The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

by Kevin Young


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*Finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism*

*A Publishers Weekly Top 10 Literary Criticism and Essays Pick for Spring 2012*

The Grey Album, the first work of prose by the brilliant poet Kevin Young, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

Taking its title from Danger Mouse's pioneering mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album, Kevin Young's encyclopedic book combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical choruses to illustrate the African American tradition of lying—storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, "jazzing." What emerges is a persuasive argument for the many ways that African American culture is American culture, and for the centrality of art—and artfulness—to our daily life. Moving from gospel to soul, funk to freestyle, Young sifts through the shadows, the bootleg, the remix, the grey areas of our history, literature, and music.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Lindgren

…dense and brilliant…[Young's] book walks that fine line between improvisatory elan and academic precision with an enviable sureness. The Grey Album is a work of syncretic cultural criticism, a mosaic of ideas, quotations, analyses, lyrics and allusions, diffuse yet cumulatively masterful.

The New York Times Book Review - David Shields

America is built on the tension between black and white. The Grey Album is angular scholarship for whites, a storying songbook for blacks. Who is the liar, who the thief, who is telling whose history, and who is keeping score? Young forces us to contemplate who controls the music.

The New York Times - Dwight Garner

Equal parts blues shout, church sermon, interpretive dance, TED talk, lit-crit manifesto and mixtape, the poet Kevin Young's first nonfiction book…is an ambitious blast of fact and feeling, a nervy piece of performance art…It rummages around in the work of African-American writers and musicians—from Bessie Smith and Langston Hughes to Lauryn Hill and Colson Whitehead—and makes a series of sly arguments for black art's centrality in American culture writ large.

Publishers Weekly

In this elegant and informative study, poet and English professor, Young weaves a saga of African-American culture, in particular literature and music. Young moves through slave narratives and spirituals and beatniks and funk in a multifaceted yet coherent work comprising history, analysis, and theory. Young offers fresh, incisive assessments of myriad writers and musicians, performers all of the storytelling and counterfeiting conventions and traditions. He focuses on George Moses Horton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Langston Hughes before shifting the focus to music, where his attention encompasses, among other genres, be-bop and hip-hop, the blues, and soul music. He includes unlikely figures throughout in this “story of what I read, heard, and saw at the crossroads of African American and American culture”: Eliot, Pound, Picasso; the cakewalk, the quilt; the Rolling Stones. (Mar.)

From the Publisher

In his new work of literary and cultural criticism, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, the accomplished poet Kevin Young unearths, orchestrates, improvises and imagines lies and more lies—in short, American history. . . . Who is the liar, who the thief, who is telling whose history, and who is keeping score? Young forces us to contemplate who controls the music.” —David Shields, The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice

“Equal parts blues shout, church sermon, interpretive dance, TED talk, lit-crit manifesto and mixtape, the poet Kevin Young's first nonfiction book, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, is an ambitious blast of fact and feeling, a nervy piece of performance art. . . . [Young] makes a series of sly arguments for black art's centrality in American culture writ large.” —New York Times

“In his first prose book, an expansive and radiantly interpretive exploration of 'black creativity,' [Kevin Young] proves to be an exceptionally fluent, evocative, deep-diving, and bracing critic. . . . Young reads, listens, and observes with acute, questing attention, following 'underground railroads of meaning' and tracing artistic lineages and bursts of fresh invention. As intricate and ingenious as his critiques are, Young is confiding, poignant, appreciative, witty, and poetic.” —Booklist (starred review)

“[An] elegant and informative study. . . . Young moves through slave narratives and spirituals and beatniks and funk in a multifaceted yet coherent work comprising history, analysis, and theory. Young offers fresh, incisive assessments of myriad writers and musicians, performers all of the storytelling and counterfeiting conventions and traditions.” —Publishers Weekly

“The pleasures in The Grey Album . . . are not just those of learning erudite details of black American history, but also those of hearing the impassioned impressions of a poet diving deep into his own personal history. Young entertains as much as he teaches and broadens our understanding of the unifying threads of America's unique cultural traditions.” —Shelf Awareness

