Kansas doesn't have many opportunities to brag about being home to someone who's a mover and shaker in the national culture.
But Topeka can be proud of Kevin Young, who was named poetry editor of "The New Yorker" last year and is director of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Young moved to Topeka when he was nine, and spent his formative high school years in the city.
His latest collection of poems, "Brown," was released in April. Many of its pieces meditate on his childhood years in Kansas.
Young attended St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church — the same church as Linda Brown, known as the schoolgirl at the center of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. Her father, Oliver Brown, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a pastor at the church.
A portion of the titular poem of Young's book "Brown" honors Linda, who died in March at the age of 75.
“I can still hear her voice,” Young told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “She was a great singer, great piano player, organ player. And I thought about it eventually, not at the time, but as history sitting right in front of you.”
Meeting Linda Brown was both a historic and a personal moment for Young.
“We interact with public history in a personal way,” Young said. “The sacrifices and efforts of people like Linda Brown and Rev. Brown shaped America and reshaped my life, and all of our lives.”
Young also felt history coming to life when he saw John Steuart Curry's mural “Tragic Prelude” — the John Brown mural — on school field trips to the Kansas State Capitol.
Painted in 1938, the mural depicts a historic montage of Bleeding Kansas. A rifle-wielding Brown stands front and center over corpses, while a tornado approaches in the background.
“That tornado is the right metaphor,” said Young. “It’s like seeing wildness itself. An avenging angel of sorts.”
Besides Linda Brown and John Brown, the collection's title also refers to James Brown, while also exploring what “brown” means as a color.
“I was really interested in brownness in all different ways,” Young said. “Just brownness in general and what it meant to be black in Topeka. I really wanted to think about race, culture and color.”
Growing up in Topeka presented its own kind of challenges.
“It was both like being black anywhere and being quite different," said Young. "I definitely experienced a very specific kind of racism that the book tries to contend with. There's a lot of poems about playing sports, for instance."
One of Young's poems touches upon his experience playing for an all-black baseball team in the 1980s and winning the division championship.
"The opposing team, who was majority white, their parents pretended they forgot the trophy," said Young. "Because they couldn't stand to give it to us."
It was a profound moment that made Young think about the relevance of racism in the modern world.
"It was very much the kind of thing you see play out in broader sports even now," he said. "So I really wanted to juxtapose my experiences playing sports with Hank Aaron and the hate mail he got for beating [Babe] Ruth's record."
Young said there’s still a strong connection between his current career as director of the Schomburg Center in Harlem and his memories of Topeka.
“The Harlem Renaissance, of which Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas were so a part of, had a lot to do with Kansas,” Young said. “For me, it doesn’t feel as far as you might think. If anything, I feel connected. These places, which on a map might seem far, aren’t in the imagination and in the black experience.”
Listen to the full conversation here.
Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR’s Central Standard. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.