The Grey Album

On the Blackness of Blackness

by Kevin Young

1 March 2012

From gospel to soul, funk to freestyle, Kevin Young sifts through the shadows, the bootleg, the remix, the grey areas of our history, literature, and music.
cover art

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

Kevin Young

(Graywolf Press)
US: Mar 2012

Excerpted from Chapter One: The Shadow Book, from The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Young. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


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, process-based 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 pseudophilosophical 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…

Kevin Young is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Ardency and Jelly Roll: A Blues, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is a curator and the Atticus Haygood Professor at Emory University.

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