“The mind of poet Kevin Young's career has shimmered with the breadth of African-American culture, a place to explore, to dig deep and find riches to condense, jewels to polish. . . . Young's subjects range from W.E.B. DuBois to Notorious B.I.G. to Sojourner Truth to James Baldwin to James Brown to Colson Whitehead to Alice Walker to Wu-Tang Clan to Louis Armstrong. [On] any given page of The Grey Album. . . . Young draws together these disparate artists in the common tradition and form of storying.” —Creative Loafing Atlanta

“This is a narrative of surprises—a book of secrets, too, though many of those secrets, as we discover, are cunningly hidden in plain sight (or in plain speech). The Grey Album investigates, even as it also performs, an American covert history—the stories behind any official or familiar story—as well as some emblematic escapes from and into American history. Veering across many vernaculars, from literature into music, theory into autobiography, Kevin Young writes cultural criticism of the most audacious, skillful, and ultimately touching sort.” —Robert Polito, judge's statement for the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize

“Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness is a page-turning dynamo. Here's a surge that nudges the reader into a bluesy terrain; its panoramic wit and critical certainty cut through the hokum and reveal a timbre of endurance. The Grey Album resonates like a spasm band, generating waves of intimate discourse on black music, literature, entertainment, culture, folklore, and American history. The collection of essays is propelled by a kinetic passion that's heroic, tessellating on the page into its postmodern shape. This poet-critic has created an unforgettable, robust trove of insights and lyrical gestures for us to query and embrace.” —Yusef Komunyakaa

“This work is significant for smart readers.” —Barbara Hoffert, Prepub Alert, Library Journal

Library Journal

A National Book Award finalist in poetry. Young starts by examining the African American tradition of "lying"—from tall tales to improvising—and ends by showing the many ways that American culture is actually African American culture. Winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, this work is significant for upscale readers.

Kirkus Reviews

African-American self-creation in literature and music receives a meandering study. Young, a National Book Award finalist in poetry (Jelly Roll, 2003, etc.) and academic (Atticus Haygood Professor/Emory Univ.), takes nearly 400 overstuffed pages to arrive at a two-page consideration of the titular Danger Mouse mashup of Jay-Z and the Beatles. Many readers may be enervated by then. Young uses "storying"--the "lies" spun by black artists to form their personal and artistic identities--as the purported foundation for his sprawling tome, which stretches from the post-slavery 19th century to the rap era. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and poets--especially Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Bob Kaufman--are the focus in the early going, though prewar blues and such performers as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday also figure prominently. Young's shotgun methodology and his propensity for pointless riffing and overwrought observation obscure any thread that might keep readers in touch with his supposed theme. The writing becomes a farrago of unfocused research, leaden academic language, incongruous snippets of autobiography and excruciatingly contorted textual readings. Even his most personal and thoughtful chapter, about Beat master Kaufman, manages to dilute the poet's crackling musicality. In later chapters, the author makes a case for postwar African-American music--bebop, soul, the free-swinging rock of Jimi Hendrix, disco, hip-hop--as foundational postmodernism. Though he manages to drop sharp, highly personalized science about the import of rap artists like Run-DMC, Public Enemy and NWA, his explications are so fatiguing that readers will lose patience before Young closes his argument. Young strives for encyclopedic scope, but the narrative is ultimately shapeless. An imaginary textbook for a daunting Black Studies course that very few students would want to take for credit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976071
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 03/13/2012
Pages: 476
Sales rank: 803,939
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Grey Album


Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2012 Kevin Young
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-607-1

Chapter One

The Shadow Book


Lately I have been thinking about the idea of a shadow book—a book that we don't have, but know of, a book that may haunt the very book we have in our hands. I have even begun to think that there are three kinds of shadow books in the tradition, and hope to provide a brief taxonomy of them. Like to hear it, here it go

First are the kinds of shadow books that fail to be written: the Africana Encyclopedia by Du Bois; the second novels of Jean Toomer or Ralph Ellison that never appeared, at least in recognizable form; the failed attempt at a novel by Anatole Broyard, who passed for white. As readers eager for such shadow books, we search among the fragments of a life unlived; there's also a suspicion that this book, at least in the case of Toomer, Ellison, and Broyard, is the real result of a psychological block from actual or black life—of living some form of lie. This writer's block is often seen as a troubled relation to blackness itself. In this way, the shadow books' very unwrittenness becomes a metaphor, and arguably a too easy one, for race in the United States. Comfort with yourself is equated with being able to write—despite the fact that not writing is actually the norm and we should perhaps applaud what is there, rather than what ain't.

