There ain’t no crystal stair in the late Langston Hughes’ historic Harlem abode, but there is a narrow wooden one–the delicate steps of which moan and creak as they give in to each visitor’s foot. The bones of the 1869 built brownstone are modest, but elegant—very appropriate for the home of the “people’s poet.” Hughes, who died in 1967 at age 65, spent the last 20 years of his life on a prolific literary tear, publishing hundreds of poems and 20 books—including humorous tales of Harlem’s everyman Jesse B. Semple.
The Italianate design home on 127th Street has been vacant in recent years, but now serves as headquarters for the I, Too Arts Collective—a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing art and creativity in the Harlem community. Poet, educator, and author Renée Watson, the organization’s founder, talked to EBONY about the inspiration for the nonprofit.
“As a child, Langston Hughes was one of the first poets I learned. I saw my reflection in his poems. For the first time, I was really seeing and hearing people who sounded like my grandmother and people at my church. He wrote in a cadence that was familiar to me and he wrote about our pain and our joy,” said Watson, who lives in Harlem.
Over a decade ago, when Watson first moved to New York from Portland, Ore., she was shocked to learn that Hughes’ home was not a museum. After years of thinking someone should do something with it, Watson realized that someone was her. Upon returning from a tour for her book This Side of Home, a young adult book about a gentrifying neighborhood, Watson realized that she needed to take action in her own community, which was experiencing the same changes. The owner of the Hughes home was receptive to having the burgeoning nonprofit occupy the space, Watson said. Hence, Hughes and his home became I, Too’s muse.
“When I read ‘I, Too,’ the Hughes poem where we got our name, I feel like he could have written that yesterday. He’s a relevant poet. He was a people’s poet. He had a garden in front of the brownstone where he would grow flowers and name them after the children in the neighborhood. He was very in touch with the people and we want a space that reflects that legacy,” said Watson
The “we” Watson referred to is comprised of a growing number of passionate creatives who are founding members of the collective and volunteers tending to I, Too’s needs. Their work made it possible for the non-profit to reach its $150,000 fundraising goal in 30 days in the summer of 2016. Watson’s vast community of creative friends and colleagues provided services and art as incentives to donors. The money raised will go towards light renovations, the first year of rent, and program costs. Though the Ford Foundation provided I, Too with a grant, Watson believes that just like with its inception, the nonprofit will stay afloat from everyday people in the community investing their time and money. With the current administration threatening to defund important institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, crowdsourced funding may be one of the few viable options.
Jennifer Baker, publishing professional and I, Too’s social media director, returning art to the Hughes house goes beyond just buoying Hughes’ legacy.
“It’s so important in New York to see preservation for people of color. We’re being steadily erased. We have what’s going on politically. You hear all the time ‘You’re not worthy. You don’t own this. This isn’t for you.’ But when you walk into this home, you feel his presence. You know you deserve this property. You earned it. This doesn’t erase the past, but it’s embracing a future that encapsulates so many people in this culture. It’s what the Harlem Renaissance and Langston in particular represent,” said Baker, creator and co-host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast.
After a February 1 open house to officially introduce the space to Harlem, programming will begin. The organization is planning poetry salons, creative arts intensives for young people (Authors Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Ibi Zoboi, and Dhonielle Clayton will facilitate intensives for summer 2017), and eventually a writing residency. As program director Kendolyn Walker oversees renovations and zoning permissions to enact certain programming, rooms will be available as rentable community space.
“I want to create things where kids can see themselves in it and see the joy of what it means to be brown. I also want to give of myself in such a way that a kid will say ‘I want to be like her.’ Langston gave me that and I want to give that back,” said Clayton.