Award-winning writer Kevin Young ’92 developed many of the poems that became his dazzling 1993 debut, “Most Way Home,” while he was still a Harvard College student, so perhaps it was fitting — and even poetic — that he returned “home” to where it all started.
Though there weren’t any odes involving gumbo, aunties, or the Wu-Tang Clan, Young’s deep affinity for music, especially hip-hop (“It changed my life”), and the power of African-American culture and history shone through as Young read selections from his latest poetry collection, “Brown” (Knopf, 2018), as the featured poet of the 228th Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) Literary Exercises, held Tuesday morning at Sanders Theatre. The annual celebration marked the kickoff of Harvard’s Commencement week festivities.
Paleontologist Neil Shubin, Ph.D. ’87, the Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, gave the traditional PBK oration, titled “Learning to See.” He spoke about how frustrated he was initially as a graduate student at Harvard when he would go on expeditions with the field’s leading experts to find fossils, but all he could see were piles of rocks. Eventually, he said, he learned what to look for, what to ignore, and then, seemingly in an instant, everywhere he looked he saw fossils.
Shubin told the students the “big lesson of science” that rarely gets talked about involves humility in the face of the unknown and in the face of our own blindness: “Humility that there’s always a better idea, a new approach, or a different perspective to be had … humility that our own very human limitations may inhibit us [and] humility to face, and most importantly to recognize, what we don’t know about the universe, what we don’t know about other living things, and importantly what we don’t know about each other.”