 29, 2021 8:16 AM EST

Poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest essay collection—a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction—uses the stories of iconic Black performers to trace Black cultural and sociopolitical history in the U.S., revealing the ways their performances influenced mainstream understanding and treatment of race and Blackness. Abdurraqib celebrates the classic icons, including Aretha Franklin and Josephine Baker. But he also highlights the work of lesser-known visionaries, like dancer William Henry Lane, a.k.a. Master Juba, who earned a spot in P.T. Barnum’s minstrel show in a role that was previously filled by a white man in blackface, and vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, whose largely white audience praised his ability to “transcend race.” He also dives into his own experience growing up as a Black Muslim man in America. It’s a poignant and incisive examination of these artists’ abilities to innovate in spite of their audience’s racist expectations.

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