News & Politics

We’re Fascinated by the New Head of the African American History Museum

Meet Kevin Young, one of DC’s most interesting people.

Kevin Young by Melanie Dunea

Kevin Young, the new director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, starts his job in January. So who is he? A quick look at a fascinating guy:

He’s only the second NMAAHC director.

Young is replacing founder Lonnie Bunch, who was named head of the entire Smithsonian in 2019. That means Young is in the potentially difficult position of reporting to the person who previously had his job. Still, expect the 50-year-old to put his stamp on the institution. “Kevin is . . . steeped in African American culture and history,” Bunch told an interviewer when the appointment was announced. “He is someone who is passionate about making that history accessible.”

He’s a history hound.

In 2017, Young published a book about notable con artists—from P.T. Barnum to Rachel Dolezal—titled Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. And this fall saw the release of African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, an ambitious collection that Young edited. He was hired away from the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he oversaw 11 million rare books and artifacts, a collection more than 250 times the size of the NMAAHC’s.

He’s a character.

A natty dresser with top-notch pocket-square game, Young has built an impressive private collection of rare books and ephemera. (He’s an engaging presence throughout the 2019 bibliophile documentary The Booksellers). He’s the kind of guy who gets invited to go see the movie The Five Heartbeats with Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, an experience he later wrote about for the New Yorker. That combination of cultural fluency, quirkiness, and curiosity should make for an unusual museum administrator.

He’s a prolific poet.

Young has written more books of poetry than most people have read. His 11 volumes explore themes of family, history, and Black culture. In 2017, he became the first Black person to serve as the New Yorker’s poetry editor, a gig he still holds. Young began writing verse as a teen in Topeka, Kansas, and at Harvard he joined the Dark Room Collective, a group of Black intellectuals that included soon-to-be US poets laureate Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith. Now he’s thinking about how to bring his literary sensibility to the new job. “Poetry is about those lyric transcendent moments and so is the museum,” he recently told an interviewer. “It reminds us what is possible.”

This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.