Kevin: [00:00:00] You know, a hundred years ago there were racial unrest and also racial violence against black folks that, whether it's the Tulsa massacre or the red summer of 1919, there was, uh, pandemic we were getting over. There were all these things. Mm-hmm. and I like. To say we're living in a precedent time, not an unprecedented one.
Mm-hmm. And how do we understand that? And being at the museum or writing histories, um, which I've done both in poetry and in non-fiction, are ways of trying to understand that
Helga: We often hear about gatekeepers these days, people in positions of power who determine what we see and hear and how we understand our world.
I am Helga Davis and welcome to my show of Conversations with Extraordinary People. My guest today is the poet, Kevin Young, and he holds dual gatekeeping roles as both the director of the [00:01:00] Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture
, as well as the poetry editor for the New Yorker magazine.
I was so pleased to meet him and to hear how he holds these responsibilities and likens reading a poem to entering into a museum. He also shares his belief in the power of unexpected transformations, which songs have brought him comfort and how it's always easiest to write about the place you've just.
What's happening there in D.C?
Kevin: Uh, well I'm at the museum, which is always nice - and staring at the Washington Monument as we speak. Mm-hmm. Um, DC's a little quiet, but you know, we just had a hip hop block party that was really successful the first will do. And, uh, looks like we'll need to do another.
It was so successful. , you know, it's been a busy time, but also it's, it's a little quieter than usual. We don't have a ton of [00:02:00] programming in August, and me personally, I've just been writing, uh, trying to work on some new things and, um mm-hmm. run this museum.
Helga: Well, I guess I was thinking about you in part too, as, as a person running that particular museum and what it is for you to run it and to hold all history at the same time that you have a hip hop block party.
Kevin: Well, I think what was uh, amazing about the hip hop block party is it was really about history. It was a moment to commemorate, uh, the anniversary of hip hop, which is by its official measure, gonna be 50 next year. Um, but also hip hop, of course, is made up of these other musics that, um, tell a story of history.
So, you know, we heard old school hip hop, but we also heard the funk that old school hip hop sampled and came from. We heard disco music. We heard the range of musics that lead up to hip hop. And of course hip hop's always been in the museum. [00:03:00] Uh, we have some wonder. Stuff from Public Enemy
and Chuck D including the boombox.
Uh, some banners from shows. Um, but we also have flyers from everyday folks, and I think that's what's really interesting is the way that hip hop is a, uh, was a groundswell. It was a music that people had block parties for and, um, you know, it. Stole power from light lamp posts, uh, let's say borrowed, yes, . Um, and, um, you know, we had to do much the same for this block party, so it was, it was really special to kinda come full circle.
Helga: Do you find that those audiences really see versus and hip hop as poetry, do they, do they make that connection or is it really part of the music?
Kevin: I think that while I love the poetic qualities of hip hop, I, I think poetry is a slightly, um, different. Art, uh, [00:04:00] I tend to think of poetry as having the music in it.
Um, and hiphop, of course, you can have instrumental hip hop and of, of course, in some ways that's how hip hop started is with the breaks and those moments in between the music. It isn't just rapping, but it's also DJing, which we saw a lot of at the block party, uh, break dancing, which. See enough of, in my opinion, I was like threatening to get out there
Um, and, and you know, graffiti of course in that kind of tradition, those are the kind of four iconic mm-hmm. parts of hip hop. But you know, to me the powerful thing is the culture. It isn't just one rapper or one moment, or one song or even poetry. It's that culture that, uh, hip hop captured, which I think still is going on.
Helga: And do you think these are folks who will then come and visit the museum and immerse themselves in, in the culture of the museum
Kevin: as well? Absolutely. I mean, that's what was really exciting is the museum was open too. It was open late. Um, and people got to see the [00:05:00] exhibitions and it for once wasn't a super hot night in DC so it wasn't just that they were cooling off, they were.
Um, seeing what there was to see and, and sharing in that experience of the museum, which I think is really transformative. You might come in wanting to see X, but you emerge, uh, with Y or maybe it's A through Z and, and I think that's what's really powerful about it is we go from. Understanding the origins of slavery and, and freedom and, and the rebellions that the enslaved undertook all the way to sort of the rebellious nature of something like hip hop or the, um, comforting sounds of gospel music or the mothership from Parliament Funkadelic
, all that's in the museum.
And it helps us understand the variety, the depth, but the continuity and context of black culture.
Helga: Hmm. You know, I think about also the use of the vernacular [00:06:00] in your work, and I see it as both a tool to reach people for whom poetry may be considered less accessible, but also a way to educate people who may not be as familiar.
With a black way of speaking, if you wanna say that, or a people of color way of speaking. Do you worry that you will alienate people who actually buy books? Is this, is it a myth that only certain people buy books? ,
Kevin: you know, the biggest buyer of books is actually, uh, black women college educate black women by the most books.
