Kevin Young Examines All Things 'Brown'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kevin Young's latest volume of poetry is colored by his family and childhood, United States history and black culture. It's one more titled "Brown," encompasses good things and sometimes tragic ones.
KEVIN YOUNG: (Reading) Four little girls bombed into tomorrow in a church basement like ours, where nursing mothers and children not ready to sit still learn to walk.
MARTIN: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team spoke to Young about the meaning behind these poems and what inspired them.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's a wonder Kevin Young has time to write. He's also the poetry editor of The New Yorker and the director of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In his new book, Young writes about the many permutations of brown, like the brown people and the brown wooden pews of his childhood church in Topeka, Kan.
YOUNG: Well, I was really interested in this idea of Brownness, both in a sort of a literal name like Brown of Brown v. Board and Reverend Brown and Linda Brown and all that that implied but also James Brown and John Brown.
BATES: Young's church was pastored by the Reverend Oliver Brown, the man whose lawsuit began the desegregation of America's public schools. Reverend Brown's pastorate occurred before Kevin Young's time, but his daughter Linda played the church piano when Young was growing up. And although Reverend Brown was no longer in the pulpit, Young says his presence was still very much felt.
YOUNG: His picture was still there in the antechamber when you - if you were late - I'm not saying I was ever late...
YOUNG: ...But, you know, you got to wait there a little while until, you know, it was time to come in and take your pew.
BATES: Mental images like this pop up in the first part of the book, which Young divides into two parts - Home Recordings and Field Recordings. Home recordings paint vivid pictures of Young's early life in Kansas. Here, in an excerpt from the title poem, "Brown," he remembers an essential part of the church.
YOUNG: (Reading) The all-white stretchy, scratchy dresses of the missionaries, the hatless holy who pin lace to their hair, bowing down into pocket books open for the Lord, then snapped shut like a child's mouth, mouthing off, which just one glare from an elder could close.
BATES: Young writes about the time his youth baseball team won in the finals against a better-equipped white team, how they muted their celebration in the face of glares from the white kids and their parents, about the lessons imparted by a demanding history teacher and about hours-long neighborhood basketball games. The second part of the book, Field Recordings, speaks of Young's experiences out in the world. The beginning of "A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays" recalls a time of transition.
YOUNG: (Reading) We were black then, not yet African-American, so we danced every chance we could get. Thursday and Saturdays, we'd chant, the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don't need no water. And folks' perms began to turn.
BATES: David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, says Young writes fine poems that are also accessible.
DAVID REMNICK: More often than not, his references are to everyday life and to everyday cultural signposts that you're not getting from, you know, academic press books. You don't have to have a Ph.D.
BATES: Kevin Young believes many people avoid poetry because they were forced to learn it as children or were taught it badly later on. But poetry is many different things in many different forms, and he hopes people who think they hate poetry because of a years-ago bad experience will try it again.
YOUNG: I think of it more like music. Like, if someone said, I don't like any music, I would be like, who are you? I don't understand. They haven't found the right music, to me, then. And so I think we have to help people find the right poem for them.
BATES: And, says David Remnick, as poetry editor of The New Yorker, Young is doing that.
REMNICK: Kevin has made it his business to represent from all over the range of human voices. And week after week, even though I've followed these things for years, I'm being introduced to poets and names that I hadn't met before.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BATES: Young has explored poetry in tandem with other art forms. He wrote the libretto for "Repast," a classical musical work about a waiter named Booker T. Wright. Southern food historian and Mississippi native John T. Edge commissioned the libretto, which opens with a bass-baritone's recitation of the menu.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) We have fresh shrimp cocktails, Lusco's shrimp, fresh oysters on the half-shell, baked oysters, oysters Rockefeller...
BATES: Mr. Wright was a Greenwood, Miss., waiter who shared his true feelings about being patronized and demeaned by his all-white clientele in a documentary that was seen on national television in 1966.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOOKER T. WRIGHT: All that hate, but you have to smile. If you don't - what's wrong with you? Why you not smiling?
BATES: Mr. Wright was badly beaten by a local policeman shortly after the piece aired and eventually murdered in what some believe was payback for his candor. John T. Edge thought this was a story more people should hear and remember.
JOHN T. EDGE: To share a moment with Kevin with a host of other collaborators, to bring that story into new relief, just matters a whole hell of a lot to me.
BATES: So, in Mississippi, Edge and Young traveled from Greenwood to Money to absorb these histories, talking about race, culture and change along the way.
EDGE: That trip, in many ways, cemented a friendship that was already pretty concrete.
YOUNG: It's only like 10 miles from Emmett Till's - a place of where he was lynched in Money. So we took that ride. And really, the poem came out of that directly.
BATES: The poem, which Young dedicated to Edge, goes from Greenwood's mansions to a curious recreation of feudal Mississippi.
YOUNG: (Reading) The fake sharecropper homes rented out along the road, bottle trees chasing away nothing, Tallahatchie flats, new outhouse whose crescent door tourists pay extra for, cotton-planted and strict rows for show, a quiet snow globe of pain I want to shake.
BATES: Poetry, Kevin Young says, can be balm or truth serum. It can elevate the ordinary simply by making the ordinary visible. That's what he does in "Brown." At the end of the title poem, the church service is wrapping up.
YOUNG: (Reading) The brown wood smooth, scrolled arms grown warm with wear and prayer. Tell your neighbor next to you you love them till we exit into the brightness beyond the doors.
BATES: Young's image of congregants walking into the day lingers long after the page is turned. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN'S "TRY ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.