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“African American history is American history. You can’t tell it without talking about the contributions, the questions, the very heart of the creativity of African American culture.”
As a poet and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture , Kevin Young thinks a lot about how African American culture is a crucial part of American culture. From blues music to poetry, from cakewalk dances to Black Twitter, Young draws connections across time as he discusses a wide range of art forms and cultural phenomena.
In this episode, hosted by Getty Research Institute associate curator Dr. LeRonn Brooks, Young discusses his poetry and the visibility and influence of African American art across mediums and history.
Young is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the poetry editor of The New Yorker. He has published fifteen books of poetry and prose and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and MacDowell Colony. He was also finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.
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LeRonn Brooks: Hello, I am LeRonn Brooks, associate curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series about poetry and visual art.
Kevin Young: African American history is American history. You can’t tell it without talking about the contributions, the questions, the very heart of the creativity of African American culture.
Brooks: In this episode I speak with Kevin Young, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Kevin Young thinks a lot about how music, visual art, pop culture, and poetry are linked. In his role as museum director and his life as a poet, he draws out vital relationships, like those between the blues and poetry, or the cakewalk and Black Twitter. His creative and nuanced understanding of the history and culture of African American life comes through every time we talk.
Kevin is the Andrew W. Melon director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is also a recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He is also the poetry editor of the New Yorker.
In this episode, I speak with Kevin about how Black American culture is visible and invisible and where he finds inspiration.
Welcome, Kevin Young, to the Getty Art and Ideas podcast. Would you wanna start this conversation with a poem you’ve written?
Young: Sure, this poem is from my book Stones, my latest book. And it’s called Egrets. It’s set in Louisiana, where both my parents are from.
Some say beauty
may be the egret
in the field
who follows after
but I believe
the soul is neither
air nor water, not
this winged thing
nor the cattle
to make themselves
Instead, the horses
standing almost fifteen
like regret they come
most the time
Hungry, the greys eat
from your palm,
& rough as a match—
your hand, your
Brooks: That was wonderful. Thank you, Kevin.
Brooks: I was reading some of your poems. And I was like, research is so important to your work. And sometimes people don’t understand that poetry actually can require research.
Young: Sure, yeah.
Brooks: Because, it’s, for many people, I guess, it’s such a reduced form that they don’t understand, or they may not understand that the reduced form comes from thinking of words as sort of loaded objects.
Young: Yeah, I mean, I think of it as condensed, not necessarily reduced, but also expansive. And that’s one of the pleasures of poetry and the sort of things that make it unique, I think, is it’s both really tight, and has to be. But I think the best poems zoom out somewhere. They take a simultaneously close shot and then a kind of, you know, aerial view.
Brooks: Yeah. And thinking about poetry as a structure, too. And the structure of your poems— I mean, it’s really thought about.
How did you develop that? Or did it come naturally, the form in which you write?
Young: I, you know, practiced not at all. I just woke up one day like this. You know, okay.
The work, I’ve been doing it long enough that it’s hard for me to point at my origins. Or if I do, I’m probably obscuring some that I don’t even know. But I think the most obvious ones for me are the kind of talk that I grew up hearing.
Both my parents are from Louisiana. And it’s both the things they said and the things my relatives said, but also the things they didn’t say. And you know, the way that Miles Davis is playing the notes, but also the silence, in a silent way, I think always was important to me. And one aspect of that is making sure the page and the sound kinda unify or unite or coordinate somehow.
Some of this surely came from a teacher I had named Denise Levertov, a wonderful poet, who wrote some of the best pieces about what it meant to write what she called organic form. But she also talks about the line. And in class, there were grown folks in there. I was fairly young, but the other people, you know, had kids and lives and— You know, she would stop you cold, no matter who you were, if she thought you weren’t reading your line breaks right.
