Friday, August 23, 2013


I write it small because it's a small beef, and my doctors only allow me beef once a month, but still . . . 

In Kevin Young's widely praised collection of essays, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, a book that was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten choice in essays and criticism and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, thus ostensibly somebody's idea of excellence in literary criticism, readers will encounter the following sentences:

"Many critics, such as Aldon Nielsen and Michael North in Reading Race and The Dialect of Modernism, respectively, see Pisa's Pound as merely racist. Racist he may be, but I feel it important to see the ways even a black reader might find something smuggled within the lines worth preserving . . . "

What readers cannot glean from this is that I have always agreed that black readers not only might but would "find something" worthy of preservation in Pound's lines, and that I had made that point long ago. Young cites my first critical volume, Reading Race, but you will note that in a book with copious notes The Grey Album does not in fact cite any pages on which you could find Michael North or me making any such statement, largely because neither of us ever has.  

What readers can find in my work are multiple instances of sentences like this one:

"What is often overlooked in these discussions is that there has never been any such thing as a simple racism, a racism that is merely racist."

This particular instance is drawn from an essay I wrote, as it happens, about Ezra Pound. That essay is titled "Ezra Pound and 'The Best Known Colored Man in the United States.'"

And here's the kicker; Kevin Young knows this.  My essay appeared in the 2001 volume Ezra Pound and African American Modernism, and appeared earlier in a special issue of the journal Paideuma.  Not only does Young also have an essay in that volume, but he cites the volume in his notes to the essay in which his comment about my work appears.

Again, not a large beef -- It is all too often the case that critics early in their careers, in their zeal to establish their own novelty and to set their arguments apart from their predecessors, overstate their claims to be saying something new, often inaccurately disparaging the work that has gone before.  It's a sin of scholarship about which I caution younger colleagues whose manuscripts I review, a lesson I learned in the process of editing my own earliest essays. But Young is not new to scholarship, and he is not new to the profession.  He knows better. He knows that his comments will be read by many who will not have read the texts he characterizes, and that those readers will come away with an incorrect sense of what earlier critics have had to say on these vital topics.

Kevin Young is a great guy and an important writer. This is clearly a venial sin, one of carelessness. He means well. But, as Sterling Brown used to say, "He means so well, but he does so poorly."

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