And, um, I think that kind of understanding of who's buying books has been not just overlooked, but I would say neglected. And, uh, I'm not alone in, in realizing that. I think [00:07:00] publishing has started to understand that. But I think your broader question is about what? Black talk. What does African American Vernacular English do?
And I would say that, you know, it isn't that people aren't familiar with it. It's almost that people sometimes don't understand that certain phrases, parts of language come from African American culture and they take it for granted almost. And so there's a way in which my understanding, uh, is of that kind of, how do you capture that?
Inner language, you know, how does a poem mm-hmm. capture how people feel and express themselves. There is a difference between, isn't an ain't, it's not one is proper or not. It's that one might say, you know, that ain't true. It's a little different . Um, you know, and so there is a kind of quality that I'm trying to capture, uh, in my own writing.
The speech I heard, uh, here think about and dream [00:08:00] in growing up and those kind of mix of languages. Cuz you know, I also, um, my family. It's from Louisiana and one part of them is from Southern Louisiana. And so my grandparents spoke French and that helped me understand, which I didn't really know cuz people didn't talk about that that much then, um mm-hmm.
And I remember one day coming out in Louisiana and my grandparents were speaking to an older woman in the yard. And I was like, what are they saying? ? I didn't know that they were speaking French . And so I. I think there's always a kind of secret other language. And so vernacular is both, uh, a way of sharing experience and talking about it, but it also has a kind of quality of code to it.
And so, mm-hmm. , why wouldn't you wanna write about that? Write through that, right? To understand how you can speak about something, speak through something, and also say something that you're not actually saying. Going back to hip hop, something like, You know, when says Not bad, meaning bad, but bad [00:09:00] meaning good.
He's helping us understand the ways that black culture and African American culture are transforming language, and often having things mean the opposite of what they seem to mean. And, and that's really important. Mm-hmm. , um, that. That transformation in language and that kind of style, that kind of slang, that kind of, uh, rebellious, let's call it, I think is, is built in a little bit, you know, it's hip hop that gives us ill as a good thing.
And so we start to have to question what does illness mean? What does good mean? And how do we kind of talk about and think about both of these things? I hope that answered your
Helga: Oh no, absolutely. And I think about my own community. So I live in Harlem and I'm very close to mosque number seven, which was Malcolm X's Mosque, and I'm experiencing a reclamation of the words brother and sister.
There's nothing I [00:10:00] love more than to walk past the mosque and have someone say to me, Good morning, sister Helga. And that feels really, really important because there was a time when if someone was calling you brother or sister, they wanted money or they wanted something else from you. And that the brother and sister was a means to an end.
It, it was a, a transactional way. Of trying to include someone in a conversation, but I feel that this, this way of brother and sister now. Or I'll pass someone in the street and I'll say, sister, you're looking beautiful today. And to hear that person say back to me, yes, sister, thank you, is a really, it's a beautiful thing and.[00:11:00]
Considering the importance of words to you and naming, have you experienced any shift in the communities that you participate in?
Kevin: Well, I think there's always been those words of kinship. And connection, even if something like cause or, you know, short for Cousin was kind of popular when I was younger.
Mm-hmm. . Um, but even before that of course was brother and sister and I still love that formulation. I often use it myself and I think of that black arts, uh, brother and sister and someone like Sister Sonya Sanchez, one of my heroes, uh, the poet, the dramatist, the thinker who really. Think about that sense of community and when she speaks everyone's brother or sister and she's really mm-hmm.
connecting with people, and I think it's a way of honoring that connection for me in the museum, say, I think of it much like in a poem, you enter the museum. not quite as a stranger. You know, you're, you're trying [00:12:00] to connect, you're, you're part of the circle. Once you enter, and I think the same thing with a poem.
The poem requires you to enter and, and, and be part of it. It is not complete until you. Give it breath and life. And I feel that way about the museum. You know, the people, it was built, uh, over a century, you know, it took people petitioning and, and trying. Um, and the first attempts were in 1915 by veterans of the Civil War, uh, 50 years after the war ended and trying to say, Hey, there needs to be a monument on the mall.
To African Americans, and so to see this monument now, but it's more than a monument. But something I think you experience when you're in the museum is this kind of connection. And so to me, You know, community isn't just inherited or found. It's also created and at least for the timeframe of a visit to the museum, [00:13:00] and I liken it to a visit, to a poem.
Mm-hmm. , and hopefully a little bit after you're part of that community, you are, when you read a poem that I, you are trans. Poured into this other eye, uh, whether it's Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks or someone a thousand years ago. And I think that's what's really powerful about a poem. And also I think about the objects in the museum, which tell a story that you can feel that kind of kinship with if it's done right and.
