On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Poet, author, essayist and editor Kevin Young became the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in January. Most recently the director of the 95-year-old Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Young succeeds founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III at a time when we’re living through a historic pandemic (which has temporarily closed the museum to in-person visitors) and a critical moment of racial reckoning.
How can the NMAAHC help us make sense of this current moment? Young joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and new projects in the works. Plus, we hear how his roles as a museum director and as a poet intersect.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Kevin Young Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; Poet, author, essayist and editor; @Deardarkness
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking with Brianna Thomas about her book. It's called "Black Broadway In Washington D.C." But first, there's a new person taking the helm of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He stepped into the role amid a global pandemic and at a critical time in our country's reckoning with race and the Black experience. He joins me now Kevin Young is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He's also a Poet, author, essayist and editor. Kevin Young, thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN YOUNGThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIKevin, first of all, welcome to D.C. I know you and your family recently moved here. How was the move from New York and how are enjoying our fair city so far?
YOUNGI'm enjoying it a lot. It's a great town. I've been here before, of course, but to live here has been really a pleasure and, you know, I can see the Washington Monument right now. So I feel pretty welcome. And I can almost see the museum. But being at the museum has been really special and, you know, it's such a temple to African American history and culture and its centrality in the American story. And being right on the Mall there and seeing the monument is really powerful.
NNAMDIWhy did you take this position?
YOUNGWell, I mean, in many ways it's a dream job in the sense that I've been thinking for a long time as a writer about this very question of African American history and culture and helping to make culture, helping to think about it has been a lot of my life's work, but, of course, being here at the center of that conversation -- and I think the museum has really shifted how we think about where Black culture best resides. And it resides everywhere. We see it in every turn. You turn on the TV. You log online you see it. But I also think it really thinks about the history and the ways that it's sustained American culture, but also sustained Black people. And in this particular time when we're facing twin pandemics of COVID and racism I think the museum has an ever important role.
NNAMDIYou are succeeding Lonnie Bunch who is now the Secretary of the Smithsonian.
NNAMDIDid he have a role in persuading you to take this position?
YOUNGVery much, I mean, one of the appeals was both to work, you know, in an institution that Secretary Bunch is leading, but also a place that he helped found and setup in the museum. And obviously it's such an important place. When we were open fully we had two million people a year who came through our doors to view things like the first portrait of Harriet Tubman known, Emmett Till's casket. The things that I think are so powerful and central to telling the story of a people, but also of a nation as a whole.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kevin Young. He is the now Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. A lot of people know you as a poet, an author, essayist and editor. And you'll soon be inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters for your literary work. How does your experience as a poet and writer shape your approach to leading museums?
YOUNGWell, I think poets are involved in connection and making meaning. And that's very much something that a museum does. And especially the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is so good at making connections and creating context for you as you walk from the slavery and freedom galleries into the soaring space and ascend literally up the museum.
YOUNGAnd so for me, the kind of making a meaning, the connecting things that maybe don't seem alike, but suddenly you understand are, that's part of the poet's job. And the poet also can have a kind of improvisatory quality. You know, we're not jazz musicians by any means, but we're certainly influenced by them. And we're certainly people who think about how you can take and tell a story through what you have, you know, what you're given. And I think that's what the museum has done a wonderful job of of telling the story of African American people in this nation.
NNAMDIIn 2012, you published your first non-fiction book. It's called the "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness." Your essays explore how essential Black culture is in the American experience. Can you explain that please?
YOUNGYeah, you know, when I started out writing that book, it took a number of years to write it. I was already writing poetry and, you know, turning to essay was a way of I think explaining myself to myself, but also thinking about Black culture. And I started out trying to think about how -- what was Black about American culture. And the answer I found fairly quickly was a lot if not everything. So there was this centrality, this dominant culture that I found in blackness. But then I also started thinking about what makes Black culture Black. You know, what makes it unique? And those kind of explorations are ones that the museum was undergoing. I, of course, did not know this, but around the same time in a way.