Still, this unwritten form of the shadow book fascinates. This unwritten shadow book haunts not just the reader—what could have been—it haunts every writer each time she or he sits down to write. It is part of the vast unwritten that threatens us all, and that in the case of the African American writer, seems too much like the life denied him or her, the black literature denied existence. It is, in some way, the price of the ticket.

Second is the removed book, the book that's a shadow of the one we do have. If the first threatens all writers, either from death or despair or difficulty, then the threat of the removed book is the secret book found just behind all the others, its meaning never to be fully revealed.

The first is blues; the second, jazz. By blues I mean that the first, unwritten shadow book is a recognizing of and reckoning with existence, however tragic, even (or especially) in its failings. Jazz on the other hand represents a willingness to recognize the unfinished, processbased quality of life and art, even taking pleasure in the incompleteness of being.

Recent examples of this second, jazzlike shadow book include Toi Derricotte's Black Notebooks, which regularly mentions things removed from the text; Natasha Trethewey's Bellocq's Ophelia, which in taking the once anonymous, defaced, even half-erased photos of Hillaire Bellocq, tries to reconstruct a life—and a quadroon, prostitute life at that; and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist with its book within a book, "Theoretical Elevators," the pseudo philosophical guide to Intuitionism penned by a shadowy figure within his novel. These books suggest more that's beyond even our knowing; and, in the case of Whitehead, suggest that all knowing is somehow involved in knowing just that.

It also strikes me now that passing is at the heart of all Derricotte's, Trethewey's, and Whitehead's books—if not literally, then symbolically. Ambiguity of the book matches that of race, it would seem—and why not? Other recent books that deal with the lacunae of life on the color line include One Drop, the book by Bliss Broyard, Anatole's daughter, about her father's origins; and Where Did You Sleep Last Night? by Danzy Senna. Both of these include the search for a father's past and take the narrators to Louisiana to locate what could be called their Creole origins. Such origins question the very idea of passing, of simple racial opposites or identities—African American and Louisianan and American—in a way that also speaks to the black and Creole and New World origins of jazz.

While Broyard's and Senna's two nonfictions don't necessarily involve textual removals, they do speak to the losses inherent in black inheritance—and leave us, in each case, with fathers at a remove and whose different responses to race could be said to mirror a jazz aesthetic. The fathers improvise, shade, dissemble, distance; it feels in reading both books there are shadow books behind them—if not those unwritten by Senna or Broyard père, then those actually written by the daughters, mostly in the form of their semi-autobiographical fiction before these memoirs.

The removed book is also suggested by poetry titles like Amiri Baraka's Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note ... or Elizabeth Alexander's "Ars Poetica" series with gaps in its numbering; these works suggest, in their form and very naming, the ways African American utterance is fleeting and even in Baraka's case, potentially fatal. There's always something missing, the removed book suggests—with the distinct and hopeful possibility that there's always something more.

This second shadow book (not to mention its Creoleness) may remind us of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said he crossed out words in his paintings so you saw them more. Life in all these works, black life I suppose, is necessarily analog, a mixtape of sorts that seeks to approximate life itself—practicing the exacting art of inexactness.

The removed shadow book doesn't so much represent loss as it recognizes it. As Jean Genet says about George Jackson's Soledad Brother, any "book from prison" is marked by what is left out, either from the censors or by the self who speaks in code:

It is therefore prudent that any text which reaches us from this infernal place should reach us as though mutilated, pruned of its overly tumultuous adornments.

It is thus behind bars, bars accepted by them alone, that its readers, if they dare, will discover the infamy of a situation which a respectable vocabulary cannot reinstate—but behind the permitted words, listen for the others!

This shadow book is particularly important to us, situated on the cusp of fiction and history—and trying to find the truth in both.

