Today, on Langston Hughes’ birthday, Renée Watson, author and executive director of I, Too, Arts Collective, writes about how the influential poet and activist inspired her to preserve his Harlem brownstone and transform it into a space for the community and emerging artists.
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
As a child reading the poems of Langston Hughes kept me “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” In the lines and stanzas of his poems, my grandmother called out to me, my dark skin and crinkly hair was beautiful and the stories of my ancestors were honored. There was strength and resistance, grace and celebration, all there for the taking. I needed that as a child and I believe our young people need that now.
I want young people to have a space where they can process what is happening in our world and I believe 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. It has inspired me to celebrate the small things, to remember where it is I come from.
This is one of the reasons I launched I, Too Arts Collective. I, Too Arts Collective is a non-profit organization committed to nurturing voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts. We are dedicated to preserving the legacy of Langston Hughes and building on it by providing space for emerging writers to create. In July 2016, we launched the #LangstonsLegacy Campaign to lease the Harlem brownstone where he lived and created during the last 20 years of his life. Over 1500 people donated to help us secure funding for our first year of programming.
Our name is inspired by one of Langston’s poems where he declares, “I, too, am America,” and talks about taking his place at the table. It is a statement that declares, “I, too, deserve a space, a voice, to be seen.”
We hope participants in our programs feel like they have a seat at the artistic table. Our offerings will have opportunities for beginning, emerging, and professional writers and artists to be involved. We will offer poetry workshops and creative writing courses for youth and adults. The space will also host creative conversations for the community, where guest artists will share works-in-progress and engage with the audience through discussions.
Places hold stories and when we lose sacred places like churches, theaters, and the homes of literary legends, we lose pieces of our collective story. Opening I, Too Arts Collective at The Langson Hughes House in Harlem is about reclaiming space, a way to ensure that Harlem’s literary history—black literary history—will be preserved.
Renée Watson is an author and executive director of I, Too Arts Collective. In July 2016, Watson launched a campaign to lease the Harlem brownstone at 20 East 127th Street where Langston Hughes lived and created during the last 20 years of his life. In October 2016, I, Too, Arts Collective signed the lease for the historic brownstone that had been vacant for years and opened on February 1, 2017 to offer programs for the community and emerging artists.