Protecting Langston Hughes’ Legacy, Nurturing Underrepresented Voices

By Amy Shearn
Photos by Sriya Sarkar

Some years ago, an emerging artist read an article about a poet’s campaign to save Langston Hughes’ house and turn it into a community arts organization. The artist, Beau McCall, lived in Harlem, not far from the brownstone, so he decided to make a pilgrimage. The stately building was almost entirely covered in ivy, obscuring the plaque that had been applied to the façade when the structure was landmarked in 1981. McCall closed his eyes and tried to imagine Hughes himself sitting inside composing poems and plays at his typewriter. Someday, McCall told himself, I’m going to be inside that house. Someday I’m going to make art there.

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The home of Langston Hughes. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

Sure enough, McCall’s art show, “The Conversation” opened recently at the I, Too Arts Collective, the community arts organization that now exists in Langston Hughes’ house thanks to the Herculean efforts of Renée Watson.

Watson is an award-winning poet, children’s book author and activist who walked by the brownstone often over the years she lived in Harlem. She said that Harlem was the first place she wanted to visit when she moved to New York from Portland, Oregon. Watson grew up learning about the Harlem Renaissance and memorizing Hughes’ poems and said that it was in Hughes’ work she first saw herself reflected in stories.

But when she got to New York, she was surprised to learn that his home wasn’t a museum or a creative space. “Having lived through gentrification in Portland and seeing its impact on my neighborhood, I wanted to do something to make sure this part of Harlem’s history doesn’t become an afterthought,”Watson said.

So Watson raised funds to lease the brownstone and established a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. The organization’s name comes from Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” Watson said, “To me, this poem is a statement that declares, I, too, deserve a space, a voice, to be seen.”

The I, Too Arts Collective is in this way much more dynamic than an ordinary house museum; Watson sees it as, in fact, the best way to “preserve Langston’s legacy and build on it by providing programming for emerging writers.”

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Langston Hughes’ typewriter. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

Watson was able to raise capital to lease the space through an online campaign and the support of her publishing-world connections, but a lot of the physical work to get the space in shape was done by volunteers. Volunteers spent a month repainting walls and pulling up old carpet to reveal gleaming floors. On the third floor is Hughes’ office, and in cleaning it they discovered 1920s newspapers that they are trying to preserve. The hope is to also create a library with donated books that the community can use. In addition, I, Too is creating a children’s space to  host storytimes and other children’s events.

I, Too’s current programs include poetry salons, writing workshops and a creative conversations talk-back series. Staff are also heavily invested in making sure the local community knows about the events and feels welcome in the space. For an upcoming book swap, for example, they’ve worked hard to reach out to people who live in the blocks immediately surrounding the house. “We want their blessing on it, but we also just want them to feel welcome,” said program director Kendolyn Walker. She notes that many of the older residents in the neighborhood aren’t online, so they make sure to hang up posters and hand out fliers in addition to their social media outreach.

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Beau McCall’s interviews were recorded by StoryCorps. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

The artist who had once dreamed of being in Hughes’ house was there recently, creating his very own “seat at the table.” Beau McCall is an innovative artist whose main medium is the humble button, inspired by the jar of buttons his mother kept in the basement when he was growing up. “It’s the way they feel, it’s the way they smell…something as simple as a button, people usually take it for granted. They don’t acknowledge it,” he said. McCall’s work aims to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

His current exhibition at I, Too is part of Uptown, a new triennial surveying the work of artists who live or practice north of 99th Street, an initiative of the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University’s new Lenfest Center for the Arts. His piece features McCall sitting at a table he’s meticulously covered in buttons, interviewing others about their personal history and ancestry. StoryCorps is recording the conversations, which will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, light streamed in from the windows, making the buttons glow. The interviews were punctuated with laughter. McCall said he had been inspired by Hughes’ poem “I, Too,” specifically where Hughes wrote, “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / when company comes.”

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A button-covered table by artist Beau McCall. Photo by Sriya Sarkar.

McCall asked friends and strangers to join him at his button-covered table and tell their stories. He said that his work is “a record that I was here.” “Black people can’t always track our ancestries,” he explained. The oral tradition becomes especially important for a people whose history has been suppressed, family lines fractured, and record-keeping spotty; hence, the recordings of interviews.

McCall, like Watson, was nourished by the work of Langston Hughes. Referring back to the poem, gesturing towards the jewel-like table he’d created, McCall said, “African-Americans now, we’re at the table, but we’re not being fed… we still deal with playing second fiddle in America.” Reflecting on the significance of creating art in Hughes’ home, McCall noted, “Hughes’ spirit and energy is in this house. Art keeps you alive.”

Watson also spoke about the healing power of art: “Poetry — and art in general — can be a place to process, question and heal. That is what Langston’s poetry did, and continues to do, for me. It has helped me make sense of what is sometimes a chaotic, unjust world.”

The hard work isn’t done. Now that the collective is up and running, I, Too is launching its next stage, a capital campaign to raise money to purchase the brownstone. “If we’re not intentional about keeping spaces that are a part of our history, we will lose that history,” said Watson. “Places hold stories, and when we lose sacred places like churches, theaters and the homes of black legends, we lose pieces of our collective story.”

To find out more about the I, Too Arts Collective, plan a visit, or arrange to donate books for the library, please visit their website.

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Amy Shearn is the author of two novels, The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean From Here. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Coastal Living, Parent & Child, Martha Stewart Living, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, The Rumpus, The Millions, Electric Literature, Oprah.com and elsewhere. She is an editor at JSTOR Daily, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Sriya Sarkar is a digital media producer, comedian, and filmmaker working at the intersection of digital media, comedy, and activism. She has worked with artist Maya Lin for the What Is Missing? Foundation as well as the feminist sleeper cell of riotously funny reproductive rights advocates at Lady Parts Justice. She is the producer of Speakout Laughout, a comedic storytelling show about abortion, as well as lolvote, a comedy variety show and accompanying Twitterbot encouraging youth voter turnout. She has performed at numerous shows in a variety of bar basements and stages of all sizes. She most recently was the deputy digital content director in North Carolina for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Currently, she’s the Digital Content Producer for Priorities USA.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017