The Grey Album riffs on Langston Hughes and Jay-Z, Tiger Woods and Elizabeth Bishop.

Illustration by Derf Backderf.

Where is blackness right now? Is it behind us, beyond us, on top of us? Have we buried it? Is it everywhere? Is it nowhere?

A group of youngish writers and artists and performers is trying to orient blackness in the 21st century, to situate it both personally and politically. In very different works of widely varying quality and ambition, people as diverse as Michele Norris, Lenny Kravitz, Touré, Colson Whitehead, Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Lydia R. Diamond, Lynn Nottage, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts are inspecting themselves and, by extension, this country and its myths. Taken as a group, what’s remarkable about all of these projects (books, plays, records, TV shows) is their serenity—their searching nature. None of them is explicitly about the president, but, for better and for worse, the Obama era seems to have amplified an alternative to black anger: black calm, black rationality, black “I heard you call me The Food Stamp President and you know you’re wrong, but I’ve got more important shit to do with my day.”

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness
by Kevin Young
Graywolf Press

Most of these artists, writers, and musicians, like the president, aren’t only black. They’re mixed-race, and many of them are highly educated, and from the middle-, upper-, or leisure class. That mix—both the racial one and the socio-economic one—has helped shift the expression of blackness away from outrage to contemplation, from “assassin poems,” as the poet and activist Amiri Baraka once called for in “Black Art,” to a state of black cultural civility. We might still need a Public Enemy, Dave Chappelle, or Amiri Baraka, but that we don’t have one at the moment is telling. Let’s put it this way: Right now Chris Rock is starring in a romantic comedy with the antic Frenchwoman Julie Delpy and Jimmy Fallon’s house band is The Roots. Everything has risen and converged.   

The place everything has come to is where a new book of essays by the poet and professor Kevin Young lives: in some great, grey area. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness roughly spans the history of black American art and tries, among other things, to get at what it is, essentially, to be black.

Young selectively unpacks the enormous suitcase of black culture and, too infrequently, asserts himself into the sorting. He remembers, revisits, and revises. The task he’s set before himself is both unenviable (that’s one big-ass suitcase) and exciting (what if he actually pulls this off?). The book argues and sifts its way from slave narratives to jazz to funk and rock and hip-hop with stops along the way for close reconsiderations of poets like Langston Hughes and Bob Kaufman.

It’s full of allusions and ideas, half-ideas, dropped names, dropped ideas. You always feel that Young is severely under the influences of everything and everyone he’s writing about. These are essays, treatises, and term papers—written with a contact high. In five pages, he might mention The Tempest, the Titanic, W.H. Auden, the Middle Passage, the boxer Jack Johnson, Peer Gynt, Muhammad Ali, Seamus Heaney, Bo Diddley, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Johnson, Black Like Me, and Tiger Woods. He is riffing, freestyling, and action-painting, yes. But he’s also driving so fast that there’s rarely time to stop and look out the windows. 

The book shares its title with The Grey Album, a 2004 concept record in which Brian Burton, the producer and DJ known as Danger Mouse, turned Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album into a sandwich. (Young saves mentioning it for the end of the book and calls it the “grey pachyderm in the room.”) Danger Mouse’s mashup was a good idea that, beyond its cultural novelty, had its musical moments. But you were more aware of Burton’s thinking and tinkering, of his cleverness and wit, than you ever truly were of the actual music. The new thing he had engineered was less than the sum of its parts. It defied astronomy. Two universes collided yet failed to produce a big bang.

Young’s Grey Album has a similar problem. As he runs his magnifying glass over all these authors and musicians, you’re never entirely sure what he’s found—or even what he’s looking for. You keep waiting for the eureka moment, for the announcement that you are now free to move about the cabin. But it never entirely comes. Some of this is a problem of tone. A vernacular phrase (“and that’s the troof,” for example) is usually a few sentences away from an academic contortion or a pun. 

Grey really is the operative situation—it’s an ambiguous, indeterminate, cloudy book, with near 0 percent visibility for long stretches. Teasing out what Young is up to is sometimes worth it, sometimes not, and occasionally impossible. He writes with the contorted self-awareness of certain academics. Here he is in an early chapter on fetishes:

As parallel, the racialized fetish both dispels the anxiety over blackness and maintains it; the fetish ain’t nothing if not ambiguous, both symbol of anxiety and substitute for it. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. The fetish is both a cure for, and expression of, anxiety over black influence.

