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Skidmore College

Kevin Young discusses poetry, history and the Black experience

October 23, 2020
by Angela Valden

Kevin Young wears many hats as a poet, author, poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library. In January of next year, he will become the next director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the largest center dedicated to the African American experience in the country. 

In a live, web-based 60-minute conversation viewed by Skidmore students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends of the College on Oct. 21, Young discussed these roles and the importance of poetry and history to understanding the Black experience and the current freedom movement.

“This is our national heritage that we share and that we need to explore together. I think it’s more important than ever to understand that,” Young said during the program, part of Skidmore’s Racial Justice Initiative. “People are really hungry for information, for knowledge, for exploring Black culture and Black lives, and I treasure that and look forward to carrying that forward into the museum,” he noted of his upcoming role at the Smithsonian. 

In facilitating the talk, Maggie Greaves and Bakary Diaby, assistant professors of English, drew on themes raised through viewer-submitted questions ahead of the event. Among those topics, they asked Young how he and other artists have used poetry to grieve and relate during difficult times. 

“Art is a place we go and learn about ourselves but also learn about others,” Young said. … “A poem is of the moment. It’s a lyric utterance that also, one hopes, is somehow permanent — immortal even. There’s a timeliness of poems and a timelessness that I think is really important and speaks to our moment.” 

“African American Poetry 1770-2020: 250 Years of Struggle & Song”

“African American Poetry 1770-2020: 250 Years of Struggle & Song”

Between questions, Young read from some of his favorite poets, including Lucille Clifton and Sterling Brown, as well as a couple of his own poems. His latest anthology, “African American Poetry 1770-2020: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” was released on Oct. 20. 

Young met with students and faculty in Black Studies and English courses earlier in the day through a virtual residency sponsored by Black Studies, the English Department and the Arts Administration Program. 

“We’re grateful for Kevin’s time and focus on our students,” said President Marc Conner. “At this moment, as we embark on our Racial Justice Initiative, it is especially meaningful to feature poetry and history at the very heart of our teaching and learning mission.” 

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