Who Is Angelina?, 1975
Sitting Pretty, 1976
Ask Me Now, 1980
Seduction by Light, 1988
The Song Turning Back into Itself, 1971
Geography of the Near Past, 1976
The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems, 1982
Heaven: Collected Poems, 1956-1990, 1992
Conjugal Visits, and Other Poems in Verse and Prose, 1996
The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems, 1990-2000, 2001
Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs, 1981
Kinds of Blue: Musical Memoirs, 1984
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be: Musical Memoirs, 1987
Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs, 1989 (with Janet Coleman)
Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoirs, 1995
Changing All Those Changes, 1976 (of James P. Girard)
Zeppelin Coming Down, 1976 (of William Lawson)
Yardbird Lives!, 1978 (with Ishmael Reed)
Calafia: An Anthology of California Poets, 1979 (with Reed and Shawn Hsu Wong)
Quilt, 1981-1986 (with Reed; 5 volumes)
African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, 1996
Albert James Young was born in Mississippi in 1939 to Albert James, an auto worker and a musician, and his wife. The family lived in rural Mississippi until 1946, when they moved to Detroit, but even after that Young often spent summers in the South. That area consequently exerted a strong influence on his development. After attending the University of Michigan from 1957 to 1961 he moved to the San Francisco area. Later he attended Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, and he received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Berkeley in 1969. He married in 1963 and had one son.
Among the many jobs Al Young assumed during his early life was that of professional musician; in fact, he considers himself as much a musician as a writer, and his participation in and enjoyment of that other means of artistic expression informs and is often the subject of his written work. As he explains in his three volumes of “musical memories” (Bodies and Soul, Kinds of Blue, and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be), music became a means of understanding life even before he began to play music. Young’s first book, Dancing, is a volume of poems that seem to demand oral expression. The work’s title is a further clue to Young’s view that music helps people to understand and express themselves. Those who hear the music can no longer remain the same, so they dance, helping to complete the statement made by the music as they “analyze” it with their physical responses.
Young’s first novel, Snakes, is an “education” novel about MC, a young black adolescent from Detroit who resembles Young himself and who, with his band, writes and performs a song, “Snakes,” that is a local hit. The band dissolves and the euphoria dissipates, but the young hero wants to continue his musical career and sets out on a bus for New York, leaving behind the grandmother who had raised him lovingly after the deaths of his parents. This novel includes that important theme in Young’s oeuvre, close family ties and both the warmth and the restrictions that develop from them, as well as the technique of using a first-person narrator who speaks with the vocabulary and rhythms, the music, of the streets.
Young’s interest in the lives of adolescents did not end with Snakes. From 1961 to 1965 he was an instructor and linguistic consultant with the Neighborhood Youth Corps Writing Workshops in San Francisco, and from 1968 to 1969 he was a writing instructor at the Teenage Workshop of the San Francisco Museum of Art. He also served as a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, 1969 to 1976.
Other honors Young has received for his writing include a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford (1966–1967), National Arts Council Awards for Poetry and Editing (1968 and 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1979). Young used his Guggenheim Fellowship year to finish his second novel, Who Is Angelina? which, as the title indicates, retains the same subject as Snakes, a young person’s search for identity. Angelina Green is also from Detroit, but better off than MC. Her discoveries about herself and her family reveal Young’s increasing interest in spirituality, a concern that reaches full flowering in Seduction by Light.
In 1972 Al Young wrote a screenplay adaptation of Dick Gregory’s 1964 autobiography, Nigger, but no film ever resulted from this project. Young has written a number of other screenplays that have not been filmed and a novel, Sitting Pretty, which was planned as a later film vehicle for Bill Cosby but also was never produced. Some of Young’s work has been used by film producers, but he has not been credited. He has been more successful in his efforts with small literary magazines. He founded and edited Loveletter (1966–1968), and with fellow novelist and poet Ishmael Reed he founded and edited Yardbird Reader (1972) and a number of anthologies from that journal; he is also a contributing editor of Changes, Umoja, and Calafia, all “little magazines.” He continued to live in the Bay Area and pursue his writing projects, some of which, like his memoir of the bassist Charles Mingus, Mingus/Mingus, also involve his interest in jazz. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the PEN/Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction in 1991 and the PEN/USA Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 1996 for Drowning in the Sea of Love. In 2002 he received the American Book Award for The Sound of Dreams Remembered.
The free-form quality of the jazz that Al Young loves to play and hear is an effective model for his poetry and musical memoirs, but it has been considered a detriment in the novels, in which the plot tends to be a weak element. In traditional terms, the novels start nowhere and go nowhere. Some critics have pointed out that Young is writing a different kind of novel. In his works, changes that happen to the characters are not as important as changes that happen to the reader who lives with the characters for a time and delights in the sounds of their voices and the movement of their dances.