And she’d then say, you know, “The page is a score.” And this idea that the reader is a conductor, I took really seriously, and I think I already thought, but she articulated better than I could. And the idea that poems are made up outta speech, I leaned from people she learned from, like William Carlos Williams; but also Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and people who were really, I think, sonically able to capture the way that Black folks speak.
And if you read something like Montage of a Dream Deferred, you see that condensed language, those kind of American and African American haiku. And I think that always charmed me, always made me feel like it got to the heart of the matter. And there was always a way that that’s the point, is to sort of see that. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Lucille Clifton, who picked my first book. She’s really reaching for large things in these little mini moments, let’s call ’em. And that’s sort of what life feels like to me, and what aspects of thinking about Black culture, these moments of improvisation or yearning or achievement, they happen, and then they connect to this larger flow that we’re all in.
Brooks: You said the whole thing, Kevin. You said the whole thing. Silence and speech. And for me what came to mind is, in terms of painting, positive and negative space. The whole thing. Just because it’s blank canvas doesn’t mean that’s not a form of communication.
Brooks: And so for me, it’s this connection of poetics—the visual and then you have the language. But if you understand the translation, you’re closer to the ways in which not only mediums speak, but how people speak through their craft.
Young: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and a lot of the artists you’re talking about are interested in notes in minimalism, but also the ways that a line, a color, a black mass, a moment speaks very largely.
Brooks: And so when you said music, or there’s a musicality, or that the lines— I don’t think you said sing, but lines do sing, in terms of poetry. And the blues. Can you explain the importance of the blues to your work?
Young: Sure. You know, the blues is a form I grew up hearing with my father’s records, all of which I still have. He was a fan of the blues and Zydeco, which my grandfather, his father, played. I still have my grandfather’s fiddle. So music was something that coursed through that family, though my dad couldn’t sing a lick.
And so for me, the blues offered a real chance to think about something intimate, personal, but not necessarily strictly autobiographical. Like, you could talk about things using what I ended up called the blues correlative. You know, like you could talk about pain through talking about the river or the train or the ways that the American landscape offered you shorthand to access these moments.
That kind of condensing is really what attracts me to the blues, I think. But it was also a sound. I was really interested in the country blues when I started writing a book called Jelly Roll: a blues, my third book of poems. And it was always called that. It was always these kind of little musical moments of heartbreak. It had that blues echo.
You know, when I started to write about Louisiana again— I had written about it in my first book, but I was writing these poems that would eventually become Dear Darkness, about halfway through, my father died. And so, you know, there was blues just beyond blues. And so for me to be able to use this form, which thinks about humor and tragedy mixed together, informed not only those poems, but a kinda outlook, I guess.
And I always think about Ralph Ellison saying, “It’s fingering the jagged grain.” You know, you’re kinda worrying a thing till you can, if not get past it, then sort of live with it. And that kinda naming pain to get past it was really a powerful part of the blues legacy to me. Music still is the thing that can soothe me. So I keep returning to it.
Brooks: What a wonderful thing. What a wonderful thing, to find sanctuary in words.
Young: Well, and breath and beats and song.
Brooks: It’s almost anthropological, the blues, that sort of mining of culture. Right?
Young: Well, yeah. I think of it more like, from the other side. I mean, I have, you know, huge piles of anthropology myself, but that’s another podcast. But you know, like doing Bunk and thinking about fakes and some’a the histories of the conman and the exhibiting of people and the kind of close links between that and the Harvard that I went to that had Louis Agassiz as one of is progenitors of the American version of anthropology, which of course, believed that there were two separate origins. Black people, we were a separate species.
It’s hard for me to just be like, “Oh, yeah, anthropological,” you know. And I also think of, you know, Baraka’s Blues People, which I think is a book that’s trying to understand, how did we get here? You know, how did this sense of Americanness tie intimately to Blackness, even though Baraka sees them as somewhat separate in that book. But I was heartened that he had a footnote in one of his later, later books, you know, that said, you know, “I actually realize now that you can’t have this Americanness without African Americanness.”
