SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Langston Hughes was the heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s.
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LANGSTON HUGHES: I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and eat well and grow strong.
SIMON: He lived in a brownstone on East 127th Street for the last 20 years of his life until he died in 1967. The building is a national landmark, but it's mostly been empty for decades. Now, Harlem has become hip again in recent years. The neighborhood that's so emblematic of African-American experience is becoming upscale. A group of people in Harlem wants to keep Langston Hughes' former home from becoming just one more high-end co-op. They're raising money to try to lease the building as an art center. Renee Watson is a children's author in Harlem. She's executive director of the I, Too, Collective. She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
RENEE WATSON: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: What'd you like this building to do for Harlem?
WATSON: Well, I would love to preserve Langston's legacy and build on it. I think it's important for the young people who still live in Harlem to know that in their own neighborhood, blocks away from where they're playing basketball, where they're walking to school, that a literary giant lived there and not just lived there but created there and was a part of the community.
SIMON: I gather that the top floor of this three-story brownstone was Hughes' workroom.
SIMON: What did he write up there?
WATSON: (Laughter) Well, he wrote - everything from 47 until he passed away - so the last 20 years of his work - was most likely written there or inspired while he was living in that space, which includes a lot of pieces that he wrote for The Chicago Tribune and a lot of his short stories. The play that he wrote actually was what got him to be able to afford to buy that place, which I think is pretty amazing that he was one of the first African-American authors to support himself through his writing. That play was called "Street Scene."
SIMON: Is it a officially registered national landmark?
WATSON: So it is. I don't know if this is true for everywhere, but in New York that deals with the facade of the building. So it has a plaque, yes. The street is named after him, but that doesn't dictate what happens on the inside as far as how it's used.
SIMON: And, Ms. Watson, what's happening in Harlem?
WATSON: What's happening in Harlem? So much beauty, so much vibrancy, but change is happening as well. And we've been talking a lot about what it means to embrace newness but also hold on to legacy, hold on to culture and not erase the actual places that we believe are sacred spaces of the Harlem Renaissance. So, you know, gentrification is happening in Harlem, and it's bittersweet. I think as a community people are feeling worried.
SIMON: How much would the building cost to buy?
WATSON: It's been said that it's $3 million.
SIMON: And I gather you've negotiated with the owner to lease the property.
WATSON: Yes. So the beauty in all of this is the house wasn't for sale, and I walk past it often. I don't live too far from his home. We called and just let her know what we wanted to do in the space, and she was really excited about that vision. So, yes, we are in the process of raising money to sign a lease that would be a three-year lease.
SIMON: And how much is your target?
WATSON: Our target is $150,000.
SIMON: Would you like the city to buy the space at some point - or they'd have to kind of dictate the programs, though, then.
WATSON: Right. So I'm in conversations and reaching out to city officials and to Harlem officials and trying to think about what partnerships can look like with the city for sure. I don't want this to be my space. This is a space for the people.
SIMON: What do you hope in the spirit and the legacy of Langston Hughes catches fire?
WATSON: I hope young people feel seen and heard. There's something about Langston's poetry, when I was a child reading it, that was a mirror for me, a way of me being able to see my family, my church members, my community members. I think the beauty of Langston's work is he definitely talked about oppression and injustice, but he also humanized our stories and made us everyday people. So especially now when we're talking about black lives mattering and our stories being important that young people will come to this space and feel seen and heard and valued and that they have a voice. So we're really hoping to have it be a hub for artists of color and artists from underrepresented communities in the creative arts.
SIMON: Renee Watson is executive director of I, Too, artist collective in Harlem. Thanks so much for being with us.
WATSON: Thank you.
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HUGHES: Tomorrow, I'll be at the table when company comes. Nobody'll dare say to me eat in the kitchen then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful we are and be ashamed. I, too, am America.
SIMON: Langston Hughes reading from his poem "I, Too."
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