YOUNGAnd it coming and opening in 2016, we're looking ahead to our fifth anniversary this fall. It's a way of thinking about -- for me it's like coming home because, you know, I've been thinking about these things and what's unique about Black culture on my own. And to be here and help others think about it and help others view it as they come and visit is really important. And it's been great to see that kind of come full circle for me.
NNAMDIWhy is the book called "The Grey Album?"
YOUNG(laugh) There's a few reasons. There's a very important hip hop record by DJ Danger Mouse called "The Grey Album," where he took the vocals from "The Black Album" by Jay-Z as you may know and mixed them up with "The White Album," by the Beatles. It's a tremendous effort. And I actually knew Danger Mouse back in the day. I used to see him because we both lived in the same town in Athens, Georgia where I first taught. And he worked like in the record store. And I would see him. And, you know, I bought some early Danger Mouse mixes and stuff, and then to see him do this thing.
YOUNGAnd it helped me explain that kind of mix of culture. The book was kind of not where it would have been without realizing that was a great metaphor for thinking about the future of culture and how culture and Americanness were intertwined with blackness and whiteness, and, of course, many other things. But those two things came to bare into the fore.
NNAMDIHere now is Phyllis in Washington D.C. Phyllis, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHYLLISThanks very much. Mr. Young, I am so excited to have happened upon this broadcast, because I'm studying your poetry. I'm taking a class for seniors at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
PHYLLISAnd I'll soon be 92.
YOUNGOh, my goodness.
PHYLLISAnd I tell you, I'm enjoying this poetry so very much. And it was just by kismet. I was on my way home from a dental appointment. And when I hear you were going to be on the air, I was thrilled. So I'm just really wanting to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and how much I love that museum. I have only been able -- due to this virus. I attended the fourth floor. I was there for several hours and felt like I needed to go back, but it was -- that cultural display was really incredible.
YOUNGThank you so much. That means a lot.
NNAMDIPhyllis, thank you very much for your call. You do have to take that museum one floor at a time actually.
YOUNGYou do. I split it up into a couple days and still didn't see everything when I first went.
NNAMDISome of our listeners may know you as the poetry editor of The New Yorker. Will you continue in that role?
YOUNGYeah. I've continued in that role, and, you know, especially during COVID and quarantine we really started publishing work that could speak to, I think our moment. And one of the nice things of being at a weekly magazine is that you can have an event and then run a poem that relates to it. For instance, there's a tremendous poem simply called "George Floyd" by the poet Terrance Haze that we ran last summer. And it just powerfully captured, and I think poetry can do this, both the timeliness and the timelessness.
YOUNGAnd that kind of quality I think is really crucial to poetry. I recently said poems are the best form of -- most efficient form of time travel. And I think that's true. They can take us other places, but they can also name the moment as well as anything.
YOUNGFor me, that's the same experience I have in the museum. It really creates that sense of the immediacy and we're really working on collecting now. Collecting material related to, for instance, the Black Lives Matter Plaza here in D.C. We have a banner from there that we collected. But also trying to think about how we can capture this current moment, because we're in history. History is alive in us and how do we collect it and name it?
NNAMDIWell, you've just recently moved to Washington, but as they say, you can run, but you can't hide. Here's Kennedy in Columbia, Maryland. Kennedy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENNEDYHi. Yes, first of all, welcome to the D.C. area. I'm a native Kansan and actually I've been in the one year plus training program to be a docent there at the African American Museum.
YOUNGOh, how wonderful.
KENNEDYIt's a very intense program, but I've learned so much, but welcome aboard, just a small antidote. Your dad was my family's ophthalmologist.
YOUNGOh, amazing. Yes, ophthalmologist he was.
KENNEDYYes. He was. When we lived in the Topeka area, and I remember your mom was a chemist -- is a chemist probably and was secretary of health and environment. So small world, but welcome aboard.