And of course, I started to think that a long time ago; probably was born thinking that, in some way. But I think once I started writing about that in The Gray Album, that’s how I started refining thinking about the origins of Black culture and American culture, and how intertwined they were.
Brooks: It’s interesting to think that those kinds of investigations of Americanness and African Americanness, right, Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, that we are still so— How can I put this? That it’s still very early since emancipation, by which we can still just need to explore these things that should’ve been done a long time ago; that the history of segregation and enslavement are still right here before us; that in the 1960s, this kind of examination is going on, you know. A sort of claiming.
Young: Yeah, yeah. Well said. I mean, I think that there’s such a rich, important moment to still be talking about. And I just have been fortunate to be at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and that’s its assumption. And you know, that’s a real treat, to be at a place that— and I think has changed that conversation and helped people understand the ways that African American history is American history. You can’t tell it without talking about the contributions, the questions, the very heart of the creativity of African American culture.
Brooks: And the idea that now blues is American culture and that so many other cultures in America see the blues and jazz as sort of American classic music. But the origin is a people trying to process their reality. Do you see that as a contradiction?
Young: Well, I would say even they’re often protesting their reality in ways that can be guised, but also guided by, you know, what’s going on. And it’s fascinating to look back at the ways that often, say, white listeners, or even white slaveholders, didn’t understand they were being mocked or talked about or that the enslaved had something to say back.
And things like the cakewalk or the spirituals. You know, and the cakewalk being a dance where people were parodying ballroom dancing, European-style ballroom dancing in the Americas, which then went over and they performed cakewalks for the queen and things like that, you know, are really fascinating to me because you have, a real— I think Du Bois would call it a veiled experience, but I think it’s masked, it’s performative, it’s a wink and a nod. It’s Black Twitter before there’s Black Twitter, you know?
And so to me, there’s a kind of codedness, as you said. And in The Gray Album, I was interested in exploring those codes, starting with the spirituals, in a way they were codes for escape; and then all the way down to hip hop and the way those are different kinda codes. And sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s kinda rough reality, but that verges on fantasy. All those things are mixed together, I think.
But they start, if we’re going even further back, with the spirituals; and even beyond that, with African song and its being banned. And it’s the ways that people worked around that to protest, to provide, and to provide outlets. And to express their beliefs, which were about a kind of liberation theology, often, in the spirituals. They were coded, of course, forms of escape. Swing Low Sweet Chariot. You know, there’s a few less people in the field the next day, right?
Young: But it’s also a way of saying Pharoah doesn’t end so well. There’s retribution afoot, and that there’s a higher justice being meted out.
Brooks: So it’s interesting, also, because the history of African American visual art didn’t have that cover. So the history of African American visual art could not sustain a survival during a time in which lives were at stake. And so you couldn’t visualize that stuff.
Young: Couldn’t or we can’t visualize the way that they visualize?
Brooks: Correct. Correct.
Young: ‘Cause we could have a argument. It’s too early for argument, but—
David Drake—Dave the Potter, as he sometimes was called—you know, I think he is a great example of how in plain sight, people hid in plain sight.
And I think they use forms and folkways and foodways and— You know, like, it isn’t just the pot; it’s the pot they made for themselves on the side, the face jugs, that were made from the Edgefield Potters, of which Dave was one, which scholars now think was, you know, the private pots. These, you know, sorta hideous, quote/unquote, “faces” that are, you know, masks or they’re scaring off spirits. But they’re also like, “This is mine.” You know? It’s like wearing a skull or something. You know, it’s like a warding off. But it’s also, it’s like, you’re not gonna look too closely at what’s in this jug of mine.
I do take your point, though, that visual art has a different risk. In a world which bans expression, which doesn’t sound that far away from where we are now…
Brooks: That’s right.
Young: …we had to come up with different ways of doing so. And you know, you can stop a people from not expressing themselves maybe not at all or not very long or not completely.
