An endless curiosity and love of words are central to the life and work of Kevin Young ’92, poet, author, poetry editor at The New Yorker, and newly named director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Young, who takes up his museum role in January, spoke with the Gazette about his passion for language, his Harvard time, and his goal of telling more “stories of Black lives and history.”
GAZETTE: You are something of a polymath. You are interested in art, history, music, language, among other things. You have written over a dozen books of poems and two nonfiction works, with the latest on the history of the hoax. You were a curator of a poetry library, a professor of English and creative writing, a library director, and soon-to-be head of a museum. How do you see that all fitting together?
YOUNG: For me, it’s just part of following the path. And especially, I think, African American studies, or culture, or poetry has this quality that, if not polymath, then means exploring lots of sides of writing. Many of the great poets from Langston Hughes to Gwendolyn Brooks also wrote fiction and great nonfiction. I think it all stems from being a poet and that [wide-ranging] curiosity. To me, poets draw connections between things that might not seem like they’re like each other, but are, and those kind of metaphors that you make in your poetry I try to make between art forms. Rather than weaving them together or connecting them, you’re kind of “uncovering the weave” as someone said. You’re showing what is already there. Sometimes that involves leaps of imagination.
For me, writing my first nonfiction book like “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness” was really important because in it, I was trying to create almost a unified theory of Black culture. In it I talked a lot about storying and improvisation, and these kinds of ways that Black creators encode meaning — whether they’re enslaved or whether they’re making hip-hop in a basement somewhere. I really wanted to draw that connection. I realized that in some ways I was trying to write about what was Black about American culture — which turned out to be a lot, if not everything. And then at the same time, as I kept writing the book, I realized I was also trying to write about what was Black about Black culture, what was unique about it. And that quality, I think, is what makes it so special. And it’s something that it just so happens is explored in depth at the Schomburg Center and also now at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I’m really excited to helm starting in January.
GAZETTE: You mentioned the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. How did you make that transition from author, poet, teacher, and poetry curator to director of the center, a research library of the New York Public Library, and now to the head of the museum?
YOUNG: I was teaching at Emory University, and I was also a curator in the archives there in its Rose Library. I was getting collections and papers, among them, Irish collections. (It was sort of amazing to come full circle with my former Harvard Professor Seamus Heaney, whose letters are there, for instance.) And then, I was realizing that there was something to be done at a place like the Schomburg Center, which for almost a century, has been gathering Black material, keeping it safe, and providing access to it. And that’s what really drew me there. During my time, we were able to really get a lot of collections — from James Baldwin to Sonny Rollins, from Harry Belafonte to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Those kinds of archives were really important because one of the things we were doing was celebrating Harlem as this rich cultural capital, and all those people had a relationship to Harlem, either by birth or by longstanding connection. And so that was really important. And the National Museum to me is a chance to do that even more, telling that story through objects, exhibitions, and events to a broad audience.
GAZETTE: What ways will you try to expand the story of the Black experience in your new role?
YOUNG: The museum has done such a good job already of telling that story. While it’s been open only four years, it has had a huge impact. My goal is to really continue with that, to see how we can tell more stories of Black lives and history. I’m sure that art and perhaps poetry will play a big part in it. It already does there, but I will look to expand that. I’m thinking too about some of the digital conversations and innovations that are necessary in this moment — a moment that is both unprecedented, and sadly, quite precedented. And so trying to capture that in a museum setting, through collecting and curating, I think is really important.