Kevin Young's "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness," winner of Graywolf Press' vital nonfiction prize, is a collection of unified essays that takes in centuries of (mostly) African-American culture, from Revolutionary Era poet Phillis Wheatley to hip-hop abstractionists Wu-Tang Clan. There are also nods to French theorists and soul food -- everything, in other words, and the kitchen sink.
Though the book is capacious, discursive, even meandering, it's guided by large ideas and themes, chief of which are the various modes of fabrication seen in African-American culture, particularly literature and music.
Young explains that in the Louisiana environs of his extended family, it's common to respond to an apparent fib not with an accusation of lying, but with something softer: "You story," folks say. This storying, Young argues, has been key and pervasive: present when secretly literate slaves forged documents toward their freedom; in the coded patterns of slave quilts; in the fictions worked into great black autobiographies; in how spirituals conflated biblical and American geography, turning the North into Canaan, a remapping carried on by Sun Ra, George Clinton and OutKast, all of whom set their music in worlds both earthy and eccentrically imagined.
Many of Young's examples come from art, in which invention of worlds and selves is fundamental. At times, then, he seems to be spotting a pattern that could hardly be broken. On the whole, though, he makes inspired connections, shaping a historical narrative out of unexpected ingredients, much like the cooks, collagists and improvising musicians he examines. A poet first, he does all this with a knack (sometimes a weakness) for wordplay.
Among the book's other overarching ideas is that of African-American art's still-overlooked importance to modernism and postmodernism, and of "the centrality of black people to the American experience, to the dream of America."
On this first point he writes, for instance, about the tragicomic existentialism of classic blues, the jazz rhythms in T.S. Eliot and the urgent, self-referential postmodernism of Public Enemy. These and other primary ideas aren't always laid out neatly, but rather accrete over many pages or recur like refrains, alongside hundreds of riffs and digressions, not all of them necessary, convincing or clear.
The book treats its subjects chronologically and, especially in its later sections, with inviting autobiographical insertions. An essay on Bob Kaufman glances at Young's failed attempt to write a study of the great Beat poet, and a swirling chapter on hip-hop is both wide-ranging art criticism and a fan's love letter and lament, or a mix tape labeled with epigrams ("What hip-hop yearns for is the past's view of the future").
"The Grey Album" is a long book that will inspire cheers, arguments, head-scratching and, if my experience is indicative, a list of books and music to either rediscover or seek out. In the great essay tradition, it's the work of a productively restless mind.
Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer and musician and the author of "Boarded Windows," recently published by Coffee House Press.