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. In this book, chiefly as a series of “Choruses,” I am interested not just in the wonders of music but in the ways in which black folks make music art, and their own, in a world that often still manages to ignore them. One of my main convictions throughout this book is the centrality of black people to the American experience, to the dream of America. As jazz composer Duke Ellington says, “We play more than a minority role, in singing ‘America.’ . . . I say our 10 per cent is the very heart of the chorus: the sopranos, so to speak, carrying the melody, the rhythm section of the band, the violins, pointing the way.” The choruses in this book are the heart of this exploration.

Which brings me to the last book that makes up The Grey Album, a book that is here chiefly as an echo, a shadow book of its own—a book that may be impossible to write. For a time, after starting with poetry and ending up with music, it seems I was attempting to write a unified theory, a book that would encompass most everything. Such is the promise of modernity, at least in poetry: books like William Carlos Williams’s Paterson or Ezra Pound’s Cantos seemed to wonder, if only by their form, can the poem, can any one book, contain everything? Often, in an attempt to write “news that stays news” or to “make it new,” modernists created a poem that includes not everything but anything, from letters to news reports to the weather to other poets’ poems: 

                                                   Look at
                           what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
             despised poems.
                            It is difficult
to get the news from poems
             yet men die miserably every day
                          for lack
of what is found there.
                (Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)                               

It is this rough inheritance that has led me to include a range of artistic ancestors, from bebop to postmodernism to P-Funk to Public Enemy. All these are what I think of when I think of blackness, so I suppose it’s natural in a book about black creativity that I would be interested in naming all I thought. The books I admire, from James Baldwin’s Price of the Ticket to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation—not to mention the “verse journalism” pioneered by Gwendolyn Brooks— attempt to do just that. However, while inspired by the spirit of Brooks’s precision, rather than trying to fit everything under one tidy roof I’ve settled for “Tearing the Roof Off the Sucker”—which of course may not mean settling at all.


The thread that binds all these books together is the notion of lying— the artful dodge, faking it till you make it—the forging of black lives and selves in all their forms. Of what, “visiting home” in Louisiana, where both sides of my family are from, we called storying. You see, growing up, a child would never say to someone, “You lie,” especially to an adult; if you happened to, it was a serious accusation tantamount to cursing (which we didn’t dare get caught doing either). Instead, we’d say, “You story.”

To me, then, storying is both a tradition and a form; it is what links artfulness as diverse as a solo by Louis Armstrong—which, as any jazz-head will tell you, brilliantly tells a story—with any of the number of stories (or tall tales or “lies” or literature) black folks tell among and about themselves. Storying connects African American “story quilts” with the animal tales and spirituals that provided a code for runaway slaves. Such “black codes” are exactly the kind I explore here. Whether in the chapter-portraits of specific writers, or in the choruses that take on music, throughout this book I’m interested in the ways the fabric of black life has often meant its very fabrication, making a way out of no way, and making it up as you go along.

Storying means the “lies” black folks tell to amuse themselves and to explain their origins, many of which are recorded by Hurston in her collection Mules and Men; storying is also Hurston herself lying about being a bootlegger in order to better hear those “lies” in the first place. Storying is what Alice Walker does when she claims she’s Hurston’s kinfolk in order to locate her grave and provide a headstone, literally reclaiming her for future generations. Like Walker’s “womanism” or Henry Louis Gates’s “signifyin(g),” storying takes a folk term from black culture—a term first used to demonize or at least dismiss—and turns it on its head. Such reversals are crucial to black culture.

Storying is a term also taken in part from jazz, where it is a way of describing the desirable, necessary discipline required by a soloist—it is a form of saying the music must move, and must move you. Each good solo tells a story, one that while collective in nature—a calling out—must also be unique, your own. Otherwise, you yourself can be called out. An anecdote from Robert G. O’Meally’s The Jazz Cadence of American Culture helps illustrate this:

Among this music’s most magical words are those reminding its players to “tell the story.” This is jazz’s profoundest invocation, its most deep-voiced invitation and witness, amen-ing those who have achieved more than technical fluency and tricks of the trade; exhorting and high-praising those who have reached jazz’s highest goal of attaining a personal artistic voice. Max Roach tells one on himself, the young drummer, new in town from North Carolina, the teenage virtuoso sitting in with elder statesman Lester Young and showing off his talent by playing master drummer Jo Jones’s style to a fare-thee-well, a perfect copy. When the set broke, Max waited for a good word from Prez, who at first remained silent as he packed his horn, his face a distracted mask. Then he turned to look at Max and shook his head as he sing-songed his warning: “You can’t join the throng . . . till you got your own song.”

Pres’s critique is one I came to later, after I’d already been considering the place of storying in the tradition—but it echoes the ways that storying provides a communal vision of individual achievement and collective standards of excellence. A vision based not on mere technical expertise, but feeling, purpose, presence. You could say that this is not just musical but architectural—as with a tall building’s many “stories,” the goal with storying is to reach the heights.


By storying, or what I sometimes call here “the counterfeit tradition,” I don’t mean falsehood or some kind of fake blackness; nor do I mean to champion the recently prevalent bending of truth to make money or avoid trouble, as practiced by government officials and writers from Jayson Blair to Margaret Seltzer to James Frey, in the manner lately called “truthiness.” For where these faux journalists and worse seem to exhibit imagination, they in fact mark the failure of it. They bend the truth, instead of taking it apart to explore or expand it—or does it explode?—and usually in the service of cash’s cold comfort. The storying artist’s job is to dance on and in the breaks. Poet Bob Kaufman riffs off one such incarnation of the artist, the Abominable Snowman, crafting an “Abomunist Manifesto” that declares “Abomunists do not write for money, they write the money itself.” Kaufman’s mock manifesto views the artist as the ultimate outsider, a mythic beast barely glimpsed, insisting on parody and myth as its main currency.

Such storying also counters the ongoing, reflexive desire in our culture for “realness” in all its forms. From reality television to keeping it real, what we most desire is an experience beyond the phony or the phoned in, beyond the mode of pretense that daily life insists upon. While admirable, 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—not as mere distraction from oppression but as a derailing of it.

The black imagination conducts its escape by way of underground railroads of meaning—a practice we could call the black art of escape. In contrast, both realness and truthiness—distinct from a funky, vernacular “troof” that’s part proof and part story—miss the ineffable, lyric quality found in the imagination, and in the tradition traced here. Throughout, I am interested in the ways in which black folks use fiction in its various forms to free themselves from the bounds of fact.

Uh, I’m sorry, I lied—this book, then, is indeed 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.

Ultimately it is my wish, as a storyteller in Hurston’s Mules and Men has it, “to lie up a nation”—by taking up not arms but the imagination.

Excerpted with permission from The Grey Album by Kevin Young. © 2012 by Kevin Young, published by Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.