Sunday, August 14, 2016

Interview: Renée Watson talks Langston Hughes, I, Too, Arts Collective, gentrification, and more.

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Author and I, Too, Arts Collective Founder Renée Watson


Reading While White is delighted to be joined by Renée Watson, founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, today.  Below, RWW team member Allie Jane Bruce interviews Renée.






Allie: Congratulations on launching this initiative!  How did it happen?  Did you just pick up the phone one day and say to the owner, "I want to turn this brownstone into a space for poets”?


Renée: Believe it or not, it really did happen that way. Only before the phone call, I had been thinking about how I really wanted to see that space used for something meaningful in the community.

I have been thinking this for many years now and the more Harlem changes, the more urgency I felt to do something. So before making the phone call, I had a proposal together and had thought out a whole businesses plan—you know, the practical stuff.


Once I shared my vision with the person who owns it, she was very moved and agreed to give us till the end of August to raise money for the lease.


Did you and she talk about the gentrification happening in Harlem?  Is that a motivating force for both of you?


Yes, we’ve talked a lot about gentrification and our hope to preserve this space instead of seeing it become overpriced condos.


For me, gentrification is very complicated. I appreciate not having to go across town to get healthy food options, I’m the first person in line for a good brunch, and as a writer I spend a lot of time in coffee shops working.  I enjoy shopping at trendy stores but I am not for erasing a people’s history, pushing them out so that they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood, their home. This is one of the reasons why I started I, Too, Arts Collective.
Watson's YA novel This Side of Home
is about twins who have different
reactions to the gentrification impacting
their Portland neighborhood.

As I’ve toured the nation on a book tour sharing This Side of Home with young people, I’ve heard countless stories of communities being dismantled, of local and cultural histories being erased. I hope that restoring Langston’s home can be a way of reclaiming space, a way to ensure that Harlem’s literary history—Black literary history—will be preserved.


So, yes, it is about standing up against gentrification. But my other motivation is about providing a space for people of color and people from marginalized communities to have a haven to create and tell their stories. Our stories matter and so many people try to speak for us, try to come in and “give us a voice."  I, Too, Arts Collective is not about giving a voice but providing a space for young and emerging artists, as well as professional artists, to share and develop the artistic voice they already have. To put on record for themselves where they come from. Inspired by Langston’s body of work, we hope to encourage people to not shy away from the pain or only write about the joy, but to create art in response to it all.


When I read Langston Hughes, I'm struck by how much of the social issues present in his work are front and center in the USA today.   I'm thinking especially of his (out of print) book Black Misery, which was from a child’s point of view.  For example:


"Misery is when you heard / on the radio that the neighborhood / you live in is a slum but / you always thought it was home."

And also: "Misery is when you start to help an old white lady across the street and she thinks you're trying to snatch her purse" and "Misery is when the taxi cab won't stop for your mother and she says a bad word."


What do you think Langston Hughes would be writing about today, if he were alive?


I think he'd be writing the same kind of poems he wrote back then—poems about Black lives and how they matter. Poems that humanize otherness. I have been reading his poems, as well as poems by Lucille Clifton a lot lately. They are keeping my spirit intact, keeping me from wallowing in sorrow and frustration. There is sadness in their work, yes, but there is also an unapologetic pride and joy there too. There’s a truth telling, a rebuking, an honoring, and a love that Langston writes with. When I teach him in the classroom, I ask young people to think about how they can also be recorders, responders, rebukers, rejoicers and rebuilders of their world through art. I encourage them to compare and contrast the times we are in now and the times that Langston lived through—what’s changed, what’s the same? How far have we come, what more do we need to do?


I love how you crystalize these ideas: "to compare and contrast the times we are in now and the times that Langston lived through—what’s changed, what’s the same? How far have we come, what more do we need to do?" Will you make it an explicit part of your goal at I, Too, Arts Collective to feature poets who are "recorders, responders, rebukers, rejoicers and rebuilders" pondering these questions?


Absolutely. Our summer intensive program will be a social justice and art program. Participants will create art (writing, visual, and performance pieces) in response to a social issue they care about.


This is not to say that we won’t also teach the craft of writing poetry. I think it’s important that both craft and social awareness are nurtured. I want our young people to create from a place of passion and skill. I also believe that besides the artistic and creative component of our workshops, we are building world citizens of the 21st century. The need for critical thinking skills and empathy are crucial. Through art making, I believe young  people can develop and practice life skills that will help to create the world in which we want to live. So even if our young people never become professional artists, the life skills that the arts impart and cultivate, to me, are just as important. I say this often, but I really do believe that artists are problem solvers—we understand what it means to revise, to start over even. With each project we work the muscle of perseverance and commit to seeing something until the end. This means that every artist knows that change is sometimes slow. That progress needs to be revisited, reassessed. That there is always work that can be done. In our workshops, we’ll talk explicitly about this relationship between our art making and our activism.


Before moving on—I want to stress that I do intend for the space to be fun and full of laughter. Sometimes when we talk about social justice and art, it takes on a heaviness. And yes, there is a time to think critically and challenge the system.


There is also a time to celebrate and honor unsung heroes, to reflect on what’s beautiful, what’s worthy of praise. That’s what I love about Langston’s body of work. It is not hopeless even though it speaks of struggle. There’s joy there, there’s an intentional and calculated hope. That, too, is the legacy we want to continue.


How can people support I, Too, Arts Collective?


We’ve launched a fundraising campaign and I’d like to invite people to get involved by giving what they can. We’re accepting donations starting at $5+ and there’s a variety of perks when you give. You can check out our campaign page here and see our launch video below.


Another way to support us is to spread the word and keep up with our progress by following the hashtag #LangstonsLegacy or following us on Twitter: @ITooArts


Renée, thank you so much for launching this project, and for taking the time to talk with us!

video

2 comments:

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you for this interview. Very informative. Best wishes, Renee!

Nanette said...

I love this! What a wonderful interview. What a wonderful initiative! I'd not heard about this. I've never been to Harlem but it holds a place in my imagination (and, I think, in that of any number of other Black people) that would be hard to replace. So wonderful to see what Renee has done. It's funny that she talks about revisiting the poems of Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton in these times--those are exactly who I have been revisiting the last few weeks. They seem to speak to something in me that ... if not calms, at least alleviates some of the distress I feel thinking about the current days.

This, too, is so important:

So even if our young people never become professional artists, the life skills that the arts impart and cultivate, to me, are just as important. I say this often, but I really do believe that artists are problem solvers—we understand what it means to revise, to start over even. With each project we work the muscle of perseverance and commit to seeing something until the end. This means that every artist knows that change is sometimes slow. That progress needs to be revisited, reassessed. That there is always work that can be done. In our workshops, we’ll talk explicitly about this relationship between our art making and our activism.

Both in terms of centering art, or having anything to do with it at all (something many schools, at least at one time, were dispensing with because funding) but also in learning that, sometimes, things take time. And rebuilding, rethinking, new ways, so on.

Anyway, thanks for this interview. Made my day.