But the other thing that I think you see is the ways that, in my experience, those arts are not singular. You know, poets were always novelists and playwrights. You know, African American studies is multidisciplinary by nature.
Brooks: Absolutely. [inaudible]
Young: But let’s talk about that visual art. Let’s talk about the seen and the unseen.
Brooks: You know, Dave the Potter, it’s utilitarian, coming from histories of making that descend across the Atlantic. So they land here, they have a use value, right, in terms of the everydayness of the object; but they have that other presence, as well, right? A sort of recognition. When one looks at the object, the object recognizes the seer, to a certain degree. Or affirms the seer.
Brooks: And so the idea of visual art, art for art’s sake— No, no, this is something that has a deep memory to it.
Brooks: You know, much like the blues, it’s about survival, in that the thing you make recognizes you, as well.
Young: Sure. Well, and I think, also, you had to be good at it. That’s why they both embrace, but also resist study, in some way, because the blues is good time music. You’re supposed to dance to it. If it’s not entertaining in some way, if you don’t laugh a little bit or move a little bit or have some transformation, you’ve not done it.
And so to me, that’s the standard. And so to say then that, like, say, other forms of Abstract Expressionism, say, don’t need to have something that they do, I don’t think is true. I think they do. The art that I love does move us, and it transforms us in some way, even if its utility isn’t as obvious or isn’t as stressed traditionally, in sort of European versions of the story. But I think we’re in a moment that we’re starting to understand that there was this, not only huge Black contribution to that, but also the ways that we might be asking different questions now of some of the same work that moved us in different ways.
Brooks: Because we need it differently, maybe. So how do we understand the lineages of the kinds of art forms that helped us to survive and give us voice.
Brooks: And how do those things transform or continue into a future where they’re also as useful as they used to be, right?
Young: That’s a big question, man. I like it. We’re in it. We’re in it to today.
Brooks: I’m asking the right person!
Young: I mean, I think there’s— You know, we need all the voices. That’s how I think about it. You know what I mean? And not one place can do all of that. But I’m happy, for instance, that our two institutions, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty, are working together to help us think together about African American lives and images, with the Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Which of course, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the MacArthur also help to secure.
And it’s such a wonderful gift to the world. And I think it’s really important, as we digitize it together and it’s slowing coming online— But it’s four and a half million images, most of which are unseen, and that doesn’t count the audio-visual material, all that. The Fashion Fair, which I remember my mom having Fashion Fair stuff as a kid. And those Ebony-Jet legacies. We don’t know what the twentieth century was. You know? Especially for Black folks.
And so to see that past anew and to see the way that that’s gonna change the future, and why we might need it now, as you so eloquently put it, I think is really important. But I think it’s gonna take institutions who are invested in this to really go deep and to think big, and not to do patchwork-y kind of bandaids; but rather, to reinvest in not only seeing the past anew, but also finding a different future together.
And I see that in practical ways. It’s not, like, a vague thing to me. I see it daily in the ways we’re making choices. We have Afrofuturism show up right now. You know, but it isn’t just about right now; it’s about extending and reorganizing and rethinking what Afrofuturism means and that there’s things that were Afrofuturist before that term existed. Benjamin Banneker, for instance, his almanacs, his surveying D.C. In a way, he’s reaching from the earth of D.C., where I’m sitting now, to the stars, and making those kinda connections, that’s what we have to do collectively, individually, and institutionally.
Brooks: Yeah. In many ways, Afrofuturism is an acknowledgment of the expanded consciousness and intellectual imagination of, let’s say, Benjamin Banneker. You know, to say that is the future; but that was also his present, at the same time. So it’s not out there talking about Star Wars or something; it’s about someone with a broad capacity to bring a certain kind of insight into the world through his objects, through his city planning and things like that, that people didn’t expect it from him in the first place.
Young: That’s right. If you came and did a almanac today, people would be like, “What’s LeRonn doing with a almanac right now?” You know what I mean? But imagine it being 1790-something and you’re like, “You know what? I’m printing this sucker right now. You know, I’m saying what the earth and the stars have to say to me.”