I happened to think all the people involved in making this place did it. Right. So people do feel those kinds of connections with themselves, that they see themselves in these objects, but also with each other.
Helga: Mm-hmm. . But I wanna go back again to this question of, of self-care, let's call it, and then how you take care of yourself.
It's a lot to hold and contain and be with every day. What are your practices around. [00:14:00]
Kevin: They're always evolving. I mean, and I think in a weird way, uh, quarantine and covid, which of course hit the black community very hard, um, at least in terms of one's own, having to slow down did, I think force a lot of us to evaluate self-care and, and kind of try to practice it better.
And for me, a lot of that was returning to like the cooking of my family and ancestry and falling in love with that again. Which when you get too busy, especially in the city, uh, I was in Harlem, then you can lose touch with. Um, I also kind of got into plants, which are really healing for me. Uh, you know, I come from a line of farmers on, on one side of my, well, both sides of my family.
And so for me it was like a way to just grow something and nurturing something that isn't a poem, uh, can be really freeing. You know, I, I know a writer. Mm-hmm. who once said to me what he loved about cooking was that. , it goes away like you make it, [00:15:00] it's good or bad, and it goes away no matter what. And so you don't have to revise it.
You don't think about, you know, it's like gone and there's something freeing about that. And plants is almost the opposite, like you're trying to sustain them. But then there's also a way in which, well, that one didn't work, you know? Or that one, I had a succulent just go bad on me the other day. I was like, wow, I don't know how that happened.
Oh, well, you know, maybe I'll save this one Part of it, you know, caring for something else a little bit is part of self-care. .
Helga: And it's interesting you say that because I had exactly the same impetus I became a plant lady, which on the one hand frightened me terribly because I've never thought of myself as a plant lady, but came to wanting to, uh, and actually and needing to be around things that were growing.
Sure. To plant seeds to wait. Yes, and I tried to, [00:16:00] to grow all kinds of things. I found some, a guy on Instagram who was sharing how you can grow. Lemon trees in your house. And I did the thing with the seeds and put 'em in the dark. And a week later they had little roots on them. Wow. And I planted them and I went away
And they were gone. Yeah. I didn't mean to go away for such a long time, but Sure. Yeah. But as you're saying that, then you can try again. Yeah. That you can try again. And I think that's a pretty important thing to, to keep
Kevin: trying. Yeah. I mean, I, I, I think, um, I think a lot about sustenance and what sustains us, and sometimes it's things that, um, are, you know, everlasting of course.
And, and being in the museum. Mm-hmm. I think about that a lot. But some of the valuable things are things that we [00:17:00] didn't think would survive but did. And, uh, sometimes that includes, um, people and sometimes that includes mm-hmm. African American folks and. . When the museum was built, people said there wasn't enough to fill it up.
People said, uh, people wouldn't have that history. And instead what we found is people came outta the woodwork with this history they had sustained. They had kept safe, whether it was Harriet Tubman's shawl or her hymnal, or even some small family items, whether it's the family Bible where we record, uh, losses and gain.
Births and deaths or a scrap of paper that showed that you were free. You know, I mean, all those things people kept - there's one object in the museum that's a, a box, a little, uh, metal box that, um, its owner kept his free papers in, um mm-hmm. . And just to see how precious that is and how important that was to craft a box to keep it in [00:18:00] tells us how precious freedom is and also how much.
Uh, it isn't just memory, but history and it isn't just like a story about that, but actually the objects themselves. And that's what people kept to tell these stories and help remind us. And, uh, you know, I balanced those things with that ephemeral nature. There's also jazz , you know, which you have to, right.
You have to be able to kind of think about that improvisational nature of black culture and the ways that some of the things that are most powerful are most. , um, temporary or maybe it's most, most given to the universe and we don't know if where they're gonna be or land. Mm-hmm. and that kind of powerful, it's almost prayer like quality of African American culture.
Helga: I treasure the aspect of it that I find intriguing is that not only. Is the solo your moment to say something? You also have to say [00:19:00] something within the context of the other things that are happening, right? So you say something as you are listening to everything else that's going on, and you put yourself inside a conversation.
That then happens between all the people who are playing
Kevin: well. Right. And that's a great metaphor for tradition to me. You know, you are part of this conversation. You have to participate, but you gotta bring your own thing as well. You know, you have to. Mm-hmm. bring excellence and also innovation and uniqueness.
Um, there's. always aspects of culture where being unique and different sounding different, say, um, are treasured. But you know, sometimes it's like you're supposed to sound exactly like the other thing and, and I think jazz and improvisation, those aspects of black culture are so powerful. I was just watching something about Mary Lou Williams this morning.
