The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

Kevin Young
Graywolf Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1555976071

Good and Plenty

Douglas Kearney

The Grey Album is an often brilliant and ever roguish road trip across an African America that come-to-find-out is likewise American America. The whole journey is set to a radio blaring a dream station of ghostly Phillis Wheatley sides, gut bucket blues, Langston Hughes’ wide blue sea, oo blah dee bebop, doo wop, Bob Kaufman’s funky silence, Wattstax soul, De La Soul and-and-and. A testament to Kevin Young’s agile writing is that the trek almost always feels more like a spin than slog, and spin is the word: (1) a speedy-seeming and wild ride; (2) what a storyteller does; (3) how one may turn a bad outcome to one’s advantage; and (4) what a DJ does to a record. These spins are the spine of the span of the book, which describes and utilizes “storying”—an artful lying/counterfeiting/fiction-making—as a lens (microscopic, telescopic, corrective) through which to view black aesthetic production and, as such, surveys black thought.

Taking this tack as tactic, Young adds wealth to that deep well of Af-Am cultural study: signifyin(g) (Major, Gates, Smitherman go marching in). Of the multitude of compelling observations in this volume of choruses and books within a book, Young offers “plenty,” a strategic lily-gilding or a “desire for beauty. And decorating a decoration”. Plenty busts loose from Charlie Parker’s horn solos on through to the handles of B.I.G., Large, and Heavy rappers as a methodology of storying that is verbal, musical, and cognitive. Such cross-disciplinary thinking—what poet-critic Fred Moten might call “black studies”—is a modality Young uses throughout. The italicized and unattributed quotations riddling the book are a praxis of such plenty. They are the bebop player’s licked allusion, the folk tradition’s floating stanza, the hip-hop break sample. This and other plenty methodologies serve the book beautifully, except when they don’t.

When they do: like a good DJ (a model for post-soul critic Young—like Paul D. Miller, Alexander Weheliye, Kodwo Eshun, and others—suggests), The Grey Album dazzles with its rememory. Young, by way of Toni Morrison, describes rememory as “the willed recovery of what’s been lost, often forcibly.” The book begins with a cornucopious list that acts as an “Overture”—a map of the book that presents its blend of public and private research, cultural criticism and, what Yusef Komunyakaa blurbs “lyric gestures.” Familiar references: “Curtis Live!,” “Krazy Kat,” alongside vernacular: “trickeration,” “highlife,” alongside incident: “Aretha Franklin covering Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ so that everyone thinks of her even before Otis” is plenty play at work.

Young stories that list into prolonged studies of writers and artists for whom the spotlight casts long shadows. But shadows are a kind of light for Young, who notes they often reveal what’s missing, and thus, possibility.

Reading Wheatley, Young suggests we listen to the storying in spirituals (ciphers of escape and transcendence) to help us reckon with the Wheatley Conundrum: was she signifyin, conditioned, pandering or! or! or!

Eleanora Fagan is also artfully occluded by her masks: Billie Holiday/Lady/a gardenia/a blue note. Holiday allows Young to examine how the storyteller must keep a thin line of storying as protection; that to cross that line into becoming your story is to (dis)play yourself.

When he names Ezra Pound, Young finds the shade thrown in the awkward blackfacing of the Modernist™’s correspondence with the Other Modernist™, T.S. Eliot, and the cagy caged-bird songs of Pound’s Pisan Cantos (I wished Young called this “White Steal in the Hour of Chaos”).

In Paul Laurence Dunbar—whose section, “Broken Tongues,” I found started slow as Houston, TX’s Screw Music but was ultimately rewarding—Young lights another scene of white ventriloquism and black speeching. Further, he locates a luminous detail in the white-authored prefaces (acting as authentications) that frequently accompany (er, accompanied) African American writings and, as with Wheatley, recommends new reading strategies to reveal Dunbar’s double-voicing. There’s also a fabulist consideration of raw steak.