In a section devoted to Langston Hughes’s strategic withholding, Young recounts a story from his autobiography, The Big Sea, in which Hughes travels by boat to Africa. On the way there, Hughes throws his books overboard as a rejection of American educational values and a kind of intellectual slave mentality. Young explains Hughes’ jettisoning as an act of “aliteracy”: “a trickster-style technique that questions not just Western dichotomies (bad/good, black/white) but provides a system beyond which one can be defined, even by writing, or by illiteracy or ill-.”

Young is working out a fascinating idea but seems incapable of choosing either poetry or prose as his tool, classical or hip-hop. “By illiteracy or ill-” might pop as part of a stanza, but it stymies as a line of critical thinking. The entire book is like this, tripped up by language and syntax and tone. He’s so immersed in his subjects that he takes on their properties and ideas. The game of musical chairs wipes you out.

Sometimes the appropriation brings something fresh out of him. There’s a well-argued passage about the usefulness of lying in an old Alice Walker essay about Zora Neale Hurston, in which Walker’s lucidity makes him lucid. But she makes his point much more entertainingly than he does, and unlike Young, you know what she’s up to in her essay.

Kevin Young.

Young has a rushed writer’s weakness for a one-word gush about the quality of a work: The Big Sea, he writes, is “stunning.” But the case he makes for the book and for Hughes’s bifurcated self-communication is kind of stunning in itself. Hughes, he argues, wasn’t hiding, as some scholars have asserted. He was engaged in what Young calls the art of dissembling, telling white readers one thing while implying another for a knowing, attuned, presumably black audience. Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned the misleading confessional into literary sport. Young reads Hughes’s approach as more practically canny. He offered an official story to keep the real, personal one to himself. 

Ironically, Young seems conflicted about how much of himself to mix into the proceedings. (We do learn that as a boy he wanted to be one of Gladys Knight’s Pips.) As an aside, Young writes that The Big Sea changed his life, but telling us it changed your life only makes us want to know how. His most evocative, detailed, and sustained writing is saved for a chapter on Bob Kaufman, a lesser-known Beat and one of Young’s heroes. It’s the perfect combination of remembrance and cultural critique. Kaufman changed his life, and, for once, we can feel how. We sense the potential of what Young is trying to achieve. This book actually is personal. All of this culture? It’s in him. It is him.

But for Young living as a child of that culture is a lot of pressure. Earlier, in recounting Hughes’s remembrance of that great jettisoning, of his rejection of “book learnin’,” Young tries to throw himself off the boat, too:

I am tired of ideas. Tonight, I prefer lives, especially lies. I am sick of confession, thought, analysis. Throw the books into the sea, and let them swim for it, like Shine, the mythic black porter who refused to stay on the sinking Titanic.

Whoa, but there’s, like, 200 pages left, and they’re not at all devoted to that intensely human, intellectual urge to shut off your brain. They’re full of the very analysis and thought Young wishes he could help himself from committing. So, in a sense, The Grey Album is a neurotic product, a book of intellectual compulsion that Young couldn’t stop himself from writing, a book containing dozens of possible other books and personal essays.

That compulsion is both the discrete drama of this smart and achy but exasperatingly freeform book and the collective sense, among a class and generation of black artists, of where blackness now is: How can Young simultaneously undress black culture and undress himself? How can he do that without giving away too much of himself, without agitating anyone or over-turning anything? For the moment, there’s no more acting out or acting up. There is only acting in.

We’re past James Baldwin’s seething recriminations and Amiri Baraka’s calls for racial insurgency. There’s no collective will to start a riot. In one sense, Barack Obama has put black American culture on its best behavior. It’s at a new place of cultural, historical, and personal ultrasensitivity, where every upheaval, every book, every song, every exchange provokes an almost involuntary need to peacefully critique and process and synthesize. The recriminations can wait. These writers, artists, and musicians are taking this moment to reassess blackness—not against the backdrop of wider mainstream American culture, or even in opposition to whiteness. They’re standing before the monolith of black cultural identity and trying to carve out a shape they understand. Introspection is now a superpower to be harnessed. When Young gets his under control, look out. He’s going to need a cape. 

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.