Kevin Young stepped into his role as director of New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in September 2016, succeeding former director Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who will be serving as professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Young most recently served at Emory University, Atlanta, as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and curator of literary collections at the Rose Library, at the same time holding the Charles Howard Candler Professorship of Creative Writing and English. A prolific poet and essayist, he has published 11 books and edited eight others, including the 2016 collection Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015 (Knopf) and the upcoming Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, to be published by Graywolf Press in November.
If it were not enough that Young now helms Harlem’s Schomburg Center—a research library holding more than 300,000 volumes and 25,000 microforms, 3,900 rare books, 500,000 photographs and prints, 5,000 hours of oral history recordings, and 5,000 motion pictures and videotapes, and in January named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service—on March 15 he was also appointed poetry editor of the New Yorker, to succeed Paul Muldoon. Young will take over the position in November. LJ recently caught up with Young to find out more about the different facets of his work.
LJ: What aspects of the Schomburg’s mission—collecting, programming, curating—do you have a hand in?
Kevin Young: Is “all of it” too much? I would say all of it. We have strong teams doing programming, doing all the things that we do, but I’m definitely involved in overseeing— if not picking what’s going to go in the gift shop.
Is there a big difference in moving from an academic setting to a public research library?
For the past 12 years I’ve been a curator at Emory as part of their special collections…. I wasn’t just a curator of the Danowski Poetry Library, but I was also a curator of all literary collections. So I’m used to a library setting—granted, one in academia.
But in terms of the research, the day-to-day, the questions facing archives more generally, they’re surprisingly the same—or maybe not surprisingly. [The Schomburg has] not only had terrific librarians for 92 years, but we’re founded as an archive, by a collector—Arturo Schomburg—and we’ve trained generations of librarians about African American culture and materials. That training continues, and I think that is very much a part of what we do and part of what I want us to continue to do.
I started in archives in 2005. So in 12 years I’ve really seen archives in general shift, even in that short time. I think archives more generally didn’t always think about visitors, or they thought [mostly] about researchers. And now you really see [archivists] thinking in a more broad way—and this is just my experience—about, how can we serve them, the folks who need the help and need the access?
I think you see “access” more broadly. Certainly my top three values are access, access, access. To me, if we have it and no one can see it and don’t know we have it, it doesn’t help anyone. So we’re really trying to find ways to provide people many entry points. Some people, it’s going to be an exhibition, and some people, it’s going to be online, stumbling across us, and some people are going to know which edition of Langston Hughes’s work they’re going to want to see or which letter from Maya Angelou, and all those are ways we are serving the broadest possible [range of] folks.
What have you discovered in the Schomburg’s collection that has surprised or delighted you?
I think one of the hidden gems is the American Negro Theatre. It’s in the basement of our landmark building—we have three buildings: the landmark building, the Langston Hughes Lobby and auditorium building, and then what gets called the Schomburg building; the newer building. The landmark building was a Carnegie library. It was built in 1904 and the collection that eventually became the Schomburg collection inhabited it in 1925. The Negro Theatre started [in 1940]. Sidney Poitier took the stage, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Canada Lee. I mean, the list is amazing of folks who worked through that theater. And it’s right here in the Schomburg. I don’t know many libraries that have that distinguished history of hosting a workshop, essentially, and creating as well as preserving art.
So that’s not a collection, but it’s a hidden gem that not everyone knows about. I think one of the exciting things about the Schomburg is that it’s a place where we don’t just collect materials. We create them. It’s a living center. And the American Negro Theatre is a big part of that. Right now it plays host to a lot of events, including our young Junior Scholars program and our young curators summer education programs. But I’d really love to see some theater in there, you know? I’d love to see that space continue to grow. We use it every day, but I’d love to see it thought about.
I can’t express the breadth of our materials. When you go in the photograph division and there’s half a million images there, and then you’re staring at Malcolm X in the mosque, a behind-the-scene picture, words can’t express that, you know? That import and that depth of history. And here we are on Malcolm X Boulevard.