I was really struck by [00:20:00] her constant innovation, not just her arranging and her. Piano, and as the documentary talks about her mix of Stride, piano, and Boogie Woogie mm-hmm. , but also the way she could adopt to bebop you know, 20 years later and, and try to capture the new sounds that were happening. And that's really inspirational to be able to change and improvise, not just.
On the bandstand, but over time, and I think that's really important too, because I think about history a lot in that way and how history changes, but also connects us to now and, and to the future. How do we adapt and how do we continue? But you have to also understand that ongoing conversation as you put it.
Helga: There's a, an interview I was listening to recently. With a man called David Ellie. He's the CEO of a company called ideo, and he helped develop the mouse and the occupied sign in the bathroom on planes. [00:21:00] And he speaks about including all of the voices in his company when it comes to developing a product, a new product, they use the best idea.
Sure. And if the receptionist has that best, They go with it. And I'm wondering if in the spaces that you occupy the museum magazines publish, , do you find this to be true, this kind of inclusiveness, and what does it mean to have different voices? Well,
Kevin: uh, you know, one thing I've been thinking a lot about is, uh, living history and the ways that history is something that lives in us and we live in it.
It's happening now as we speak, and especially, , how do you capture now? How do you talk about now? And I think it becomes all the more important in the case of a museum like ours to help understand. The current moment and with the twin pandemics of [00:22:00] covid and racism coming to the fore, um, people understanding more about, uh, those things and, and often the ways those are connected, it becomes imperative to be able to talk about that.
And you need all those voices you mentioned, uh, case in point. Did a show that opened in 2021 that tried to talk about 2020 and the largest mass movement and, and protests in history. And the ways that those moments after George Floyd's murder, but also after Breonna Taylor's death were galvanizing for folks.
And, you know, we happened to have the, uh, portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy. She, and we created a show around it. Thinks about these kinds of questions and the current moment, uh, it's such a beautiful transformative portrait that she commissioned a black woman designer to design her the dress for her and mm-hmm.
to create this portrait. That was, I think, [00:23:00] uh, a statement about life and Breonna Taylor's life specifically. And it's been really transformative to have it in the museum. One of the ways it transformed. We reoriented the galleries. Quite literally, you enter a new door, uh, or it's a door that's always been there, but that we used to not enter through.
And that was cuz the security guard said, Hey, you can enter through this door instead of the other one. Mm-hmm. . And so, yeah, it is something you have to listen. To different voices and, and hear. And one of the things that I think that show reckoning captures are the different voices, the voices of protest in 2020, but also a hundred years of African American art history, African American history, everything from the, uh, uh, little flag by Jean Michel Bascott that he made and carried around.
Um mm-hmm. in his pocket. Postcard size cuz it was so important to him, to the African American flag that David Hammonds made in 1990. Yeah. And one of five of those we, uh, recently [00:24:00] acquired. And it's up for viewing. And I think I just am always struck by the ways that the inclusion has to also include the audiences.
Mm-hmm. and for us, the audience that came to the museum, something like 40%. Of the visitors to the museum when it opened, had never been to a museum before. And I think the museum world has to think about what that means. You know, if you build it, they will come, but you have to continue to honor that living history and that long history that often was excluded by, uh, institutions that were meant to be inclusive, but really weren.
Helga: You were born in Lincoln, Nebraska? Yes. How, how long were you
Kevin: there? I think six months. Oh, okay. , maybe nine. I don't know.
Helga: So it's not part really of your consciously living
Kevin: Well, depends on Are you trying to do my horoscope? Is that what's happening right now? You're You trying to get my parallel. What time were you born is [00:25:00] next?
I know, I know you, you're trying to, you're trying to get me on my horoscope
Helga: Kevin Young. You'll never meet a person who knows less about any of. Than me and I have people say, oh my God, do a what? What's your moon rising? Or whatever, however that goes. Um, so I don't imagine then that that had a huge influence on your writing, but what are some of the places.
you, you were living life after that, that had big influences on the way you see the world and on the way you
Kevin: write. Well, definitely having two parents from Louisiana, um, shaped my writing. Um, it's where we would go. It's where my parents would say, oh, we're going home, or I'm gonna go home. Let's go. You know?
Mm-hmm. home was and still is, Louisiana. Though I didn't, uh, grow up there, we would spend extended times there [00:26:00] on the holidays or in the summer. And, um, it's still my home place in that way. Mm-hmm. , my grandmother just turned 99, uh, which is yes, she did such a blessing and Wow. To have that, um, to go be able to celebrate with, you know, My dozens of cousins and you know, I think it was five generations of, of folks there celebrating her and what she made possible.