YOUNGIt's a small world.
NNAMDIIndeed it is.
YOUNGYeah. That's amazing. Well, that was -- it's a special place Topeka. It's a place I've written about and, you know, where there's other poets from. Langston Hughes lived there. Gwendolyn Brookes was born there. And to come from there -- and I've written about this too that in my church in Topeka is where Linda Brown of Brown v. Board went. And where Reverend Brown, who helped file the case and these were the symbolic centers of the case that helped desegregate this country or at least start that process.
YOUNGYou know, were there. The reverend had passed on, but Linda Brown was there every week playing piano. So to be so close history, I think of that a lot when I think of Kansas. And I appreciate you. Someone else recently told me that they had my dad -- or they had seen my dad as physician. And, you know, he was a remarkable guy, who was one of the first to go to college in this family and went all the way through med school. So it's special to remember that too.
NNAMDIAnd, Kennedy, thank you very much for your call. We'll be taking a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Kevin Young. He is the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He's also a Poet, author, essayist and editor. Kevin Young, you were most recently the director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. That's a 95 year old research library that's part of the New York Public Library system. The Schomburg is dedicated to research and preservation of African American, African diaspora and African experiences.
NNAMDIHowever, now you're leading a museum that's less than five years old. What are the greatest challenges and at the same time the greatest opportunities that you see in heading up a newer museum and how do you see their missions as different?
YOUNGWell, as a newer museum, you know, in the latest Smithsonian, we're the 19th Smithsonian. You know, there are a lot of things we got to explore, like we could build a green building, which we've done. But I think the challenges are ones that are sort of facing all of us right now in the midst of these twin pandemics of COVID and racial injustice some of which indicate to us it's a precedented time not an unprecedented one. A 100 years ago, we're looking ahead, I don't know if looking ahead is the right term, but we're getting ready to commemorate the Tulsa massacre from 1921 at the museum.
YOUNGAnd so I think a lot about the long tale that we tell, which is to say we're really good at understanding and helping others understand the context of how we got here, of what African Americans have endured, have thrived, have survived, their resilience and their resistance. And I think that's really important in this moment.
YOUNGThe Schomburg does a terrific job of doing that too. It's just a different scale I think in terms of visitorship and everything like that, but the Schomburg has a very large archive. I think it's 11 million items now and it includes some collections that I helped get there including Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. And those actors and activists I think tell that story, which is also a story that the museum tells. And we have really key objects and we can show objects at the museum and we could also provide that visitorship that experience of walking through the galleries.
YOUNGAnd the challenge we're facing right now is helping people have that experience online. It's not enough to just show the objects or shot them or film them or provide access, which we do do. But it's also trying to recreate the emotional feeling of that exhibition. The soaring feeling is one we're really capturing now. And we're looking to this fall in our fifth anniversary as a way to launch that museum online and that online Smithsonian that is so important I think and especially this digital present we find ourselves in.
NNAMDIHere now is KC in Bowie, Maryland. KC, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KCGood morning, Mr. Young. I too kind of happened on this show. But great show, Kojo. Great Show. I wondered when the museum does open, will you have live -- I don't know. I won't call them acts, but people like Amanda Gorman or others that come through in the evening and do special programs.
NNAMDIYou're talking about spoken word performances or presumably actors.
YOUNGSure. Yeah, well, you know, we were open a little bit in the fall. I think about two months. We had limited visitors, you know, per guidelines. And that was very successful. People did return. And I'm hoping we'll be able to reopen again once the numbers trend the right way, maybe as soon as this spring. But I think that will there be large crowds? I'm not sure that will be in any institutions future right now. But I'm hopeful that as people are safely in the space that we can make that happen.
YOUNGYou know, safety is our paramount thought right now both for our visitors and our staff. And so certainly one of the great things is people can be online and experience that wherever they are. But we will return I assume soon. I'm not sure when to having some version of that live experience because I do think that's very important. But it might be that people are filmed live and you get to see it from the comfort of your home or wherever. But I'm excited to get back in the space as I know you are.
