Poet Kevin Young Says Thinking About Black Culture, Like Writing Poetry, Is A Calling Young will take over as the next director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in January. He tells NPR, "We're in this really exciting Black renaissance."
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Poet Kevin Young Says Thinking About Black Culture, Like Writing Poetry, Is A Calling

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Poet Kevin Young Says Thinking About Black Culture, Like Writing Poetry, Is A Calling

Poet Kevin Young Says Thinking About Black Culture, Like Writing Poetry, Is A Calling

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Near the top of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is the office of the director. Its windows offer sweeping views of nearby monuments. Kevin Young will be the next director, only the second person to sit in that office. He's the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and now directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. He spoke with Rachel about his new job.

KEVIN YOUNG: I think a poet or the idea of being a poet is a calling. It's a vocation. For me, so is thinking and talking about black culture. And those two things are intimately related. I've been writing about black culture since I first started writing and certainly since I first started publishing when I realized that it was really important to write about what you saw in your backyard. In my case, it was the Louisiana my parents and where I went to all growing up and spent summers and holidays and realizing that, you know, culture was made there. As a poet, we're often making connections between things that aren't necessarily seen as related. You know, that's what a metaphor is. It's saying this is like this.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And when I was thinking about this for you, I mean, museums, especially a well-curated exhibit, it is like a poem.

YOUNG: Yeah (laughter). I mean, it has a beginning, a middle, an end, or as Jean-Luc Godard said, not necessarily in that order, you know, in poems. But I think in a museum, what's so powerful about the National Museum of African American History and Culture is that you enter into this beginning in the bottom and you rise up through the structure. And as you rise, we start to see the present day. And I think, you know, that's true in our everyday experiences, but I don't think we always are able to see it so visually as the museum provides. And I think that's a part of what a good poem does is it enacts meaning. And you're not just watching someone describe to you meaning. You're feeling meaning happen for you. And that's what a good poem does. And that's what the national museum does, too.

MARTIN: Now, this important museum that feels more significant in our culture right now, I mean, this is under your stewardship, right? Where do you - no pressure, but where do you take it?

YOUNG: Well, I think that, you know, the museum's in a good direction already, which I think is one of the exciting things. It's really thinking aloud and central to the conversation about race in this country. And I think that starting with the stories it tells and the way it tells the story of African Americans, which is an American story, it's also central to and shaped American culture. There's hardly any part of American culture you can point to that doesn't have this Black influence. And I think that that Black presence has really been heightened. And obviously we see the ways that injustice persists, but also that I think culture is still made and people are still creative and laughing and dancing and making music and writing art.

I think we're in this really exciting Black renaissance. Black film is really exciting now, Black television, poetry, of course, and I've edited this new anthology of African American poetry, "250 Years Of Struggle & Song." And I was really struck doing it over the past six years. What an exciting, rich moment it is for poetry and to be at the museum where it's recognizing all of history and all of Black culture in the U.S. I think it's really exciting, too, to see the ways that it's making these connections already. But, you know, being part of talking about these two twin pandemics of COVID and of racism I think is really important.

MARTIN: You mentioned this new anthology of poetry that is out that you edited. And I know, I mean, just looking through it, so many of the works in there speak to our current political and social upheaval. I wonder if there is one you think is especially poignant right now that you wouldn't mind sharing with us.

YOUNG: Well, I was struck in editing it people throughout this anthology of 250 years have been writing about injustice, have been writing about extrajudicial killings and these kinds of things. And someone like Emmett Till lynched in 1955, a big spur to the civil rights movement whose casket is in the national museum, is so central to this discourse in poetry. And poets have written about him so much that I think a poem that thinks about that might be in order.

This is a poem by Eve L. Ewing, "I Saw Emmett Till This Week At The Grocery Store." (Reading) I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store, looking over the plums one by one, lifting each to his eyes and turning it slowly, a little earth, checking the smooth skin for pockmarks and rot or signs of unkind days or people and sliding them gently into the plastic. Whistling softly, reaching with a slim woolen arm into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire before realizing the danger of bruising and lifting them back out, cradling them in the crook of his elbow until something harder could take that bottom space. I knew him from his hat, one of those fine porkpie numbers they used to sell on Roosevelt Road. It had lost its feather, but he had carefully folded a dollar bill and slid it between the ribbon and the felt, and it stood at attention. He wore his money. Upright and strong, he was already to the checkout by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name, and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand, looked at me quizzically for a moment before remembering my face. He smiled. Well, hello, young lady. Hello. So chilly today. Should have worn my warm coat like you. Yes. So cool for August in Chicago. How are things going for you? Oh, he sighed, and he put the candy on the belt. It goes. It goes.

I think so many of the poets are writing about change and growth in the natural world, but also you see that in that plum there, that these organic items that contain their history, that's really, I think, a haunting moment because, of course, the supermarket now, since March at least, is this strange space where we're masked and where we're negotiating what to feed ourselves. And, you know, we go there rarely or we have to make a plan. And it's exhausting. And her vision of seeing him sort of free and easy, he wore his money, I think is really powerful in this wish to reclaim him, the wish to see him older and having lived.

MARTIN: Kevin Young is the editor of "African American Poetry: 250 Of Struggle & Song." He takes up his new role as director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in January. Kevin, thanks so much for talking with us and congratulations again.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "NUCLEUS")

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