So to me that's the rootedness, um, that I write from and, and about. Uh, but there's also, you know, that. Migratory tradition in African American culture, and we moved a lot when I was little, lived in Boston and, um, Syracuse, New York and Chicago for a hot minute, and then we ended up in Kansas. And so that shaped me as much too.
I think the moving, but also the sort of getting used to the peculiarities of, of [00:27:00] place and how you have to learn them and if you're a new kid, you, you don't, You know, months to figure out whether they call it soda or pop or just give me a Coke. And then they say, what kind? I mean, you have to figure that out, right,
So, um, to me it meant that I didn't live anywhere for longer than a few years till I moved to Georgia and I lived in Georgia between Athens, and then I went away for a little bit and lived in Atlanta. Where I taught at Emory for, I think it's 17 years total. So for me that was, you know, really wonderful to return to a different south, but a south that I, uh, wasn't so foreign and, you know, get to make some whole hog barbecue in the backyard and, and like return to kind of those aspects.
So I think all along I've written about place, um, but it's. as a writer, write about the place you're sitting in. I think it's almost easier to write about the place you just left or to write about that feeling. And I used to write a lot on trains or planes or, you [00:28:00] know, being, uh, like in motion was good for my writing and now I just want to stay in my one little hide hole and, and Wright.
Um, but often it is about, um, just in places and, and times.
Helga: So when you were in these transitional spaces, So I understand that it's, it's almost easier to write about those places once you've left them, but what were the things that you learned in some of those places? You were saying that you don't have a week or a month or a year to be the new kid and to figure out the way the traditions of a particular place.
So what were some of the things that you were figuring out and how. Or did any of those things affect your writing?
Kevin: Well, how long do we have for this program? Because I think I could keep , I could, uh, fill a
Helga: We have as long as you, as we have, as long as you wanna speak on it. Well, that's [00:29:00] how long,
Kevin: um, I think for me, uh, I learned a lot about customs, um, and, and what they meant to say language for instance, but also, um, how you have to kind of be yourself in these different places.
Though of course, you know, when you travel, uh, now say you get an opportunity to try on, uh, different parts of yourself. I think different languages that I think is, I. But I also think I really learned improvisation above all. And I, I learned to love the things you carry with you that are part of you and that are your tradition, but also the ways that you have to make it new, uh, again and again.
And for me, that kind of improvisational quality. , I hope is in my work as well. Uh, I wrote a book about Jean Michel Basco, for instance. And what it provided me a chance to do is write poems about not just him, but all the figures he drew and painted, which of course was [00:30:00] most everyone. Mm-hmm. , this large swath of, of black musical and, uh, history.
And then thinking about ancient history. He was really obsessed with history. But it also gave me a chance to think about them in different ways and, and try out different voices and, and get at what I think all art does, which is try to get at some part of the truth through these different lenses.
Helga: Is there any place, any area in your writing, in your poetry where you feel words can't quite get at that truth, where words will inevitably come up short?
Kevin: I mean, I think worlds often falter us in grief. Uh, that's perhaps the most obvious place. Um, it's strange, I think, because grief can be an experience in language, but it often doesn't yield to language or, or yield language at all. Mm-hmm. , um, . I, I think that the physicality of grief is so [00:31:00] understated. You know, your, your immune system goes you all the medical things that people have proven happen.
Um, but there's a larger kind of loss. Mm-hmm. , and I think some of that does occur in language. And I edited an anthology of grief poems, the art of Losing. And that was something I did after I had written grief poems and looked for them and searched for them. And to have them in one place was comforting for me, and I've been happy to hear that.
It's comforting for others, but I think for me it's also the ways that. We still write in those moments, we still try to compose a eulogy and so many allergies and eulogies are like, I don't know what to say, and then you say it anyway. And, and that kind of mm-hmm. , um, power of not knowing. That's part of being human and part of what we have to do whenever we face.
The page, but especially when we're facing loss.
Helga: Your listening to Helga [00:32:00] will rejoin the conversation in just a moment. Thanks for being here.
Helga: And now let's rejoin my conversation with poet and museum director Kevin Young. I know that there are probably many, but what's one of your go-to songs or albums that bring [00:33:00] you comfort or solace or whatever you may need in a particular moment?
Kevin: My father was a huge music guy and my mother too. But um, my father's records are something I inherited from him and they are very eclectic.
records as a kid and loving the arts or seeing them, you know, shoeless, uh uh, but sock on socks clearly, like on a trampoline or something like, but there's no trampoline. Like, where are they?
Um, but you know, if I had to pick one, it is probably the harder they come, uh, soundtrack, which he played approximately 2 million times. As a kid and I still have that vinyl and still play it on vinyl and you know, there's nothing that warms a house or changes the house. Then Cliff's voice,
Helga: I have my brother's copy of John Coltrane's Love Supreme, not bad, and I remember putting that on and being 12 or trying to listen to it to understand perhaps what he heard.
