Kevin Young Speaks Truth to Black Power at the Schomburg Center

By Miles Marshall Lewis

Poet Kevin Young, latest director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, titled Pulitzer-winning author Colson Whitehead’s first book, 1999’s The Intuitionist. The association with Whitehead (stemming from college-buddy days at Harvard) was the first I’d ever heard of Kevin Young, but certainly wouldn’t be the last. With 11 books of his own spanning the past 19 years— including Most Way Home, the Jean-Michel Basquiat-influenced To Repel Ghosts and The Book of Hours—he’s made his mark as the most impactful black male poet of his generation this side of Saul Williams.

As the newly appointed Schomburg director, as well as (starting November) poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine, Young’s career continues its upward mobility. The 46-year-young (no pun intended) poet recently spoke with Experience Harlem about his new artistic duties, favorite Harlem haunts and more.

What interested you in taking over the Schomburg?
The Schomburg has always held a central place in all of our cultural vision I would say. It’s so central to African-American culture and the African diaspora culture the world over. So I was always aware of it. I’ve read here before, and I’d worked in the library for many years. And when there was a chance to be able to helm it and think about its future and its illustrious past, I really was excited to do so.

Tell me about your new role at The New Yorker.
I haven’t started yet, I’ll start in November. But I’ll be poetry editor and selecting the poems for the issue. But I’ll still be here at Schomburg. I really see those two missions as similar. One is thinking about the culture and making decisions that I hope help the culture along, and thinking about connections between writing and our broader moment. I’m normally interested in the way that there seems to be a black renaissance again happening. The Schomburg is at the center of that, and certainly some of those folks already are in The New Yorker. And it’s a pleasure to be there doing that.

Explain the center’s current Black Power! exhibit, running through December 2017.
Our curator Sylviane Diouf has done a wonderful job of pulling together the many strands of what she rightly called the Youth Movement. One that she sees as tied to the Civil Rights Movement, one that of course is in dialogue with it in many ways. And I’m always struck by the way that Black Power—both the phrase and the images of the black power, which sort of becomes central to the Black Panther Party—arise from the South, or at least they come out of SNCC. I’m really interested in that myself.

And just in terms of why folks should come, it’s just a beautiful, well-organized show with the international aspects of Black Power, the cultural black arts movement part. I wasn’t aware there were Australian aboriginal Black Panthers, that there were Israeli Black Panther Party members. All of this kind of broad movement is captured there, both visually and in terms of the material. You’re gonna see a volume 1, number 1 very first issue of The Black Panther newspaper, which is incredibly rare. And I think it’s a great sign that it’s a copy from one of our volunteers who was a Panther, so it’s sort of in the family. And it’s a lovely show.

What are some of your favorite Harlem spots we should all try?
Well, if I tell you the spots, then other people might go there. [laughter] I really love the Harlem Bar- B-Q joint. It’s good, I had some chicken and waffles from there 10 minutes ago. And there’s always Harlem Tavern, which is a good spot for the game or to get a beer. There’s many, so I hate to leave people out.

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