In the poem “History,” Kevin Young quotes a dedicated, aging teacher from his high school: “Listen to what I’m telling you, he’d say, / / synthesize, don’t record.” In Brown, Young’s tenth collection, he does both, fusing memories of childhood friends, concerts, and the cultural landscape of his youth by honoring a personal canon of black heroic figures (the band Fishbone, B. B. King, Arthur Ashe, Hank Aaron) while also grappling with present-day racial attitudes and an unabated history of violence that render black life paradoxically esteemed and endangered. Yet, with Young’s poetry, the music is always first, playfully enchanting and inimitable: “Land of soft serve. / Land of Deadman’s Curve. / Land of lost mutts. / I’m not racist but— …strode tall John Brown. / In one hand a Bible, / the other a rifle, / face more scowl than frown.” Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, has made mapping and limning the history and culture of black people, over multiple books throughout his career, both an artistic and an anthropological venture. He follows a long line of ardent literary artists, intellectuals, and cultural anthropologists who unearth, compile, and contextualize the stories from black history—and both its heroic and tragic figures, as in the extraordinary oratorio “Repast” for activist and waiter Booker Wright—as stories of grace and resistance. Think W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Rita Dove, and Michael S. Harper. He shares a commonality of purpose with this distinguished group; his is a poetry that dignifies brown people. Yet what is most distinctive about this book, with its folkloric overtones and paeans to hip-hop artists of today, is the humanity these poems invoke and celebrate despite struggle and hardship: “Once you start, how can you quit / all this remembering? We make / / love like memories.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.