Kevin: I think of sound and, um, those layers. I mean, that's what art does is it connects you to it, but also to each other and to one's own past. To the past. Mm-hmm. to family, um, who are still there. At least for me, when I put that record on, he's still there. I can still feel his presence, um, which I can, I suppose, in other ways, but it feels even more present.
Helga: I think my go-to song. Has also always been Marvin Gay’s I Want You, and there's a version of it on YouTube that's just all the voices and the percussion. Hmm. [00:35:00] And once I go down, that rabbit hole is a long time, right? Coming out of it because you hear. You hear all of his voices all the ways in which he declared that statement.
And it's also always a good one for me because the “you” can be many people. Sure. It can be myself, it can be my mom, it can. Can
Kevin: be one of the amazing things about that tradition of blues and soul and gospel and, you know, the tradition, I suppose is the way that, you know, the eye is almost always a we, you know, and when Betsy Smith is singing, people understood her to be talking for them and, and about them and with them.
And I think Marvin Gaye's voice does much the. I love. Um, another great record [00:36:00] is something like Jack Johnson by Miles Davis, which is him sort of mm-hmm. , starting with electric and I don't remember which of the two, it's just two songs each aside, and I can't remember which one it is. That starts with just like a bass for a long time and you're like, that's still Miles Davis, even though you don't know it yet, you know it somehow.
And same thing with like Coltrane in Japan. Amazing record where you hear the bass for a long time and you're like, okay, this is, but this is a bass filtered through Coltrane's composition, if that makes sense in his eye. Mm-hmm. . And so to me it's like, how do you make a sound that's yours even when it doesn't seem like it is yet?
And how do you craft something that is. of the essence, but also new. That's, I mean, you know, yeah, if you can figure that out, let me know , but, but, but these, these people we've mentioned from Mary Lou Williams to Basquiat, to Coltrane, all I think [00:37:00] managed to do that.
Helga: It's also such a great metaphor for life as well.
Like, it, it doesn't just apply to music and. I feel like I'm always looking for those things as well. Like what else can this be about other than the thing. Sure. It is right now, in this moment.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, it's interesting because I think. Especially, like I said, I've been thinking a lot about living history and what it's kind of helped me understand and, and I said this starting in 2020, is the ways that a lot of what we feel like is so new and so strange isn't.
You know, a hundred years ago there were racial unrest and also racial violence against black folks that, whether it's the Tulsa massacre or the red summer of 1919, there was a pandemic we were getting over. There were all these things. Mm-hmm. and I like to say we're living in a precedent time, not an unprecedented one.
And how do we [00:38:00] understand that and being at the museum or writing histories, um, which I've done both in poetry and in nonfiction. Our ways of trying to understand that. And sometimes we just closed a show about reconstruction, for instance, called Make Good the Promises
. And what it tried to help us think about is the way that Reconstruction was an era.
Uh, we expanded that era as not just 10 years, but into the 1890s and thinking about how the red record that Ida B. Wells wrote. happened, the, the lynchings and, and the retribution, but also the way that reconstruction was a process and one that's still ongoing. How do we understand that it's so important and, and one of the powerful things about that exhibition was the legacy section that helped us think about now and, and the ways that some of the challenges then are some of the same challenges now and, and brought that to life with objects and, and powerful.
Some of those powerful moments were, you know, [00:39:00] Seeing Bree Newsom's rig that she took down the confederate flag with. Mm-hmm. , do you see the, the national cathedral's stained glass that has Robert E. Lee as a saint that was only recently removed and on loan to us. But you also see Trayvon Martin's last Effects in this Legacy section.
And to see that. It is just so powerful and, um, to be entrusted by the family with that material has been really an honor. And, uh, I've been so moved by people's connections to it and the ways they view that, but also, , uh, how our team has treated that material so lovingly and with the kind of care it deserves.
And, but I will say one other thing about that, cuz we have a new show coming up called Afrofuturism, which will be in the spring and mm-hmm. , you know, Afro futurism. But now I think, If you'd said it a few years ago, people might not know. But I think now people understand the ways that everything from Black Panther [00:40:00] to Star Trek and we have aspects of that in the show are really powerful.
And we also trace it back to the 19th century and think of the ways that the enslaved dreamed of elsewhere. They dreamed of another place beyond this one. And, uh, that. Its own form of Afrofuturism, but also in that show it's going to be Trayvon Martin's flight suit because many people don't know that he went to space camp and had a flight suit.
He wanted to be an astronaut and to think about those dreams. that future is so important, um, because that's what was taken from him. Uh, but it was also in some ways taken from us, from all us. Absolutely. And that future, I think is, the history isn't just about the past or even the present, but also this future and what could be, and I think the show Afrofuturism, but also the museum as a whole, uh, is dedicated to.