And it was ever thus, though, you know, when we trace it back into African forms of cosmology and astronomy. And that goes all the way to astronauts. And you know, one’a the most powerful things, as you know, is Trayvon Martin’s flight suit, which is in the exhibition. ’Cause he wanted to be an astronaut. He wanted to be an aviator and went to space camp. And to see that and his name written across it, which I hadn’t quite realize was on there, seeing it in the case next to Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichol’s uniform from Star Trek, tells us about the dreams that she inspired and the dreams cut short with Trayvon Martin.
And so I think that complication of Afrofuturism is at once a escape, and also is a kind of escapism—these are two different things, I would say. But it’s also a critique, right, of a world where you have to be from Mars, like Sun Ra. Or you’ve gotta think about the mothership taking us away, you know?
Brooks: You know, I used to teach Black studies. And I used show him in his uniform.
Young: You still are, brother. You still are. You’re still out here. You’re doing the Lord’s work out here, man. Don’t say you’re not teaching no more.
Brooks: Well, well, I’m in the tradition of the lineage we’re talking about.
And my students would see Trayvon Martin in his space suit. It spoke many things. It spoke of two parents who actually may have not been together, but they invested in their child to send him funds. An emotional reality they had to come to terms with. To send him to that camp. And so he was a manifestation of not only his own imagination, but his parents’ imagination for him and who they allowed him the space to think he could imagine to be.
Young: That’s right. And he had other inspirations. And I think that’s so important, in this moment when we forget. We can forget too much, the humanity of our fellow humans. And too often, you know, I think what that does is people start trying to argue humanity. “Black people are human.” Well, that’s a given. Let’s go from something else. Let’s go to the other places we’re talking about, and talk about the richness of that imagination, rather than the possibility of humanity, which I think is, you know, indisputable.
And I think what I love about visual art is it approaches you in a different way than music. You know, music is temporal, which is one of its wonderful things. But it also can feel like it vanishes, though you carry it with you, I think. You know, you carry a poem in your body. But something visual, and this moment of, finally, recognition of African American artists is really important ’cause it names this thing that was always there, we know; but also is in a particular moment of renaissance, let’s say.
Young: And so how do we kinda understand that? Because we’ve had other renaissances that people have forgotten about. There’s the ones we talk about, the Harlem Renaissance— And you and I lived in Harlem when we were both in New York. And, you know, that place is a visual feast. Right?
Brooks: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Young: And art, visual art, you would never go to Harlem and say, “There ain’t no visual art in Harlem.” You know, you’d be like, listen. You’d be in a lecture from the little old man, the librarian, the archivist who’s just sitting there in the audience, you know, quietly listening. You know what I mean? And I think that’s what’s important, is that rich legacy that we’re both talking about.
Brooks: And people have to redefine or expand what their definition of art is. To see everyday beauty and to see that the little things, to see how people do things artfully.
And so when we see the littlest things, sometimes, in places like Harlem, the littlest gestures or some verbal wit— some something, it can be traced to a larger, larger reality. But to say it quickly and succinctly and with an impact, with a performativity, is art.
Young: Absolutely. I mean, that’s why Black Twitter, I think, is still undefeated. Even when, you know— Because there’ll be a moment and then it, like, comes back to life again, just when you think you might not be hearing from it as much or differently. Like, if you did the meme counter of the, you know, crying Jordan or this or that, that memes are really powerful.
Brooks: You know, I wanna go back to this conversation about music having a bodily effect. If I think about contemporary art, I think of someone like Mark Bradford or Torkwase Dyson, and I feel there’s a visceral reality when you see their work, that it’s bodily. That something that you take in through your eyes, but your body processes it because it doesn’t give you all its knowing at once. But it does translate or put before you its power, its sort of scale, in terms of the handling of it.