NNAMDIKC, thank you very much for your call. You mentioned earlier that these times that we are living in in terms of racial injustice might be precedented or certainly not unprecedented. So I want to ask about a specific project the museum is working on, a new exhibit on reconstruction that is set to open in the fall. Tell us about that exhibit and why the museum is undertaking it now.
YOUNGWell, it's really important I think to think about this moment after slavery and how Black folks sought to define themselves as free and equal citizens after the end of it, and how they reshaped the nation in those times. But then how sort of questions of voting rights and access to the political process were both raised and then often thwarted. Reconstruction's promises, its success, and its failures, they really shed light on issues of race and citizenship that continue to reverberate. And I think one of the powerful parts of the show will be the history of reconstruction. But we also are really focused on the legacies and some current aspects of that legacy are really going to be powerful for visitors. And it's slated to open right around our anniversary, which is the 24th of September this fall.
NNAMDIJerry sent us an email saying that "An earlier caller mentioned the study group I lead on poetry from your anthology of Black poetry. Please say a little about your approach to selecting poems for that book."
YOUNGYeah, this fall I -- was the release of a book called "African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song" that I edited for the Library of America. And it's about 1,000 pages. And, you know, that was hard to get down too, because it's such a rich tradition. And what I was really trying to explore there was thinking of everyone from Phillis Wheatley to the present. It was very important to include the present, because the poets writing today are so exciting and writing great things. And people got to hear Amanda Gorman from the inaugural stage and it's been incredible to see how much people have turned to poetry and returned to poetry in this moment.
YOUNGThe anthology kind of tells that story of going from its beginnings with Wheatley and enslavement and freedom to the present day. And really I was trying to create a breadth of the poetic experience, but also depth. You know, you can't just put one poem by Langston Hughes or I couldn't. The hardest thing was not to put 50 poems by Langston Hughes. And instead to really represent the full flavor of say the Harlem Renaissance, which was a really vital time. It had lots of women writers many of whom didn't end up publishing books. There were a lot of gay-lesbian writers. So I want to really include the full range of Black poetry. I think there are almost 250 poets in there and I think it really helped to have that breadth to show how exciting, but also how timely it is.
YOUNGAgain, I was struck by how much people have been writing about these same questions that came to the fore last summer for so many of us, for years. There's many poems about Emmett Till, for instance. You could do a whole anthology of just that. And I was struck by how his legacy, his memory, his remembering and his mother Mamie Till's act of displaying his lynched body are so resonant for us today.
YOUNGYou know, when I was finishing it last Juneteenth it was just really powerful to realize this anthology had been telling me about this for years and for centuries Black folks have been writing about it. And you see much of the same in the museum where you get to see the actual glass top casket that Emmett Till was buried in. And it's such a powerful pilgrimage to make. And so for me these things are all connected, the museum and the anthology and the work I do. And it's just great to be able to lead it and to have people come and see up close what we're up to.
NNAMDIOnly about a minute left, but I understand there's a hip hop anthology in the works. What can you tell us about it?
YOUNGYeah. It's an exciting thing. It's as much a book as it is tracks. You know, it's the music I grew up with. And so to hear everything from Run DMC to MC Lyte and people singing about some of these same questions social injustice, but also joy, pleasure, anger and also just making you move. I think that's part of our rich tradition. You know, it's one that's complicated. And what I love is the book is able to explore the complexity of this music that is one of the most popular musics as you know in the world.
YOUNGYou know, we also have an important initiative with HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where we're helping them to care for their archives and share them. So we're really excited about the future and looking ahead to the fifth anniversary.
NNAMDIKevin Young is the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He's also a Poet, author, essayist and editor. Thank you so much for joining us.
YOUNGThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDINext up is Brianna Thomas. She'll talk about her book "Black Broadway In Washington D.C.". I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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