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Kevin Young wants to keep everyday struggles and triumphs at the center of the Blacksonian

The poet, editor and museum director will move from New York’s Schomburg Center to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

America’s busiest poet has a new gig. Kevin Young will take over as the second director of Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in January.

The prolific writer and editor of 20-plus volumes also has a new anthology: African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. In 2016, Young was named director of New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. He’s also the poetry editor for The New Yorker.

Next year, he’ll take over the country’s foremost collection of African American history, looking for ways to tell stories and reach students and researchers as the “Blacksonian,” as it’s known colloquially, continues its attempts to expand its reach in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s obviously been a long time coming in terms of the museum finding its place on the mall,” Young said in a recent phone interview. “And now that it has, it’s just been incredible to watch from afar for the past four years how it’s told this story about American culture and history and its centrality to American history and the American experience. In my own writing and the work I do currently, it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about: How do we tell our story and its place in this long conversation? I think that’s happening and happening with more urgency now. So I’m excited to be the center of that.”

I spoke to Young about his new job and what makes good poetry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The NMAAHC is a living museum, and we are in a year of historic upheaval. How do you approach the story of 2020 through the lens of a historian?

Our curators are already engaged in some of that work. I know they’ve been collecting some of the materials from the protests. One of the stories I’m interested in and seeing us tell is of the present moment. But I also think there is a way in which the museum has done work already in helping us understand that the freedom struggle and the struggle over some of these current questions are ones that have been going on for centuries.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

That context and that continuity, I think, is what the museum provides. People, I think, are craving that kind of context. How did we get here? What’s this moment about?

What did you talk about with your predecessor, Lonnie Bunch, before taking the job? What are the challenges?

He’s now the secretary of the Smithsonian. So he’s very much someone who, both in leading the museum and leading the Smithsonian in this new era, I think has just been terrific. Frankly, the things at the museum, it’s amazing that a lot of the things the museum says are things I had been writing about, for instance, in a book like The Grey Album, which is a book about Black culture. The subtitle is On the Blackness of Blackness. It’s not Blackety Blackety Black, but it is. When I was writing that book – this book came out in 2011, now – I was really trying to find a unified theory of Blackness. And then to see in the museum it laid out as a narrative and as a physical space that you inhabit, I think is really beautiful. So I feel very connected to his vision, but also to the museum’s.

I think there’s a lot of opportunities, less than challenges. We’re all in this moment of COVID trying to figure out how we can open safely. The museum has done that with timed passes, which they’ve always had, but with a limited footprint that I think has been working well.

There’s an opportunity to think about what’s our digital presence. What is the digital presence and the digital future? I’ve been really thinking about that in my current role, but I also think the museum has a lot to say about the digital future. It’s always been engaged in the digital present, but I think it brings it home all the more importantly, especially as you know, there’s not just the health disparities, but there’s also online disparities. The tech divide, all those kinds of questions are ones that I think the museum thinks about. How can people in this moment get access to seeing some of the things that we do? In Lonnie’s memoir, he talks about how we were a digital museum before we were a physical one. I think that’s really important.

You’re coming from the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. How has that organization shifted to deal with COVID?

The way we think of it is we’ve never closed. We haven’t had people physically in the building, but we’ve been serving materials out, doing events all summer. We had a literary festival just last month that had thousands of people attend. We had an event launching Marcus Samuelsson’s new book, The Rise, thinking about food and Black chefs. I think there’s a lot of content. Our goal is to provide access to it. A lot of that right now, of course, is electronic.

I think there’ll be a time soon when we will safely have limited numbers of visitors, but people are already grabbing and going with library books. We really have seen such a surge in people wanting to get materials. The Schomburg put out a Black liberation reading list over the summer. It was 95 books for our 95 years. We’re 95 years old. Then we put out 65 books for younger readers. That amount of 160 books or whatever has really been taking off. People were really hungry for this. It was really in the midst of the height of the protests and the unrest. I think that people want to understand this history and read from words from people who have thought about this for a long time, whether it’s Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Roxane Gay.

Obviously, poetry is a huge part of your life. Will you still have time to do your poetry work?

The short answer is yes. I try to write when I can what I can. I have a book of poetry coming out in a year. I’m glad that I finished that. Quarantine is one of those weird things where you, in theory, have time. I’ve seen all those jokes about I was going to do this — write a novel. Instead, you’re like, ‘I caught up on Tiger King or whatever.’ But for me, also writing is part of just my process. I gain energy from this other work. It’s about creating. It’s about connecting. These are things that poets do on their day job as poets, but I think it’s also a skill that they have that they can carry into their other work. By the way, poetry is no poet’s day job, really. I feel lucky to be able to do this other work and write poems as well.

You have put together this really sweeping anthology.

It could have been three times as long and still not contain all of African American poetry, which I think is an exciting problem to have. Just when I started doing the book about six years ago, I realized that I wanted to start with Phillis Wheatley and then I want it to end with the present. That was 250 years really. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing to think of this quarter millennium of Black writing in the Americas.’ How can we represent that? It requires the scope that we’re talking about. I want to represent the range, the breadth of Black poetry, but also its depth. So it was really important to include some of the epics people have written, whether that’s Langston Hughes writing about Harlem or Robert Hayden writing about the Middle Passage, Gwendolyn Brooks writing about Bronzeville. I think in many ways, these ancestors being able to write about history has prepared us for this moment. The poets writing today are really exciting. They’re able to write about whatever they want and also to have that depth of knowledge and reference, which is really impressive.

Is there a writer or a poem in particular that you ended up cutting that you still think about?

