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Lyrical leadership: Kevin Young, a poet, is now running the African American Museum

Kevin Young, the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)
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If you were dreaming up the perfect résumé for the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, you probably couldn’t improve on the one Kevin Young has built over the past two decades. After stints as a professor, curator and archivist, Young spent the past four years as director of one of the nation’s oldest Black cultural institutions, whose rich history informed the Washington museum affectionately known as the Blacksonian.

But Young is also an accomplished poet and writer — a fact that may seem disconnected from his museum work but that intrigued Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the African American Museum, who left that job in 2019 to become secretary of the Smithsonian.

“The museum is driven by words, so who better than a poet to lead it?” Bunch said of his handpicked successor. “That excited me.”

Author of 14 books, editor of nine more and poetry editor of the New Yorker since 2017, Young says his literary background definitely contributes to his work at the museum.

“The poet’s job is to make connections. Poets say, ‘This thing is like this other thing.’ And in fact, they say, ‘This thing is this other thing,’ making metaphor. As a museum director, I’m really interested in making meaning and helping people make those connections through what they see and what they experience,” said Young, who became the African American Museum’s second director in January. “I see that as almost a kind of lyrical connection. And if I can provide some of that lyrical leadership to what our new direction is, I think that’s really great.”

As an example, Young points to an early photograph of Harriet Tubman that is jointly owned by the museum and the Library of Congress. The power he sees in Tubman’s look is reflected in another new acquisition, Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor.

“That’s a really tremendous piece,” he said of the portrait, jointly acquired in March with the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. The museum plans to display it later this year. “It was the cover of Vanity Fair. It depicts her in a powerful way, and it sort of brings her to life and shows her, as Amy Sherald says, it gives her a voice in a really powerful way. I think that for me, that kind of connection across time and the ways that the portrait of Harriet Tubman is looking at you in the way that the Breonna Taylor portrait is, I think is something we want to really highlight for people.”

Young also brings a sense of urgency to the Smithsonian museum’s mission to connect history to the present.

“We’re in history now, and that history is a living thing, and understanding living history is, I think, really a big part of it,” he said about his vision. “Think about the art people are making, the conversations people are having. That’s where we can collect and connect and help people see the bigger picture.”

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At 50, he’s one of the youngest Smithsonian directors and, like many of his generation, he is less concerned with hierarchies of culture and more expansive in his definition of it. Some of his favorite artifacts in the museum are found in its music, television and food exhibitions.

"To have a person who is so profoundly of culture in this position is such a boon and a building on the visionary dream-making that Lonnie did building the institution, " said Elizabeth Alexander, Young's longtime friend, fellow poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. "Kevin is a lover of life and a lover of Black culture in all of its forms."

“He has a voracious appetite for culture,” said Colson Whitehead, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Underground Railroad” who has been Young’s friend since college. Whitehead described Young’s “interdisciplinary curiosity” as his super power, adding that “the museum is a great stage for how it will all play out.”

Born in Nebraska, Young and his family moved frequently when he was a child as his father, an ophthalmologist, and mother, a chemist, pursued their careers. He started writing poetry as a young teenager in Kansas, graduated from Topeka West High School and moved east to study at Harvard University. There, he helped revive a Black culture magazine, Diaspora, and was part of the Dark Room Collective, a writers’ group.

“We were young kids interested in the arts and trying to find a community, and he was an architect of that,” Whitehead recalled. “Even as a teenager, he was motivated and directed in a way a lot of us were not.”

After graduation, Young was awarded a Stegner fellowship in poetry at Stanford University, and he earned an MFA in poetry from Brown University in 1996. Starting in 2005, he spent 11 years at Emory University in Atlanta, where he taught and served as curator of its poetry library. In 2016, he moved to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. He raised $10 million and acquired important archives, including those of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin and Sonny Rollins.

He won accolades as a “wonderful acquisitions man” but his remarkable communication skills and media savvy made the objects he collected accessible to the public, said William P. Kelly, the New York Public Library’s director of research libraries, who hired Young.

“It’s insufficient to merely save stuff. It’s important that the material that’s collected and preserved is made available to inform the present,” Kelly said. “He was spectacular in the role. I knew he was bound for other things.”

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Young moved to Washington in January (his 14-year-old son still lives in New Jersey), and he has spent his first months focused on digital programs because the museum’s building has been closed since Nov. 23 because of the pandemic. It reopened May 14. A top priority is the Searchable Museum, a digital space coming in the fall that will allow the museum to expand its reach and deepen the experience of virtual visitors by helping them engage with some of the museum’s permanent collection in a manner that mimics the intimacy of seeing them in person.

“We realize that, long term, there’s always going to be this need,” he said about digital programs. “We also know that there are educators who are invested in that. And, you know, every parent has become an educator this past year.”

Young’s ability to embrace a digital future gives him an edge as the museum adapts to the new landscape that balances in-person programs and virtual ones, Bunch said.

“I knew we were getting someone who would appreciate and understand what the museum was, would honor it but not be held captive by it,” Bunch said. “The evidence was what he did at Schomburg — taking an important place and making it even more important.”

Upcoming programs will showcase his broad definition of culture and his interest in examining it from many angles. Next month, the museum will host a celebration of Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, with a community day focused on music, family and freedom. Online programs and perhaps in-person events will highlight historical documents that explain the holiday’s origins and will include a conversation about the history of Black barbecue.

“We’re thinking about what that history means, but also the power of joy and pleasure,” Young said. “The museum is a place that says this is part of this culture, this history is central to the American story. And I do think that understanding that can help us understand each other better.”

His friends are not surprised that the program highlights food.

“Understanding the artistry and history of Black culture in spaces such as food is something that is a deep part of him,” said Alexander, who has a framed copy of Young’s poem, “Ode to Greens” (“you are often cross — bitter/as mustard, sweet/when collared — yet no one/can make you lose/all your cool”), hanging in her kitchen.

Young is a collector, a “real material culture person,” Alexander adds.

“He’s the friend you go hunting for treasures with . . . and he’s the one who puts the protective cover on it and catalogues it. I have no friend more meticulous and reverent than he is,” she said. “Plus, he has style. He has humor.”

“He’s got a gift for friendship,” the New York Public Library’s Kelly said. “That’s important in the job he had and the one he has. You need to make friends among funders, to make friends with people who have the archives, to trust you with them, and make friends with patrons, to make them feel welcome.”

This gift was on view May 14 when the African American Museum reopened from its second covid closure. Young stood at the entrance, dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt, navy tie and red pocket square, a mask covering his beard and smile. After welcoming first lady Jill Biden, who took a short tour before the public was allowed in, he chatted with visitors with free timed passes waiting their turn.

“I’m the new director here. Where are y’all from?” he said as he approached Daniel Perez, who stood with family members on the museum’s front plaza. Perez told Young they came from Texas to see the display of his daughter, Lt. Emily Jazmin Tatum Perez, a 2005 U.S. Military Academy graduate who is included in the museum’s military exhibit because she was the first Black female officer in U.S. history to die in combat. Young asked about Perez and then talked about Texas and Louisiana, where his family is from, until it was time for them to go inside. “Welcome,” he said as they moved on. “It’s so good to see you.”

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