Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Kevin Young

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

The Office for the Arts at Harvard today announced that Kevin Young ’92 will receive the Harvard Arts Medal on April 24, beginning the annual ARTS FIRST festival. Young will be celebrated in a 5:00 p.m. ceremony at Lowell Lecture Hall, with Alan Garber, interim president, presenting the medal. Other participants are scheduled to include Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts; Tracy K. Smith, professor of English and of African and African American Studies; Jorie Graham, Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric (profiled here); Brenda Tindal, chief campus curator for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and undergraduate poetry students.

Young, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is also an acclaimed poet (he is poetry editor of The New Yorker) and widely published author and editor—notably, of the Library of America anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, reviewed here. Harvard Magazine covered his earlier career here, and also featured the Dark Room Collective (of foundational importance to a generation of African American writers, including Young).

In the announcement, Megan said:

Each year, Harvard and the Office for the Arts honor a Harvard graduate who has achieved distinction in the arts and whose career serves as an inspiration to aspiring undergraduate artists. Kevin Young strides two important fields of artistic expression. He is a celebrated poet, author, essayist and editor, and the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Harvard Arts Medal celebrates both roles as vital to the fabric of community life.

As the guest speaker at the virtual Harvard Alumni Association meeting in 2021, when he had just begun his role at the Smithsonian, Young called himself “a kind of accidental, or should I say lyrical, historian.” And in an expansive, evocative, at times intimate talk, he offered up pieces of history: of music and song and poetry, of blackness in America, and of his own artistic development—both in his parents’ home of Louisiana, where he became a poet, and at Harvard, where he learned to call himself one and to hone his craft. “Those rainy front porches,” he said of Louisiana, “are where I came to understand that poetry was not the ethereal or the effervescent, but the mud and red dirt, the homemade elegance.” The poems in his Harvard senior thesis ended up becoming his first book, Most Way Home, published in 1995.

And as Phi Beta Kappa poet in 2018, he spoke two poems about his childhood and a sonnet about his College days.

In the announcement, Tracy K. Smith (herself a past Harvard Arts Medalist and 2022 Alumni Association speaker) said of the newly named arts honorand:

Kevin Young is a poet of many vernaculars: the intimate languages springing up among kin, around food, within music and movies and visual art. Importantly, he also draws us into a courageous intimacy with languages we’d otherwise fear or shun: the vocabulary of loss and grief, the known names of dangers we’d rather relegate to ‘history.’ In his peerless poetry and critical prose—and via his leadership of some of America’s most consequential cultural institutions—Young models a passionate citizenship and a devoted stewardship of the American imagination.

According to the announcement, Young joins Smith, novelist Colson Whitehead ’91 (profiled here), playwright Christopher Durang ’71, novelist Margaret Atwood A.M. ’62, Litt.D. ’04, novelist John Updike ’54, Litt.D. ’92, poet John Ashbery ’49, Litt.D. ’01, and poet Maxine Kumin ’46 , A.M. ’48, as a recipient of the medal in recognition of contributions to literary arts. He is the first museum director to receive the medal.

Read the announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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