The first book is a form of reconstruction; the second, of resistance. In this way these shadow books mirror the measure of our literature and our history, which could be said over the course of the twentieth century to have moved from reconstruction to resistance.

The last shadow book is the lost. These shadow books are at once the rarest and most common—written and now gone. Rather than those never written, these books were lost because their authors' lives were cut too short; and because the oral book of black culture is at times not passed down, at others simply passed over.

Elusive as beauty and as necessary, these lost shadow books include the autobiography of Joe Wood, the complete writings of Philippe Wamba, the lost second book of Phillis Wheatley, James Baldwin's no longer extant first book about storefront churches in Harlem, the accidentally burned writings of Fenton Johnson, the purposefully burned writings of Lucille Clifton's mother—and others not so literal, lost to time, from the recording of the sound of Buddy Bolden's horn, and the first jazz in New Orleans, and later, in many senses, the actual autobiography of Billie Holiday. These shadow books are what keep me up at night, ghost limbs, books that could be and have been, but aren't anymore.

I am reminded of the ways Lucille Clifton made brilliant poems about having been born with extra fingers, polydactyly being a sign of the poet's unique birthright, of something witchy yet lost that is now part of the poetry. The shadow books go, then, from the unwritten or untold ones; to the removed or unspoken ones (often because they are themselves wordless); to the shadow book as ghost story, disallowed, vanished. Still, at times—such as Hurston and Hughes's mythic collaboration Mule Bone—these lost shadow books turn up. They are invoked, too, by a book like Toni Morrison's Beloved and its idea of rememory. Such a process, the willed recovery of what's been lost, often forcibly, I suppose is what keeps me going.

In some crucial ways, the lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes every day. The book that memory, time, accident, and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read.

It is this symbolic book that slavery really banned—a book of belief. It is this book we lose daily, when the storm sweeps it all away, whenever someone is silenced, or an elder dies or is otherwise lost to us, quilts gone out the door, actual books left on the stoop for dead. Not to mention the secret recipes—and I don't just mean for food—that our ancestors managed to keep secret. It is the scrap of paper I found my father's barbeque sauce recipe on, which I'm tempted to frame but instead attempted to re-create. It is this reason I found myself a poet and a collector and now a curator: to save what we didn't even know needed saving.

As African Americans, we have gone over the past century and a half from Reconstruction, to resistance, to recovery—and today, to a real need for reclamation. Forget reparations—we need to rescue aspects of black culture abandoned even by black folks, whether it is the blues or home cookin' or broader forms of not just survival, but triumph.


There's the book that could have been, and the book that each day threatened to leave unfinished. I am reminded of our departed Lucille Clifton again, specifically her untitled poem from The Book of Light, the collection's very title combating the shadow book:

    won't you celebrate with me
    what i have shaped into
    a kind of life? i had no model.
    born in babylon
    both nonwhite and woman
    what did i see to be except myself?
    i made it up
    here on this bridge between
    starshine and clay,
    my one hand holding tight
    my one hand; come celebrate
    with me that everyday
    something has tried to kill me
    and has failed.

As a measure of its own stubborn survival, The Grey Album has come to seem like three books in one. A mash-up. The first is a book about literature and what I have found there, the pleasures and mysteries of reading while also discovering disparate ancestors, from Phillis Wheatley to Billie Holiday, from groundbreaking poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to overlooked Beat poet Bob Kaufman.

The second is a book about music—especially the way that the spirituals, blues, jazz, soul music, and hip-hop can each be thought of as emblematic of their eras, from slavery to the present day. In this book, chiefly as a series of "Choruses," I am interested not just in the wonders of music but in the ways in which black folks make music art, and their own, in a world that often still manages to ignore them. One of my main convictions throughout this book is the centrality of black people to the American experience, to the dream of America. As jazz composer Duke Ellington says, "We play more than a minority role, in singing 'America.' ... I say our 10 per cent is the very heart of the chorus: the sopranos, so to speak, carrying the melody, the rhythm section of the band, the violins, pointing the way." The choruses in this book are the heart of this exploration.