Young: Well, I don’t need to say anything. You said it exactly right. But we have a Dyson in the collection, and I was looking at it yesterday. It is a piece that’s called I Can’t Breathe—that just deepens and deepens the more I look at it, you know? And it does have those layers you’re talking about. And mystery. I think that’s some of what you’re saying, is, I think, those artists and all the artists I admire, they have an element of mystery to them. You know, you could call it beauty, too; you could call it transformation; you could call it bodilyness, as you did.
I also think, in those specific cases, Bradford and Dyson, scale is really important. And they work at a scale that, it isn’t minimalist, in a size sense. It really is about those layers and the feeling of a poster or a billboard or an obelisk or a silo or a landmass or the soul. You know? And I think all those kinda things, it’s interested in making you reflect on. And the environmental aspects of it, I would also argue, are there.
Brooks: William T. Williams once said to me, in front of one of his paintings, that there’s a body-to-body relationship there. That the scale, right, does matter, in terms of one’s interpretation and feeling for the thing in front of it, the work in front of it. But also the ways in which visual art and, in terms of music, the style, how style can cloak, let’s say, one’s— How style can give an artist a way of being in the world that doesn’t give everything.
It gives very poignant things, but it doesn’t give everything. Like Miles Davis skipping over notes. And getting right to the succinct spot, when he needs to be there.
Young: Sure. Sure.
Brooks: It’s very close to a painter’s handling.
Young: Yeah, that’s right. I was, in The Gray Album, writing about Charlie Parker, and I was really trying to understand what I ended up calling plenty. You know, in the way that Charlie Parker’s plenty is really important. But we also have to think about exactly what we’re saying. That silence, you know?
Someone once asked me the themes in my work. And my best answer was, “Music, silence, and noise,” you know? And to me, those things aren’t necessarily in that order, and they’re in different permutations in different work, but I feel like it’s there.
I’m also really interested in—and especially now in the museum—in the way that we tell stories. And I think what the museum has done incredibly well is tell the story and tell a number of stories. And not always—and in fact, recurringly—not stories you may have heard. And even a story you thought you knew, they’re gonna tell you the full truth of it, which nine times outta ten, you don’t know the full story. And that historical depth, that research, that’s what draws me there and makes me excited, ’cause I discover something new every day.
Case in point: We were doing Afrofuturism. It was about to open, and I was down in the history galleries, which as you know, we’re five floors above ground and five floors below ground. So I’m at the very bottom of the museum, looking through the part that is so powerful, looking at the history of slavery and how it leads to modernity. It funds it. Once you start to grapple with that, it’s hard to reckon with. And I look over and there’s something I also wrote about in The Gray Album, which is a cosmogram that someone had made with beads, an enslaved person had made with beads. They’d carried this African cosmology with them. And they had made it with beads and arranged it. And luckily, whoever had discovered it knew what they were looking at.
And I just think about that so much, that this was a lot of what we’re talking about; something someone carried on their person. It was intimate. And they made this thing that was probably private, probably shared with their loved ones. But beyond that, making it was the thing, right? Did it need to be seen by everyone? Yes, I think the people who saw it, it needed to be seen by. But it had to be visualized, it had to be rendered.
And that’s so powerful to me, ’cause it’s Afrofuturist, but it’s also spiritual and artistic and combining all the things. It’s of use because it had to be done. And just because we don’t know the artist, the person of faith, the individual who made it, doesn’t mean there wasn’t that person. But also, it speaks to a community’s need. And I think that’s what’s really important to tell as a story. You know, it isn’t just telling the famous stories of stories of now famous people. It’s not about firsts; it’s about community and collaboration and cosmology.
Brooks: Well, you know, things that emerged from the Black interior, I think, had the inherent value. All of that emerges from an interiority that need not be public, but it has an inherent value to the maker and those who see.
Young: Sure. The fact that it was hidden in plain sight, let’s say, is important to note. They had to hide it; but they also had to make it. And I think we’re in a time, especially, where “I didn’t see it, so it must not have existed,” you know? And so we also have to interrogate the ways that things might be mysterious to us, too.
