Harlem artists and writers can finally call Langston Hughes’ home their own.
The I, Too, Arts Collective, named for Hughes’ poem “I, Too,” held an opening event Wednesday evening at Hughes’ Harlem brownstone and invited the community to mingle, have refreshments and check out its new space.
There was reason to celebrate. Not only was it Hughes’ birthday, but Wednesday marked the culmination of a months-long process to lease the home in which the poet lived for his final 20 years.
The brownstone first caught the eye of the collective’s founder and executive director Renee Watson when she moved to Harlem from Portland, Oregon more than a decade ago. She was disappointed to find out the home was neither a museum nor community center. In June 2016, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I was tired of waiting on someone to do something with this space,” Watson told The Huffington Post.
Watson found the owner of the brownstone, who told her that if she could raise the funds to lease it for a year, her newly founded non-profit could take over the space. The collective raised $150,000 goal through an online fundraising campaign, several separate donations and donation matching in a month and signed the lease in October.
The brownstone, which will house workshops, open mic nights, poetry salons, discussions with authors and more, opened during a time of serious change in Harlem. With rents skyrocketing and big businesses moving in, the grassroots action to lease the space marks a small victory for the community.
“It’s a testament to wanting to hold onto Harlem,” she said. “And just make sure that we also take care of the history here and that we guard it [fiercely].”
Given the current political climate, having a place for artists of color to come appreciate Hughes’ work and be inspired to create their own is especially important, Watson said.
“[Artists of color have] always responded through art when stuff is happening in the world,” she said. “We are the rebukers. We are the people who are going to put on record the truth of what’s happening and document our experiences.”
She also hopes the space can act as a “safe haven” and provide opportunities for self-care. The collective plans to have open forums, writing circles and healing spaces for those who need to step back from “the struggle.” Ultimately, Watson wants to provide a springboard for budding authors to get their work published and carry on Hughes’ legacy of “generosity and hope.”
“Given the time that we’re living in I just feel like [it’s] really important for people to have a space where they feel seen and validated,” she said. “And I think that’s something to continue that his work did for us as a people.”
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