Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kevin Young’s books of poems target themes associated with African American experience. His first book, Most Way Home (1995), portrayed African American experience in the Jim Crow South after World War II. His second, To Repel Ghosts (2001), was inspired by the paintings of the 1980’s New York City artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, an African American of Haitian and Puerto Rican ancestry. Jelly Roll, Young’s third book of poetry and a National Book Award finalist, also explores African American themes. In this book he follows a tradition of canonical poets, such as Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, and James Weldon Johnson, who experimented with the blues as an inspiration for their poetry.

African American poets have been drawn to the blues as an inspiration, because the music is an original African American art form (though deriving from African music). The epigraphs included in Jelly Roll allude to this tradition connecting African American poetry to the blues. The opening epigraph consists of seven couplets from a song by Robert Johnson (1911-1938), a legendary blues songwriter and guitarist of the Mississippi Delta. Each of the book’s following three sections begins with an epigraph from a canonical African American poet: Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), and Jay Wright (b. 1934). Moreover, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks combined African American dialect and standard usage in their poems, opening the canon of poetry to new poetic language; Kevin Young continues in this tradition, especially in Jelly Roll.