July 24, 2017

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Preserving a Brownstone—and the Legacy of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes in 1936

Langston Hughes in 1936

“I been scared and battered./My hopes the wind done scattered.” So go the opening lines from the poem  “Still Here” by Langston Hughes, the great U.S. poet, author, and hero of the Harlem Renaissance. The same downtrodden (but ultimately hopeful) sentiment could be applied to his brownstone in the East Harlem section of New York City. Hughes, long a favorite of middle and high school teachers and librarians for his jazz-inspired poetry and scrutiny of race and social justice, lived in the three-story Italianate-style house for two decades until his death in 1967. Though it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, it’s currently crumbling away and needs a champion.

Enter Renée Watson, a Harlem-based educator and author who’s been walking by Hughes’s empty home for years. Growing up in Portland, OR, she memorized Hughes’s poetry as an elementary student, and read the works of writers who participated in Harlem’s cultural revival of the 1920s and 1930s. Watson has said his powerful poetry spoke to her, mirroring her own life. As an author of teen novels (This Side of Home [Bloomsbury, 2015]; the upcoming Piecing Me Together [Bloomsbury, 2017]) and well-received picture books (Harlem’s Little Blackbird [Random, 2012]; A Place Where Hurricanes Happen [Random, 2010]), witnessing the home of a beloved fellow writer sit idle and forgotten was a call to action she couldn’t ignore.

Renee Watson. Photo courtesy of NAACP

Renée Watson. Photo courtesy of NAACP

So Watson recently launched a nonprofit called I, Too, Arts Collective to gather established and up-and-coming authors in order to help them create and present their work. “The brownstone will not only be the headquarters for the collective’s workshops and meetings but it’ll also play host to artists and writers from the community for their own readings and events,” she explains. Taking ownership of the brownstone is the ultimate goal, but for now Watson’s nonprofit is raising money to cover the first-year costs, including the lease, renovations, and programming materials. To date, she’s closing in on the $40,000 minimum required for a three-year lease, with nearly $28,000 in hand.

The brownstone at East 127th Street in New York City.

The brownstone at East 127th Street in New York City.

But Harlem is changing—and fast. Important landmarks are being sold off and even torn down to make way for a new generation of city dwellers, marking this project with a sense of urgency. For Watson, securing Hughes’s home is significant not only for its literary prominence but also because it’s a vital cultural and historical space that’s begging to be preserved. The general public as well as educational institutions are being called upon to lend a hand. Watson and her collaborators are reaching out for funds via an Indiegogo page and plan to offer special perks to libraries and schools that donate. Some of those incentives include author visits via Skype from Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, and Daniel José Older, as well as signed books from a diverse group of children’s authors and artwork from illustrators.

Watson urges librarians and other school staff to share the campaign page on their social media. Spreading the word to young people is also part of her plan. The Harlem youth population, says Watson, should know about those who came before them. Saving Langston Hughes’s home is a way to pay tribute. It’s still here, in the neighborhood—and just needs to be shown a little love.

 


Editor Jennifer Kelly Geddes, a Harlem resident herself, writes frequently for Parents.com and Highlights

 

 

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