It’s one thing to see a missed opportunity and lament it, but it’s another thing altogether to roll up your sleeves and try to do something about it. This is the case with children’s book and YA author Renée Watson, who has a vision to turn the brownstone in Harlem where legendary poet Langston Hughes once lived into “a space for poets, a space to honor his legacy.” The campaign she’s single-handedly organized, called the I, Too, Arts Collective, is now in its fourth week and has raised nearly $25,000 thus far. But there’s more to go, and so I invited Renée to Kirkus today to tell readers more about the initiative – her vision and more details on how people can contribute.
You mention this briefly on your Indiegogo page, but can you talk a bit more about the idea to lease and renovate this space? Has it really been empty all these years?
When I moved to New York from Portland, Oregon, the first place I wanted to visit was Harlem. As a young girl, I had learned about the Harlem Renaissance and memorized many of Langston’s poems. Someone told me that there was a street named after him in Harlem, so I made sure to go—assuming that his home would be a museum or some type of space for creative minds. Instead, it was empty. I was disappointed and sad, even, that his home wasn’t being used as a creative space for emerging and established writers. And I thought, someone should do something.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I was inspired to go after this dream, but over the years, I have witnessed Harlem—like so many other places across the US where a majority of people of color live—change with urban renewal plans. Having lived through gentrification in Portland and seeing its impact on my neighborhood, I couldn’t sit by and watch it happen in Harlem without trying to preserve some of the history that could so easily become an afterthought if we’re not intentional about keeping spaces that are a part of our history. Shortly after moving to New York, I began writing This Side of Home, a young adult novel with gentrification as one of its themes. The character, Maya, searches for the black history that she feels has been erased and is determined to hold on to the past and embrace the new. I think this influenced my actual real life—I kept thinking, this is more than a story for me. This is actually happening and I need to actually do something. It felt like more than something I wanted to do. It was something I needed to do.
Can you talk more about your vision for showcasing the work of emerging and established artists in Harlem? I assume you're talking about artists beyond the realm of children's books, yes?
I, Too, Arts Collective is committed to nurturing voices that are underrepresented in the creative arts. Langston Hughes was a poet and playwright, so our main focus will be poetry and theatre, but we will also have space to showcase visual art from contemporary artists, as well as a space that welcomes artists of all forms (dance, media, etc.) to have workshops and events for the community.
One program I am very excited about launching is our artist-in-residence program, which will give a chance for artists living outside of New York City an opportunity to stay at the brownstone while they are visiting for artistic purposes (a book tour, research for a project, etc.). It’s important to me that the space isn’t just available for New Yorkers, and I see this as a way to bring in an even more diverse group of artists. As part of the residency program, they’d be required to do something for the community (a reading or workshop).
What has Langston’s work meant to you, personally, in your career?
In children’s literature, we often talk about Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of books that serve as mirrors and windows for young readers. Langston’s poetry was an early mirror for me. As a child, I didn’t read many novels where the characters looked like me, talked like me, were concerned with the same issues I was worried about. Poetry was where I found my people. In the lines and stanzas of Langston’s 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, anger, grace, and ambition 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 reminded me of the power I have within to do something, to make a little beauty out of the mess, to remember where it is I come from and continue the journey that was started.
Okay, time for the fundraising facts for people who want to contribute! How much needs to be raised? Where can people give? How long do people have?
We’ve launched a fundraising campaign to raise money for the first year of rent, renovations, and programming costs. The total cost for the first year is $150,000. But, our first goal is to raise $40,000. This will secure the lease for the first six months. We have till the end of August to reach our lease goal.
We’re so moved by all of our supporters who have given to the campaign by way of financial donations or in-kind donations for our perks. The kidlit community really showed up! We have an array of perks for different levels of giving, including Skype author visits from Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, and Daniel José Older. We have stunning prints from illustrators Shadra Strickland and Vanessa Bradley Newton, as well as more than twelve offers from agents and editors for critiques and “skip the slush pile” passes.
People can give by donating online or mailing a check. [The address is on the campaign page.]
We, of course, will sustain ourselves by grants as we continue to grow.
Best of luck, Renée, and thanks for taking the time to give more information! Here’s the link one more time for people who want to contribute.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Renée Watson photographed by NAACP.