So it’s just a real honor to see that material in the flesh, and that’s part of the invitation and welcome I want folks to experience. It’s almost like we don’t have patrons, we have guests—it’s their material. It’s not just ours. It’s for the community to access. We keep it for you to find.
You’re a poetry guy—what does the library do specifically around poetry?
We had our first poetry—it wasn’t quite a slam, it was more like an open mic. It was a part of our First Fridays for February, and it was massively attended. I think we had some 900 people sign up and 500 people show up.
There’s something very powerful about having young folks declaiming their poetry in the Langston Hughes lobby, which not only has the Cosmogram, which is one of our many symbols and symbolic hearts of the Schomburg—the Cosmogram based around Langston Hughes’s first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”—but also Langston Hughes’s ashes.
So to have these folks reading their own new poetry almost a century after Langston Hughes wrote that poem, which is really powerful, and to think about that connection across centuries, but also across time and space. Really thinking about the future of poetry, the current robust—dare I say renaissance—in black poetry is very much one of the things I want us to capture and host and play facilitator and grower of.
What’s coming up at the library that people should know about?
We’re still doing the Women in Jazz Festival for the rest of [March]. On Monday the 20th there was a panel discussion about women in jazz. All of this is in praise of Ella Fitzgerald. That’s exciting to me. We’re looking ahead to some big announcements in terms of acquisitions, but I can’t quite say yet. There are so many initiatives and things we’re talking about. I’m interested in thinking about race and food. It’s something I’ve been talking about already, in my poetry even. I ended up [publishing] a book of food poems—justice, those kinds of questions around food. Also thinking about race in the archives and the place of African American culture in the archive, which of course is central.
[I’m] also thinking in a more specific way about our digital content. Which is pretty great, but how do we unify that and help people in name-the-far-flung-country access our materials as much as space and time and permissions permit?
How would you like to expand the collection?
I definitely would love us to have a hip-hop archive. I think that’s an area where we need more, and more better, as they say. I’m looking forward to expanding that and just continuing, like I say, to capture the current resonance in literature but also…in film. We have a film division, moving image and recorded sound that is many decades old and we’re continuing to add to it, and to think about how we can preserve and continue to preserve black film.
Has your work at the library informed your writing? Have you seen changes in your own work from the work you’re doing at Schomburg?
Yes and no. I think I will. My next two books are about history, anyway. I have a nonfiction book coming in the fall called Bunk, about hoaxes and liars—the American history of that. And my next book of poems is about African American history and also personal history, growing up in Kansas, which has a long black history including Langston Hughes and others.
So I’m sort of connected to history already through my writing. In a way, I was already thinking about these things. It’s more a circle connecting back and then connecting into my work and then back out into the archives.
Those are two serious day jobs you’re going to be working. Do you have any strategies for helping the New Yorker position feed this one?
I think that’s a great way to put it…. Like I said, there’s a black renaissance, and the American arts are more vibrant than ever. I see them as intersecting and not competing. Luckily, it’s not starting until November, and there’s time to figure all that out. I’m looking forward to these different forums to explore art. One comes out once a week, but it isn’t a once-a-week activity, and then one is every day and we’re serving up to 1,000 people.
So it’s really a broad, I think, complimentary set of—I don’t even think that they’re duties. They’re sort of pleasures. I’m already reading poems and thinking about them, anyway, and I’m already thinking about how we can serve the most people most effectively.
It’s a little like being a poet. I don’t think being a poet competes. I think it only enhances, because I feel like what poets do is think about history, they think about personal life, and they write about it. And what archives do is preserve history and preserve everyday life and then promote it and show it and give people access to it. I think those two things are complementary. I don’t sit down and say, “Oh, now I’m a poet; now I’m a person who thinks about archives.” I feel like they’re all interrelated. I’ve been an editor for 20-some years, so that’s always been part of my practice. It’s nice to have another forum to do it in.