old_man_summer (old_man_summer) wrote,

Split This Rock Day 3: "Harlem" Renaissance in Washington

I dragged myself out of bed this morning to attend a walking tour of the Harlem Renaissance in Washington, led by Kim Roberts. Karren Alenier has already blogged about it very nicely here, so I won't belabor the point. Several of the sights she mentioned as highlights also impressed me, including Duke Ellington's childhood home, a handsome gray rowhouse at 1212 T St. and the place where he played his first gig, the True Reformers Hall:

Also, as I mentioned before, the Thurgood Marshall Center (former YMCA), where Langston Hughes briefly lived, and the home of the Saturday Nighters salon, where most of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance met and talked. Most interesting to me was hearing about Langston Hughes' misery in DC, and his checkered occupational history while he was here. He came to the city expecting to take a job at the local African-American newspaper. They  started him in ad sales, and he lasted, Kim said, perhaps a month. He had equally short tenures at a range of other jobs, from working with the historian Carter Woodson to washing clothes in a laundry and serving as a hotel busboy. That last day job was notable especially for Hughes' on-the-job self-promotion: when poet Vachel Lindsay visited the hotel for a reading and banquet, Hughes made sure a sheaf of his best work was lying next to his dinner plate. Lindsay read Hughes' poems at his own reading, and announced that he had discovered a "black busboy poet" in DC. This made the national news, with a picture of Hughes in his busboy uniform. Perhaps not the kind of acclaim Hughes had in mind (and his busboy colleagues were so irritated with him for doing this that he quit immediately afterwards), but it does fall into the category of "just so long as you spell my name right." (Busboys and Poets is named in honor of this story, too, as you might have guessed.) Apparently, Hughes peripatetic wanderings in DC reflected his unhappiness here; he felt pressure from family members to achieve occupationally, but found the classy U street neighborhood stiff and pretentious. He apparently much preferred the working-class 7th street neighborhood; on the tour, I had the opportunity to read aloud some of his comments about 7th street, which sound woefully stereotypical to contemporary ears (he mentions barbecue, watermelon, and the Negro's innate gaiety, for examples).

I also met some interesting people. I got to chatting with Michael Newheart, a divinity professor at Howard University, and discovered that he actually knew someone I knew, Pepper Phillips, a colleague of mine here at UMD. You might not be impressed with that degree of small world connection-making, but seeing as how the number of people I know in DC approaches zero, I was surprised and pleased. I also met Karen Johnston, a poet, lay minister, and social worker from New England, who has the most adorable Split This Rock poem ever up at her blog, and some other nameless individuals, including a wonderful older woman who bonded with me over a shared fondness for long skirts (she'd bought hers in a cowboy store in Nevada).

After the tour we all went home to bed. We were all exhausted!
Tags: activism, peace, poetry, split this rock
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