Helga: [00:41:00] do you feel in any way that, you know, people come to the museum, they interact with the objects, with, uh, the exhibitions and then they go away, but that doesn't really translate to action, and is that a necessary thing you think? Or is that not the job of the museum or an exhibition? I
Kevin: I think the museum is a place of transformation and I.
I know. I would also say it's a place of discovery, so for me, mm-hmm. , I still discover things in the museum and. Watching people discover things is just as exciting to me as me discovering them. And so for me, it's a unfolding process. It's not, I, I think as much about the kid who comes and then long beyond when we are here, has some part to play in this ongoing conversation.
And I do know they're transformed, but I don't always know [00:42:00] what's going to transform them. And that's why, um, we have to. objects that speak to lots of different parts of black culture. Mm-hmm. and American history, and I think. , that kind of transformation. Sometimes it takes time. I mean, I, you know, I was a teacher for 20 years, so I was used to people 19 years later coming back and saying, Hey, actually that thing you said to me in such and so changed my life, and I didn't know that at the time, and they're telling me for the first, you know, it's like, oh, wow.
I don't even remember maybe saying that . Um, but at the same time mm-hmm. So I think we can't underestimate that transformative equality and, and what ripples out, you know, um, this was unimaginable X time ago. Take your pick of when, and I think to be in it, um, it's both a, a place of discovery and transformation, but also a testament to ancestry, to hard work to folks like [00:43:00] John Lewis helping make it.
So to me, um, his spirit, for instance, is one that we have to honor and it isn't a spirit of. , I don't know. Or I'm not gonna try. You know, it's a spirit of Yeah. Of doing. And as he said, good trouble. So I'm empowered and and amazed at both the people and stories we tell in the museum and some of extraordinary people, but also of ordinary.
People who did extraordinary things, you know? Mm-hmm. and, and we, we aren't a museum only of heroes. We're a museum of history and culture in the ways that everyday folks made those kind of changes. And so I think that larger message to me is the answer to your question. It's like everyday people do change history.
It isn't by one person, it's by movements. Mm-hmm. and moments and people. in community saying, Hey, I, I'd like it this way, or I'd like to see this. Or, uh, imagine the kind of future we're talking about.
Helga: So you get, you get [00:44:00] a poem on your desk,
Kevin: is it my poem or
Helga: someone else's poem? And no, it's someone else's poem.
And you're looking at it as an editor, as someone who's trying to help shape something. And make it better. What are the things you are looking for? .
Kevin: I think I'm looking for what I'm looking for in the museum, but in a way in my own writing, which is discovery. Mm-hmm. , you hope for revelation, but sometimes revelation is, is just about language or hearing something new that you might have heard before.
And so discovery in large and small ways I think is what I'm looking for. Um, I think the best poems are layered. And answer something deep within us that we can return to and that change with us. What's amazing about a poem is it won't change and you're like, I read that poem totally differently, or I see it as so relevant to me.
I hadn't lost anyone [00:45:00] before and now I have, and seeing this poem about grief, suddenly it's speaking not just to me, but as me. And so. as a poem editor, you're trying to be, I think, generous to that and, and think about and receive a poem in the way it's meant to be written or read. You know, you're not trying to judge it by another poem, but by its own sort of standards.
But of course, you, you're bringing your own history and the history of writing, and I like people who are out there being themselves, you know? And um, what's interesting is if you look at. The history, say at the New Yorker or, or more specifically just the poets I've edited, even in the time I've done it.
You start to have a relationship with their work and you see how they're trying out new things, and you also wanna support that too, if you can.
Helga: The reason also that I ask you is because I think that. So many of us don't [00:46:00] make things because we think we have to make the perfect thing the first time out.
Kevin: wouldn't that be nice? That's why I was asking you if it was my poem. Cause it's my poem. I'm receiving it in a totally different way. I'm not as. Generous. I'm not like, oh, wow, how interesting. I'm like, wow, why did you do that? How come it ain't better? What's wrong with you? All the things that you say about yourself or when you, you know, cook a bad meal or something like, um, but like I said, the meal goes away.
The poem's still staring at you the next day, and it hasn't gotten any better. And I remember when I was writing. poems, uh, about my father, which, you know, spanned many books, which is to say you think you're gonna write about, um, the loss of someone once. Uh, that's not a thing. . Yeah, I'll be done. The blues come for you again.
And for me, there was a book called Book of Hours that I wrote. That I really wanted to honor the original sort of experience and write. It was 10 years after he died and I wanted to write about those moments and, and [00:47:00] hours and, and days and weeks after he died. And so when I was doing that, I also wanted the metaphors to be of that, to understand what it meant.
to be staying at what I call the worst Western and, uh, and, uh, and have like, like being in this room, you know, he had just died and trying to write on the t you know, like not wanting to write, but sort of having to, on the tub in this weird red light they had in there, you know, like trying to write these forms.
