20 December 2007

Langston doesn't live here anymore.

Langston Hughes, one of the great American poets of the 20th century, spent a few years in D.C. in the mid-1920's, working at various service positions as well as helping Carter G. Woodson compile his Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830. Hughes' family wasn't exactly wealthy, and they bumped around a few rented rooms in the District over the course of about 14 months, after which Hughes went off to Lincoln University.

It was in DC, while working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel, that Hughes received some lasting free publicity by leaving a few poems at the seat of Vachel Lindsay, who gushed to the press about his "discovery" of the Negro busboy poet (hence, by the way, about 80 years later, the establishment of Busboys and Poets down on 14th and V). The photo of Hughes from that event is fairly popular, and easily found in biographies about him or histories of the Harlem Renaissance (although I did several internet searches and couldn't pull it up):

Of course, it was Hughes himself who set the photo-op up, but who cares?

Nearly every weekday, I pass by one of the places Hughes lived while in the District. It's on S Street NW, just around the corner from the Rosemary Thyme Bistro.

It's the white house with red trim, 1749 S Street. Hughes, his mother, and his step-brother rented two upstairs rooms there beginning around January 1925. He lived here when he worked for Carter G. Woodson, and it's where he was living when he revised The Weary Blues for publication at Carl Van Vechten's urging.

It's a pretty unassuming house, but I'm sure it's no "shabby apartment," as Arnold Rampersad calls it in The Life of Langston Hughes (vol. 1). A dozen years ago, that area was still full of affordable apartments and group houses populated by students; now three-story houses just across the street often list for a million plus change.

Hughes didn't live here long, and he didn't care much for DC, what with the allure of New York City and the ingrained segregation in the nation's capital, but he's an integral part of that network of African American intellectuals and artists who either lived in or passed through the District in the early to mid twentieth century.

1 comment:

Grad School Reject said...

I'd like to throw out some modern props to Edward P. Jones and Colson Whitehead as two (in my estimation) very good modern African American authors who grew up in and around the District.