Topeka and Topeka West High School have much to celebrate in the announcement last week that Kevin Young has been named director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The museum, located in Washington, D.C., is a very big deal. As Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Hrenchir wrote last week: "With more than 37,000 objects, the NMAAHC is the nation’s largest center dedicated to the African American experience. Since opening in September 2016, it has had more than 5.5 million visitors."
Young was born in Nebraska before his family moved to Topeka. He graduated from Topeka West in 1988 and had a distinguished academic and literary career, most recently serving as poetry editor for the "New Yorker" and director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Young’s story shows firsthand how exceptional achievement can thrive all around us. All we have to do is take a moment to look around and notice it.
For example, as a 13-year-old, Young took a summer writing class at Washburn University. And professor emeritus Thomas Fox Averill, who worked with the students, said that the teenager’s work already showed promise.
"He was so good with language," Averill told The Capital-Journal back in 2017. "You knew it when he was 13. He loved words and word play. He could tell a little story in eight or nine lines."
We would like to offer Young our heartiest congratulations. He has an important job ahead of him in running the nation’s premier museum focused on the African-American experience. And at a time when divisions between the experiences and understanding of racial and ethnic groups in this country are at a high, the role of such a museum couldn’t be clearer.
We have to work on understanding one another. We have to work to open our hearts and minds to the experiences of those who have borne oppression. And we must similarly come to see that oppression, while real, is only a part of a vast and varied cultural experience. Black Americans have contributed mightily to this country from its very beginnings.
As a poet and academic, Young is abundantly qualified to guide visitors to the museum into an understanding and appreciation of that history — or at least an understanding and appreciation of some of that history. No one museum, or one museum trip, can cover everything.
Best of luck, Kevin Young. Come back to visit us soon.