Ooh. You know, like a heat lamp or something. And, and then hearing the muffled sounds of these, In the pool. And so like to be able to kind of go back to that place, which was not fun but necessary, but also to try to wrestle from that metaphor and wrestle from that. I think meaning was really important to me to to honor that original experience, but also to kind of take from it.
Those echoes that stayed with me and those haunting images. And you [00:48:00] have to do that I think as a writer is figure out where your metaphors, your meanings lie and you have to make 'em your own. You can't rely on others. And so to kind of think that's gonna be perfect the first time, cuz that book took me at least 10 years to write.
Wow. I had a book come out last year. Stones, I think the first poem we're 2006, um, maybe 2008. Anyway, it was like a decade and a half of working. And so for me, that's kind of what you have to think about when you're sitting down to write. Sometimes they come quick, but it's not because you first sit down and make it that way.
It's cuz you've had failure, you've had attempts, you've uh, gone through drafts, you've built up that muscle. And then one. , it comes easy. And sometimes when you're starting out you think, oh, well they all should be like this. Now I've put in the work. But, um, that's just, you're building up chops and sometimes it comes and then sometimes you have to keep through that process.
And uh, when I was teaching, I tried to help students [00:49:00] understand and try to take pleasure along the way in that process, even when it can be hard and, and daunting and. The only thing worse than, you know, that process of writing is not writing. You know? And so once you have that right, and this is my point also, when you have that feeling, maybe you're a writer.
Well, I say this to you, but I, I also believe you can't ask people to do a thing that you yourself are not willing to do. And so I wrote something and I wrote something about, I have a parent, right? My mom is very sick. I'm sorry right now. and I am also trying to get to what it is I would like to say, or what I think that, so there are six of us and what it is we're all trying to say or feel in this moment.
I had heard this very long version of, uh, bill Withers, I can't [00:50:00] write left-handed, and he said, When he wrote that tune, he was trying to put himself in the place of this soldier he met. And so in the spirit of your being a teacher and an editor and knowing that it takes a long, long time sometimes to get to the the why or the what of something.
I would love to read you something if you would allow.
Don't leave me, said the mother to the child. Don't leave me, said the wife to the husband. Then later, the husband to the wife don't leave me, said the couple to their cat shouldn't have left me, said the dog to the mangled shoe. Don't leave me. Said the brother. To the brother. To the brother. To the brother.
To [00:51:00] the brother. To the mother. Don't leave me, said the daughter to no one. Don't leave me, said the child to the mother on the first day of nursery school. Don't leave me. Said the fall to the summer. Said the worry to the wonder, said the bullet, don't leave me. I said, are you listening? Then open your eyes.
Did I leave you? No, I did. Didn't I come home after that war where I learned to see another man as a target? Didn't I survive long enough to see that man be a man again after I traded my name for a cell upstate and the number 75 a 29 80? Leave me. All right, then go. Go ahead. Leave. Leave before I start to get angry.
Go ahead. Leave me. Leave us your six and your [00:52:00] Archie bunker chair. Go ahead and leave so we can at last have you again, so we can find words to remember you that are you in our mouths again?
Kevin: Well, thank you for sharing. So
Helga: what am I gonna do? What's my next step?
Kevin: I mean, I, I think that the next step is understanding that something of what I took from bas when someone asked him, like, when you paint, do you think about this or that? And they were asking art history questions and he said, when I paint, I try to think not about art, but about. Hmm. And I think, you know, you have to keep writing or going or, or, or doing what you wish about that life, that this poem, I think expresses or this piece.
I'm not sure how you think of it, but um, yeah, I don't know either, you know, [00:53:00] um, I got it out.
Helga: Yeah, exactly. , I got it
Kevin: down and, you know, sometimes I think. That's the first step of what the question is, you know, because also I think you wanna share that it sounds, and so that's important. That's when we come into that circle we were talking about earlier, and I think about songs like, will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Which isn't really a question , you know? It is. It will be. Is is what the singer is saying. And so, I appreciate hearing it and, and seeing what you do. Not just with that, but next with what's next.
Helga: Kevin Young. Thank you. Thank you so much so, so, so, so much. I hope you've enjoyed my conversation with Kevin Young.
I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with artist Kara Walker. [00:54:00]
Kara: I am constantly battling with some dynamic of my own that feels inadequate and da, da da, and doesn't know, and you know, should be a better student of art or a better student of what's happening right now in the world. And then that becomes a big boulder that I have to push out of the way in order to meet somebody where they are. And that takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of time for me to get out of my own head.