Which brings me to the last book that makes up The Grey Album, a book that is here chiefly as an echo, a shadow book of its own—a book that may be impossible to write. For a time, after starting with poetry and ending up with music, it seems I was attempting to write a unified theory, a book that would encompass most everything. Such is the promise of modernity, at least in poetry: books like William Carlos Williams's Paterson or Ezra Pound's Cantos seemed to wonder, if only by their form, can the poem, can any one book, contain everything? Often, in an attempt to write "news that stays news" or to "make it new," modernists created a poem that includes not everything but anything, from letters to news reports to the weather to other poets' poems:

    Look at
    what passes for the new.
    You will not find it there but in
    despised poems.
    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

It is this rough inheritance that has led me to include a range of artistic ancestors, from bebop to postmodernism to P-Funk to Public Enemy. All these are what I think of when I think of blackness, so I suppose it's natural in a book about black creativity that I would be interested in naming all I thought. The books I admire, from James Baldwin's Price of the Ticket to Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation—not to mention the "verse journalism" pioneered by Gwendolyn Brooks—attempt to do just that. However, while inspired by the spirit of Brooks's precision, rather than trying to fit everything under one tidy roof I've settled for "Tearing the Roof Off the Sucker"—which of course may not mean settling at all.


The thread that binds all these books together is the notion of lying—the artful dodge, faking it till you make it—the forging of black lives and selves in all their forms. Of what, "visiting home" in Louisiana, where both sides of my family are from, we called storying. You see, growing up, a child would never say to someone, "You lie," especially to an adult; if you happened to, it was a serious accusation tantamount to cursing (which we didn't dare get caught doing either). Instead, we'd say, "You story."

To me, then, storying is both a tradition and a form; it is what links artfulness as diverse as a solo by Louis Armstrong—which, as any jazz-head will tell you, brilliantly tells a story—with any of the number of stories (or tall tales or "lies" or literature) black folks tell among and about themselves. Storying connects African American "story quilts" with the animal tales and spirituals that provided a code for runaway slaves. Such "black codes" are exactly the kind I explore here. Whether in the chapter-portraits of specific writers, or in the choruses that take on music, throughout this book I'm interested in the ways the fabric of black life has often meant its very fabrication, making a way out of no way, and making it up as you go along.

Storying means the "lies" black folks tell to amuse themselves and to explain their origins, many of which are recorded by Hurston in her collection Mules and Men; storying is also Hurston herself lying about being a bootlegger in order to better hear those "lies" in the first place. Storying is what Alice Walker does when she claims she's Hurston's kinfolk in order to locate her grave and provide a headstone, literally reclaiming her for future generations. Like Walker's "womanism" or Henry Louis Gates's "signifyin(g)," storying takes a folk term from black culture—term first used to demonize or at least dismiss—and turns it on its head. Such reversals are crucial to black culture.

Storying is a term also taken in part from jazz, where it is a way of describing the desirable, necessary discipline required by a soloist—it is a form of saying the music must move, and must move you. Each good solo tells a story, one that while collective in nature—a calling out—must also be unique, your own. Otherwise, you yourself can be called out. An anecdote from Robert G. O'Meally's The Jazz Cadence of American Culture helps illustrate this:

Among this music's most magical words are those reminding its players to "tell the story." This is jazz's profoundest invocation, its most deep-voiced invitation and witness, amen-ing those who have achieved more than technical fluency and tricks of the trade; exhorting and high-praising those who have reached jazz's highest goal of attaining a personal artistic voice. Max Roach tells one on himself, the young drummer, new in town from North Carolina, the teenage virtuoso sitting in with elder statesman Lester Young and showing off his talent by playing master drummer Jo Jones's style to a fare-thee-well, a perfect copy. When the set broke, Max waited for a good word from Prez, who at first remained silent as he packed his horn, his face a distracted mask. Then he turned to look at Max and shook his head as he sing-songed his warning: "You can't join the throng ... till you got your own song."

Pres's critique is one I came to later, after I'd already been considering the place of storying in the tradition—but it echoes the ways that storying provides a communal vision of individual achievement and collective standards of excellence. A vision based not on mere technical expertise, but feeling, purpose, presence. You could say that this is not just musical but architectural—as with a tall building's many "stories," the goal with storying is to reach the heights.


Excerpted from The Grey Album by KEVIN YOUNG Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Young. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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