Brooks: When I think about the Johnson Publishing Company Archive, how do we think through that?
How do we think through that 4.58 million images and really capture some of what we’ve forgotten? And how do we actually think about the kind of fortitude it took for John H. Johnson and Eunice Johnson to hold that company together? How can we take care of it in a way that they took care of it?
Young: That’s right.
Brooks: How can we think about it in a generative way that in some way, can approach how they understood their company or what it meant to the Black community in the age of segregation?
Young: Yeah. Or the age of, let’s call it, revolution. Because for me, I know I grew up seeing on the end table, on the coffee table, saw it in the barbershop, on the newsstand. You know, and that reflection, let’s call it, was so key in all these eras, you know? And I think that’s what we’re gonna be seeing and sorting, is a kind of mirror. So I think that’s really exciting.
But I also think, as you know, there’s many, many collections within that collection. I think this is true of most collections. But it’s gonna be a exciting future, who can see into in ways that you and I can only hope to; but also, you know, we hope to help. And I think that’s what’s exciting to me about archives in general, is they kinda wait for you to be ready for them. You know, they’re there, you know? And so I think it’s the real right moment to be doing this work and helping picture what these pictures are.
The hiddenness hasn’t really ended, in some sense, even in this moment of Black popular culture and popular culture being so Black. But again, it was ever thus. The first popular culture in America is blackface. And so that kind of isn’t about Black people, but it is about an idea of Blackness, you know? And that’s the conflation. I think that’s the thing we’re still wrestling with, is people sometimes mistake the image for the person. And the image is often crafted not by the person.
Brooks: Yeah. I would show my students Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They were offended, but they were so in shock. Like, it was just surreal. You know?
Young: Sure. I mean, I had a student once, a grad student, say that another professor had told her that blackface had ended, like, in the nineteenth century. So, you know, like, I was like, “Uh, no.” At the break, I went to my office and pulled off, you know, images of Judy Garland in blackface. Fred Astaire or whatever. Whoever you can think of, it was a rite of passage, in the twentieth century.
And apparently, every Halloween, it’s another rite of passage for some folks, still. You know, so we’re still in it. We’re still in a lot of these things. These stories or moments are still ongoing.
Brooks: One more question, Kevin. What are you looking forward to in your work, either with your poetry or through NMAAHC? What are you looking forward to?
Young: That’s the biggest question. I mean, I think the museum is, you know, we’re over a hundred years in the seeking, you know, when Black veterans, in 1915, came and petitioned for a monument on the Mall. What I find is that we’re really telling these stories—Afrofuturism, or before that, we had a show called Make Good the Promises, about Reconstruction—that connect to those legacies and connect to now, and helping people to understand what we call living history and the way that living history was tied to the past.
And that we’re still in that long legacy. And how do we wrestle with it in good and bad ways? And for me personally, you know, I’m always writing through music, I’m writing through moments when I’m finishing a book and starting to publish some of the poems now that sort of refract Dante and refract sort of these experiences of loss through that framework of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Which also speak to these kinda cosmologies we’ve been talking about. You know, they aren’t simply Dantean; they’re the way that, you know, growing up in an AME church where— And my mom was raised Baptist and my father was raised Catholic.
That there are these kind of imprinted stories that are African American, but also have this cosmic origin that I also try to understand though African cosmologies like we’re talking about. And so trying to grapple with that is what I’m interested in personally. But what’s nice is being at a museum that’s thinking of that publicly.
Brooks: With that, thank you, Kevin Young, for speaking with me today.
Young: Thanks, LeRonn. Always good to see ya.
Brooks: Same here.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, write to us at email@example.com.
Thanks for listening.
LeRonn Brooks: Hello, I am LeRonn Brooks, associate curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series about poetry and visual art.
Kevin Young: African American history is American history. Yo...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824