That these artists are totemic for the author is clear. And The Grey Album, like an LP, can act as a black mirror. That is, Young’s book is Young’s book. It’s big enough for the rest of us, but he’s in there. Particularly so in the Bob Kaufman chapter. After all, Bomkauf wasn’t saying much for a time and you can’t have dead air in a talking book. I find a bum note of self-satisfaction at that chapter’s end. A subtle aspect of a project where a writer writes about heroic writers is metonymic; that is, to write about the greats is to put oneself in their proximity, thus one need not sing “I want to be in that number.” Another off-key passage comes in the chorus on hip-hop, “Planet Rock,” where Young writes, essentially that hip-hop will find its savior “in the hands of women.” In light of Western gender politics as manifested in hip-hop and the teensy amount of space Young spends explaining this assertion, it reads at best, as sop and at worst, a reminder of Bleek Gilliam’s self-serving plea to Indigo Downes in Mo’ Better Blues (see bell hooks). Either way, it demands more room to get worked out and, as it seems most useful as instruction—not prediction—: clarity.

Young is, of course, a poet, and what the academic essay can’t do, the versifier’s logic of association can manage. Take this selection from a late chapter. Young is speaking about the difficulties of writing about rap, specifically when it comes to the transcription of lyrics and the sources of these transcriptions:

The idea that a book of rap might not include some material “borrowed”—in the case of the anthology, transcriptions alleged from a wiki sourcebook of rap lyrics online—doesn’t take into account the music’s origins. Hip-hop was wiki before wiki was, just listen to that scratching sound: wiki-wiki-wiki-wiki.

The wiki bit gave me some Anita Baker joy. It’s sound logic.

But in this same passage, I note a kind of taming of the briar patch (here: rap, academic apparatus, and Young’s place athwart them) into a hedge. Young’s writing on hip-hop left me with the most that (figure many hip-hop videos would deem that appropriate). Space allows me to highlight a big one.

The notions of counterfeiting and hip-hop “realness” don’t amount to much tension in the book’s final chorus despite the following gauntlet tossed in the book’s first chapter:

…storying also counters the ongoing, reflexive desire in our culture for “realness” in all its forms. From reality television to keeping it real… this urge ignores the valences of black life—an insistence on and nervousness over a constantly tested black reality denies the ways black folks have found their escape where they can, often as not in the imagination…

I expected more wrassling between the book’s beginnings and its endings. Young provided such a generative contrast between soul and post-soul. It seemed less coherent re: hip-hop. This is perhaps an example of more plenty than a little bit, so much muchness that the thread came up missing.

I suspect plenty is behind another structural challenge to the book. Early on, while neatly knitting African American cultural production to alabaster High Modernity, Young compellingly argues that Pound’s dictum: “Make it New” could be understood as “Make it Negro.” The Grey Album  makes many mentions of “Make it New” after this insight, yet none seem to deliberately extend the Negro dynamic of the phrase. Thus the repetition loses some accumulative power sundered as such from its Blues revision. This species of broken loop gives the book a less coherent feel in the late chapters, where the early chapters suggest a sustained argument into “a unified theory.” But then, why go for one thing when there’s so much good in plenty? 

I could and-and-and into on and on on this ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable trip of a work: The Bluest Eye by way of Susan Willis’ eye is a funk book! “There ain’t no such thing as a synonym.” The page to Afro-Futurism’s Heaven! Ole Virginny vs. The Jungle! “The holy body!” Diagrams to Elsewhere! “In hip-hop something or someone is always missing.” “Blues correlative!” But suffice to say the following:

You really must read it. And listen while you do.

Douglas Kearney

Poet/performer/librettist Douglas Kearney's first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. Red Hen will also publish Kearney’s third collection, Patter in 2014. His second, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. It was also a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in 2010. His newest chapbook, SkinMag (A5/Deadly Chaps) is now available. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger award and fellowships at Idyllwild and Cave Canem. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California's Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts.