Kevin Young is ad-libbing with us a sort of inventory of voices inside one young African-American poet’s head — a sampling of the enthusiasms that have stuck to his 41-year-old “post soul” ribs. His first book of prose is The Gray Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (so much for “post-racial” and “post-black”). It’s a mashup of “saints and heroes,” critical essays on ancestral figures like Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Lucille Clifton, and radiant aperçus on such things as the beauty of Curtis Mayfield’s transformation of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” or the black folk culture around the sinking of the Titanic, which was new to me, and Hip-Hop classics like “De La Soul is Dead.” But The Gray Album is also “an attempt at a unifying theory, or evidence of my search for one. It is the story of what I read, heard, and saw at the crossroads of African American and American culture, which, as we shall see, may be much the same rocky road.” This is a vividly contemporary meditation on race that makes the scantest mention of Barack Obama and seems to have no political or social agenda. The bright thread in the argument (not exactly new) is the complex integrity of Omni-American culture — the symmetry in modernism, for example, of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.”
… only to say that, as my family in Louisiana did, having roots in an American soil with a French tongue for two centuries prevents any number of quick assumptions as to how blackness looks, tastes, or talks. It is instead a breadth of being, a fullness that is part and parcel of freedom that we farmed and would not sell for anything. It is ourselves we knew as renewable, sustainable, and not just black, but evergreen.
from The Gray Album by Kevin Young. Graywolf Press, 2012. p. 63.
Ours is the one-hour spoken version: one of those conversations I imagine unfolding if you’d read Kevin Young’s book, then found yourself sitting next to him on a flight to Chicago.
KY: The blues is a good way to begin. My family’s all from Louisiana. Both my parents grew up in the country, and I just love the feel, look, taste, smell — I mean, it’s Louisiana, so you gotta love the taste — of that place. I think in many ways that independence in the face of what some people would see only as segregation or difficulty — the independence that both sides of my family charted either through the land or through song, however they made it happen — stands behind me. I inherited my grandparents’ ideas, which weren’t even ideas: they were foodstuffs and quilts and ways of talking. Those pioneering spirits were really important to me. On my father’s side we’ve been in that same parish for about 200 years; so the idea that that experience wasn’t integral to the American experience would be really strange to me…
The flip side is I remember being at my grandmother’s in Southern Louisiana and hearing both my grandparents on the porch talking to an older woman in the yard. I didn’t understand what they were saying, and then I realized they were speaking French to eachother! I was, like, okay! It was an aspect of their lives I hadn’t quite known, and in some ways a revelation, realizing that blackness was very complex and layered; and it also maybe contributed to this idea of a secret language, this idea of ‘storying’ through the book. I ended up thinking of it as not just a hidden tradition that I was trying to lay out, but also a tradition of hiding, from the spirituals to the blues and even hip-hop…
Curtis Mayfield is in my soul music chapter for so many reasons. Not only he writes these foundational texts like “Amen” — the song I heard every Sunday in church: one word turned into a song. But he has an amazing record, “Curtis Live,” in which he does a cover of “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters. And before the song he says: this might not be called “underground,” but I think “underground” is whatever you say as long as it’s the truth. And suddenly he’s singing “We’ve Only Just Begun” and it’s a song about us, about African Americans, about America and about this idea of beginning and starting. It’s revolutionary in that way, and I try to think about how love always is. It’s a profound idea that’s always haunted me.
CL: Is not cosmopolitanism built into the African-American identity now — so broad as to include Rihanna, who comes from Barbados; and Zadie Smith, who grew up in London with an English father and a Jamaican mother; and even Barack Obama, who was raised by white folks in Hawaii?
KY: I think in many ways it always was. I mean, many of the people we talk about as African American or black heroes — DuBois and Douglass, for instance — were biracial. Blackness has always encompassed any number of entry points. Born here, raised there — it adds to the richness. You have something of that in T. S. Eliot. He gets claimed by the Brits and by the Missourians. And that’s only one of the connections, I think. The “St. Louis Blues” flows through “Missouri Tom” Eliot all the way down the Mississippi into the jazz of New Orleans coming out of Louis Armstrong’s horn. So I think of that kind of river and ocean and the Gulf and the Caribbean and what gets called the Black Atlantic as part of this conversation, part of that diversity-in-unity we were talking about. It was ever thus. The Harlem Renaissance took place in Harlem and D.C. and Paris and all over the world. It always had Caribbean writers and gay writers in it. I had a breadth of experience that I see as a kind of given.
Kevin Young with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 28, 2012