It’s Black History Month, so I’m going to take up some space. For the Black culture.
Last year Renée Watson, founder and volunteer (read: unpaid) Executive Director of i, too, arts collective and I had what was to be our last business call. Before our conversation devolved into the gasps and giggles of the mid-season finale of Grey’s Anatomy as a conversation with someone who has become a true friend of yours does, I took a moment to celebrate. The collective was dissolving, and moving out of the Langston Hughes house in East Harlem, and we were sad, but also, I wanted Renée to understand what incredible work she had truly embarked on.
What was a privately-owned space known as the last residence of our bard Langston Hughes was given to us, the public, because of Renée’s tireless work, visioning, and daring to move with steadfast conviction against what we might call conventional wisdom. We have no idea of its next life, if we’ll be able to gather around the mantle, piano, or typewriter again, or hold our hands along the same balustrade that Hughes must have held as he retired after a night of hosting artists and writers in his parlor.
But Renée gave us this gift. Shared experiences. Community. This contemporary moment in the house. No matter what history has in store for the space, she was the instigator who brought Hughes’s legacy into the 21st century; brought it alive in a way that the public could hold and put our arms around.
For the hundreds of us, the generations, that were able to walk through the doors, we were loved in that space. Truly, we knew that we were in a special place. Once, at a Gala, I met a woman who had flown from Texas with her ball gown so that she could know what we had such quick, neighborly access to!
At the Langston Hughes House, because Renée believed, we were seen. We had stories and a platform. Under her direction, and with the support of the community that formed around her, the space brought Langston, literature, literary excellence, Black artistic contributions, and quite honestly one of the strongest senses of community I had ever witnessed into the public consciousness. The board, the staff, the volunteers—they are who I think of now when I continue to think of what it means to care for culture.
I often speak about the work of other organizations like i, too, arts collective—the small community-based Black arts institutions that strive day after day to produce programming for their constituents. In these conversations at tables and in conference rooms and funding pitches, I hear statements like, “We can’t save them all” as a gesture towards conflation, towards some type of thinning out of any perceived redundancy. Questions like: “Do we need another group that does X?” or “Can’t they just join/merge with this other group doing the same work?”
How swiftly white supremacy inserts itself.
A small story to get us home to my point for this Black History Month message: within a few years, the same period in which the radius my late father could travel comfortably was getting smaller and smaller, my hometown of Columbia, SC consolidated its grocery stores on our (Black) side of town and retail stores moved 10 miles north and east, or down towards the city limits (You can imagine the non-existent cultural offerings in this area, and the bustling cultural district just beyond the horizon). I think about this methodical stripping of a community that happens and its after effects. These days, when we talk about food justice and food insecurity and food deserts, we argue that every person should have a right to convenient and affordable access to healthy food. No question. Philanthropy gets to swoop in to correct capitalism, so it goes.
It’s with this same conviction I continue to ask: What if we moved, in concert, against cultural deserts?
If every place had centers of artistic and cultural offerings so that we could reach out, from whatever dwelling or neighborhood we find ourselves, and find within relative proximity: art, representative cultural offerings, community. A different and significant nourishment. Then I ask, in my refrain, what if those spaces thrived?
Of course I’m asking for maybe the exact antithesis of the “We can’t save everyone/every organization” mindset. I’m especially asking this question under the threat of the whims and capitalistic violence of white supremacy. At times it seems like a fruitless endeavour. Like, if we focused our energy on fewer groups, the bigger field might improve? I get it in a practical sense, but, why do we fight the impracticality of white supremacy with practicality? Maybe I’m just more interested in building bigger and stronger boats…with rafts & life preservers for all of us.
This month we are highlighting but a few Black arts organizations “worthy of saving” in our Impact Report for 2019, but we encourage you to find your own Langston Hughes House, and ask what if a community formed here? What if we invested resources here? Bring your community to its steps and ask: What do you need? What can we do? If we wait to be asked, it might be too late.
Here’s a list of groups that have come across our desk since we started Black Art Futures Fund in 2017. We very much want them—and the ones we’ve yet to learn about—with us in the future.