Book Review - Kevin Young’s inner poet and professor wrestle in The Grey Album

The Emory professor takes on the breadth of African-American culture in his ambitious nonfiction work

The mine 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. The table of contents of his 2003 collection Jelly Roll: A Blues, looks like a selective dictionary of musical forms (“Ragtime,” “Dixieland,” “Field Song,” Jitterbug,” “Early Blues”) shaped by African-American culture. His 2011 book, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, was a lengthy exploration of the story surrounding a 19th-century slave ship mutiny. He’s edited volumes such as Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, Blues Poems, and Jazz Poems. He’s taken on the role of curator of Emory University’s Literary Collections and Raymond Danowski Poetry Library aside from his regular duties as a professor at the university. All of this to say, there are few writers today as qualified as Young is to take on the ambitious aims of his new work of nonfiction, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness.

Young takes a practically encyclopedic approach to African-American culture in The Grey Album. “It’s natural in a book about black creativity that I would be interested in naming all I thought,” writes Young, who organizes and unifies the expanse around a quality he calls “storying.”

Storying,” he writes, “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. ... 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.”

Any remark on the ambitiousness of this 476-page book is simply going to be an understatement. 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. Any given page of The Grey Album overflows with references that fit the scheme of storying the author is trying to illustrate. Young draws together these disparate artists in the common tradition and form of storying.

The book’s “Overture” sets the bar high, perhaps too high, delivering an unabashedly poetic list-like structure that evokes the mesmerizing complexities and contradictory moments of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” Young quickly arrives in the murky waters of meandering academic prose, moving from tangentially related subject after subject. This is Young in the role of Professor, studiously examining the many facets of his own ambitious project. It becomes easy to long for the eloquent condensations and pointed edges of his poetry. Those who keep the delayed gratifications of a classroom in mind will find more to appreciate in the book.

Yet, Young does not entirely abandon his role as poet for the podium of a professor. At times, it seems the poet in him feels the uncontrollable need to interrupt the professor, to interject italicized allusions such as “Every tub on its own black bottom” in the middle of a dense analysis of Ezra Pound’s appropriations of African-American vernacular. This wrestling match between Young the professor and Young the poet can be fascinating to watch, but it can also be frustrating to parse. We’re left feeling unsure exactly what to make of this massive undertaking as a whole, despite the book’s strongest moments. Perhaps that murky ambiguity is by design. It is called The Grey Album, after all.

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young. Graywolf. $25. 476 pp.