DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, September 25, 2014

U Street: Like Harlem, a Home to Great Black Literature

When you consider the Harlem Renaissance, you naturally think of New York City. But many of the writers most closely associated with that time also have strong ties to Washington DC.

Langston Hughes, possibly the greatest black writer of that period lived for a time in DC. So did his female contemporary Zora Neal Hurston, the author of the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God. Jean Toomer's novel Cane was set in Washington.

Although the black writers roamed around the capital, the area they were most associated with was U Street and its surrounding neighborhoods of LeDroit Park and Shaw. U Street itself was known as DC's Black Broadway from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Last week, a special literary-themed walk was offered as one of the DC By the Book Tours, designed by the DC Public Library. The tour was part of a week-long program featuring 4 walking tours which were operated as part of the annual week-long  Walkingtown DCsponsored by Cultural Tourism DC.

The tour was designed and led by Kim Roberts, an editor of the Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Roberts is also one of the prime movers behind the DC Writers Homes project.

At each of the tours 14 stops, volunteers would read a passage from an author associated with that location. As a special benefit, readers got to choose one of 2 books for their efforts - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz. The books were courtesy of the DC Library.

The YMCA where
Hughes roomed
For example, outside a YMCA where Hughes once had a room, the description was highlighted by this excerpt from Hughes' autobiography, The Big Sea.

I arrived in Washington with only a sailor's peajacket protecting me from the winter winds. All my shirts were ragged and my trousers frayed. I am sure I did not look like a distinguished poet, when I walked up to my cousin's porch in Washington's Negro section, LeDroit Park ... Listen, everybody! Never go live with relatives if you're broke! That is an error.

Or here is a poem "I Sit and Sew" by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, the wife of noted black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who worked for a time at the Library of Congress.
I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.


I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.


The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?

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