I couldn’t put songs in the book. I think that was the right thing, because we really wanted the poetry to shine. But sometimes I miss hearing Bessie Smith’s voice on the page. But at the same time, I think that it was important to say, here is this poetic tradition that has its own bounds and antecedents. Obviously, many of the writers write about music, but they all write about each other. Robert Hayden writes about Dunbar. He writes in the voice of Phillis Wheatley. Eve Ewing writes about Emmett Till. Emmett Till, if anything, becomes a central figure coursing through the book. I could have published 10 more terrific Emmett Till poems. I think it especially started to resonate with me as I was finishing the introduction right around the same time on Juneteenth as all the protests and after the killing of George Floyd and too many others. So it seemed like, again, this continuity. We’re still protesting in print.

This current moment feels very much defined by a broad cynicism. Poetry needs emotions. It needs earnestness. I’m sure this isn’t the first time cynicism has loomed large in American history. What do you find about how Black folk write their way out of that?

Well, very much, as you can tell from the subtitle [250 Years of Struggle & Song], I was interested in representing the struggle and the song of this time and of Black folks.

An early portrait of Harriet Tubman, which Kevin Young calls “incredibly powerful.”

Library of Congress/Getty Images

I came to realize that sometimes poets are writing about the struggle. Sometimes they’re writing about the song. Usually they’re writing about both or turning the struggle into song. I always go back to the blues and the way the blues, as Langston Hughes said, is laughing to keep from crying. That kind of quality, it rejects cynicism, but it doesn’t reject the matter-of-factness. Saying it plain, even if it’s through metaphor or through signifying, or through music. So I do think Black poetry, for me, does both. It refuses to give in, but it also doesn’t truck in platitudes. It isn’t interesting to then just say, ‘Everything’s fine,’ but it is interesting to say, ‘Been down so long, it looks like up to me.’

What makes a good poem? What sets the masters apart from folks who are sharing word salad?

I was laughing at the term ‘masters.’ Maybe I will try to find a new word.

Yeah, I cringed as soon as I said it!

I’m glad you said that word, because there’s this great poem in the book by Lucille Clifton, who is undoubtedly one of our greats and geniuses. Clifton writes, the poem is called Study the Masters. She describes in the poem her Aunt Timmie ironing the sheet the great poet slept on. In some ways, she’s trying to get us to think about the labor behind the idea of a great poet, quote-unquote. I think what she’s trying to get us to think about is not just celebrating Timmie, which we appreciate, but then also talking about the unspoken, often unsung qualities of poetry. That’s something that I think African American poetry has long done, has said: Look over here. Notice this. Spoken of what isn’t spoken. So there is that quality, I think, to a great poet.

That great poem by a great poet studying the masters is also getting us to think about what mastery means. I think a very good poem has that layered meaning. It isn’t just what it says. It’s how it says it, but it’s also some of the unspoken qualities, the things that start to get us moving. It’s a little like what makes a great song. Well, you have to move first. Later while you’re dancing, you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m starting to think.’ There’s something about that movement and thought that a great poem also does. It moves us.

I’m really happy to see Lucille Clifton writing about her period in this anthology.

I always read that poem [To My Last Period] or have my students read it. The people get real quiet when they shouldn’t. Clifton is so great about writing about the body and the female body and her selfhood. She’s able to write about all these aspects of herself. As she says in probably her most famous poem, Won’t You Celebrate With Me, where she says, ‘born in Babylon, both nonwhite and woman.’ She’s trying to get us to think about these intersections of identity. She says it in a way that is just incredible. And I think that that is what makes things memorable.

It feels as though you are pushing African American arts and letters to the center rather than having them be this addendum to mainstream American history.

Well, it’s a little like Black music. It’s at the center, but sometimes gets displaced. I think Black poetry has never been more powerful or more influential. I think that it’s one of the things that people like Clifton and writers from the Black Arts era, but also after my generation and younger, have been writing poems that I think prepare us for this, to be able to talk about the challenges facing us now. I think there was a notion in poetry sometimes like, ‘Is art political? Is poetry?’ It just seems like a strange, outdated notion now. Of course it is.

So as director of the museum, I imagine you have access to artifacts that folks don’t ordinarily get to see. Do you have a favorite?

I don’t know of us having things that aren’t for the public. That’s why we collect these things. It is true that you can only display certain things at a certain time. The things that I’ve seen, which is incredibly powerful, I love seeing Harriet Tubman’s photograph, the early photograph of her. Honestly, I had seen it right before the museum got it, but I didn’t think it was any less powerful seeing it with my son while walking through the gallery. If anything, it was more powerful to know that all these people had seen it. What I take pleasure in is knowing that everyone can see it, because someone like Harriet Tubman belongs to everyone. That legacy of her fighting for freedom is one we should embrace and visit and understand as much as possible.

What do you do with Colin Kaepernick? What would you want him to donate to the collection?

I think for me, it’s not just about one individual. The powerful thing about that museum is that a lot of everyday people donated, contributed, helped break ground, made that place possible, and have kept the faith and kept family Bibles and artifacts that tell the story. So I’m interested as much in how everyday people are responding to not just Kaepernick, but to this moment of protest and seeing on screen, and through the wonder of sports, how people are dealing with these social issues every day. When I was a kid, I played on an all-Black baseball team, which I write about in my book, Brown. We won the division and then the other team, which was mostly white kids, the parents claimed they didn’t have any trophies. ‘Oh, we lost them.’ They didn’t want us to have that moment of glory on the field. Looking back, I just think about that so much. It seemed to echo with much more important, deeper struggles. A lot of people play sports. A lot of people still encounter these questions around power and race. How do we talk about that? Some of it we do talk about through people like Ali or Jackie Robinson at the museum. But I’m also interested in exploring these everyday struggles, survivals and triumphs.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.