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Kevin Young intertwines personal and public history in ‘Brown’

As a writer, editor and archivist, Kevin Young is a poet actively engaged with the world. In his new collection, "Brown," Young draws heavily on his boyhood in Topeka, Kansas, tying it in large and small ways to the wider world. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, “New Yorker” magazine poetry editor Kevin Young has just published “Brown,” his own latest book of verse.

    Young is also a father and runs a research branch of the New York Public Library.

    “PBS NewsHour” correspondent Jeffrey Brown recently caught up with Young to learn the many ways he is engaged with the world.

  • Kevin Young:

    Lately, I have been talking a lot about, thinking a lot about bringing the sons and daughters of Harlem home.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As writer, editor and archivist, Kevin Young is a poet actively engaged with the world.

    Author of books of numerous books of poetry, criticism and anthologies, he’s also director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.

  • Kevin Young:

    And Langston Hughes’ ashes are buried under the center.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So he’s buried here.

  • Kevin Young:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Kevin Young:

    He’s interred here.

    And his spirit enlivens the place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In his new collection, titled “Brown,” Young draws heavily on his boyhood in Topeka, Kansas, tying it in large and small ways to the wider world.

    We spoke in the center’s exhibition gallery.

  • Kevin Young:

    I started to realize there were these themes emerging of history and public history and private history and how they intertwine. And that’s really when the book became a book one long poem in a certain way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Historical figures enter the poems, including flesh and blood Browns, the abolitionist John Brown, the singer James Brown, and Linda Brown of Topeka, who as a child was at the heart of the Brown v. Board of Education case that helped desegregate American schools.

    So there’s all literal Browns throughout history, and then there is you, as a brown boy, a brown young man.

  • Kevin Young:

    Yes.

    I wanted it all filtered through, I suppose, my experience or at least the experience of brownness. I ended up also writing about my son. And thinking about my boyhood helped me think about his, or maybe it’s the other way around. His boyhood helped me think about mine.

    I was trying to understand the ways that I started to understand race, which weren’t always obvious to me, but slowly became so. And you don’t really have a kind of time to get used to it. Suddenly, you have to confront these questions.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the poem titled “Shirts and Skins,” Young explores the ways an almost casual bigotry crept into his own life. Here’s an excerpt.

  • Kevin Young:

    “Winners talk. Losers walk. How I hoped to outrun those arms, to leapfrog all tacklers, the way madness skips a generation. Kids I sat by for years or walked back from school with since we were 10 now down the wide hall of high school would call, minority, go home. I never did ask, where’s that? Their words a strong, hot wind at my back.”

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kids I had sat by for years?

  • Kevin Young:

    Oh, yes.

    No, and it’s strange to think about those times and how — what it was like to know someone for a long time or even have spent the night at their house, or been at a party and suddenly they’re saying things that almost sort of out of a can, you know? That was the oddest thing, I think.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You obviously felt something at the time, some kind of awareness.

  • Kevin Young:

    Sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What are we reading here? Is it you the child, or you looking back?

  • Kevin Young:

    Well, necessarily, it’s me looking back.

    You know, a good poem to me doesn’t just describe a feeling. It enacts it. It enacts an experience. And for the moment of the poem, you are that I. You are transformed and transported.

    And I think of poems as this exquisite form of transport.

    “We were black then, not yet African-American, so we danced every chance we could get. Thursday and Saturday, we’d chant the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. And folks’ perms began to turn.’

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Throughout Young’s poems, musicians, athletes, references to pop culture.

    You have got R.C. Cola. You have got Atari. You have Lead Belly and Prince, Hank Aaron, Arthur Ashe.

  • Kevin Young:

    Yes.

    Well, those are the things of the world. And I think it’s hard to write poems that aren’t of the world. It’d be strange to not write about what it was like to hear Prince for the first time, or listen to hip-hop, so much that you want to make poems that are as good as hip-hop.

    I think poetry should be part of popular culture, in the sense that poetry should be something we reach to.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There are also poems about darker moments in American life, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, again, sifted through Young’s own experience.

  • Kevin Young:

    I was writing the poems, many of them, during this moment when race and our division seemed to have resurfaced or at least to be on the news daily.

    Someone’s getting thrown out of a Starbucks or shot, you know, being unarmed. And when you’re writing about your childhood, it’s hard not to think about those things too.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These days, Kevin Young has another very public perch, as poetry editor of “The New Yorker” magazine.

  • Kevin Young:

    I think I get to be like a public fan, you know?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A public fan of poetry?

  • Kevin Young:

    Yes.

    I think about what’s exciting about “The New Yorker” is also what’s exciting about poetry right now, is, it’s extremely diverse. It’s really coming from a lot of different voices.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

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