Kevin Young, poet, named new director of African American Museum

Young is a former Emory professor and current director of the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Kevin Young, distinguished poet and former professor at Emory University, has been named the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The 400,000-square-foot museum in Washington, D.C., opened in 2016 and is the nation’s largest cultural center devoted to the African American experience.

Young, 49, is currently director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, and poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine.

Reached at home on Thursday evening (Young divides his time between Harlem and Montclair, New Jersey), Young said he was excited about this new chapter in his life.

“The museum is such a temple of history and thought and culture,” he said, as he cleaned up the supper dishes, and spoke of a recent visit to the museum with his family.

Young described the moment they viewed the glass-topped coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered in 1955. (The coffin became available when Till’s body was exhumed in 2005, and cemetery officials wouldn’t allow the body to be reburied in the same coffin.)

“I was there with my son," said Young. "He was about the age Till was. And to view that up close was incredibly moving. It could shake you to your core and make you think about how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go.”

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Among Young’s 11 books of poetry is 2016′s “Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015.” He is the editor of 10 other works, including the comprehensive collection, “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song," out this month.

His 2012 collection of essays, “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” won the PEN Open Book Award; his 2003 poetry collection “Jelly Roll: A Blues” was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Growing up, Young moved frequently, as his eye-doctor father and chemist mother pursued their careers. He has done the same as an adult, though he taught at the University of Georgia for five years and at Emory for 11 years, therefore spending more time in Georgia than in any other locale.

Young said he would continue to serve as poetry editor at the New Yorker, but would eventually move to D.C. He begins work at the museum in January.

A news story from National Public Radio asked, in a jocular tone, whether a poet was suited to managing an organization with 180 employees and a $51 million annual budget, but Young pushed back against that stereotype.

He has expanded programs at the Schomburg Center, raised $10 million in grants and donations, and acquired significant personal archives from Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin and others. “I’m not alone as a poet who runs things,” he said, mentioning poet Elizabeth Alexander, who is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “I could go on.”

(On the other hand, he added, “I may be the only poet who loves spreadsheets and budgets.")

Young said poets are not dreamy escapees from reality, but are on the front-lines, often delivering the news of the moment. This summer his magazine has published poems about the death of George Floyd and the experience of being quarantined.

Young expects the museum to similarly highlight the social upheaval around the Black Lives Matter movement, and to place it in context of civil rights and human rights history. “The museum is the same way,” he said. “We can respond to our moment.”