Kevin Young to Address Harvard Alumni Association

The acclaimed poet and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will speak at the annual meeting on June 4—and other graduation-week speakers are announced. 

Photograph of Kevin Young
Kevin YoungPhotograph by Leah L. Jones, Photographer, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution.

The Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), which previously disclosed that its annual meeting will take place virtually this year, on June 4, today announced that Kevin Young ’92 will appear as a principal guest speaker. Young, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is an acclaimed poet and editor. His anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, was recently published by the Library of America (a Harvard Magazine review is scheduled for the September-October issue).

In the announcement, HAA president John J. West Jr., M.B.A. ’95, who will serve as host at the annual meeting, said of Young, “He is a chronicler, curator, steward and teacher of history, using his significant intellectual and creative powers to safeguard, celebrate, and tell the stories of America’s difficult past.” Young said, “It’s an honor to return to talk to the Harvard Alumni Association about my time at Harvard and our own tumultuous times. I am eager to speak to the challenges and opportunities facing our cultural institutions, as well as read poems that take in history and Harvard too.”   

During regular Commencements, morning graduation exercises are followed by the afternoon HAA meeting, at which the University president and a guest speaker deliver addresses. This pandemic year, as in 2020, degrees will be conferred virtually, and the principal guest speaker will appear then. The 2021 speaker is Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D. ’73, LL.D. ’02, president emerita of Smith College and Brown University, and now president of Prairie View A&M, an historically black university. With graduation and the HAA meeting separated, the opportunity to present another honored guest arose; the selection of Young, complementing Simmons’s speech, underscores the emphasis President Lawrence S. Bacow and the entire University have placed on addressing racial injustice, persistent inequities, and the nation’s history (and Harvard’s) at a time of national reckoning with these continuing challenges.

As an undergraduate, Young was a member of the foundational Dark Room Collective, profiled here. According to the University announcement, he was professor of English and creative writing for two decades, and began his career in museums and archives at Emory University in 2005, first as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library (believed to be one of the world’s largest private libraries before coming to Emory) and later as the curator of literary collections, while serving as Candler professor of English and creative writing. He later served as director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the nation’s leading library for research in the field.

Following his undergraduate education, Young earned a Master of Fine Arts from Brown University. He received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is active in the national arts and culture community, serving as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 2020 and as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, most recently, the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Read the University announcement here.

The HAA annual meeting will also honor the 2020 and 2021 Harvard Medalists.

During the prior week, the Radcliffe Institute will confer its Radcliffe Medal on Melinda Gates; U.S. senator and former Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren will address the school’s class day gathering; U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg ’04 will be the Harvard Kennedy School class day speaker; and Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon will do the honors at Harvard Business School.


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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