Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In addition to writing novels, Al Young writes poetry of the African American experience. Part of his literary project, in poetry and in prose, has been to pay tribute not to the African American literary tradition to which his work obviously belongs but to the African American musical tradition from which his creative writing borrows much of its rhythmic language as well as many of its important themes. “That’s why I’ve written poems about [saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins, [blues singer] Ma Rainey, [blues singer and guitarist] Robert Johnson, and [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet—a whole lot of geniuses,” Young has stated. Although Mamie Franklin is a fictional characterization, her story should be placed into this critical context of literary work that stands in praise of the African American performing arts.

One of the important ways in which Mamie Franklin experiences a spiritual identification with other persons is through African American music, dancing, and theater arts. Herself a professional singer in a minor but successful rhythm-and-blues band from the 1950’s called the Inklings, Mamie recognized early in her singing career the special role music has played in the lives of many African Americans. “Music, I began to figure out, wasnt exactly what we mostly think it is: entertainment. There was somethin medicinal about it too.” The value of blues singing, according to Mamie, should be judged by the degree to which the singer is able to...

(The entire section is 433 words.)