A Haunting in Harlem: An Encounter with Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023


What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes –

My daughter and I recently spent a week in New York City. I carefully planned most of the days in advance to maximize every moment as we hit spots from the top of Manhattan (Met Cloisters) to the bottom of Manhattan (Fruance’s Tavern). We also visited lots of places in between, boarded a boat for a trip around the island, and shared a half-day in Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, however, our plans came to an abrupt stop. We arrived in Harlem just before 1:00 pm, excited to join a scheduled Civil Rights Walking Tour. I learned via phone call that the tour would not happen. The smoke that invaded the city a day earlier lingered and the family of the elderly man who led the tours did not want him in the smoke. We expressed our understanding while realizing we would not have another opportunity to fit a tour in on this trip.

Masjid Malcolm Shabazz (Where Malcolm X Preached), Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harriet Tubman Memorial by Alison Saar, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023

The cancelation may have been the best single thing to happen on any trip I’ve ever taken.

We could have made demands. We could have gotten angry and stomped our way back to the hotel, the day soured in our wake. But we were in Harlem, one of the most important cultural centers of African American life and history in the world. We found a place with food and seats and hit our phones searching for spots to visit. We knew a few and we found others. With Google Maps in hand, we set out to explore.

We found Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, the church where Malcolm X preached. We reflected at the feet of the Harriet Tubman Harriet Memorial by Alison Saar, puzzling over and recognizing parts of her great story carefully worked into the magnificent piece. We walked the streets enjoying the rhythm of city life, with vendors hawking all manner of goods and foods, a mobile barbershop pulled up to a curb, churches, some quite beautiful, on nearly every corner. We met X Money Dough Boy who insisted that I take his photograph and informed us he’d be famous someday. I hope his dreams come true.

X Money Dough Boy, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Harlem, New York City, June 2023

The Apollo Theatre stands as a towering center of African American culture and history. Clearly it demanded a stop. Founded in 1913, it shifted to focus on African American music when it was sold in 1934. Showtime at the Apollo began then, and the stage has since been graced by an array of luminaries from Count Basie and the range of classic jazz artists to James Brown who recorded his bestselling album there. Ray Charles, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix (First Prize on Amateur Night in 1964), and Stevie Wonder performed, and the names run all the way up to Michael Jackson, Prince, and Lauryn Hill. We couldn’t tour, but I snagged a t-shirt, and we enjoyed looking at all the sidewalk markers of artists who’ve performed there and finding our favorites.

The final stop for our informal walking tour was the one we were most excited about, and this is where the magic began. We walked to 20 East 127th Street (pictured at the top of this article), an 1869 brownstone where Langston Hughes spent the last twenty years of his life. The two of us, an English teacher and a former librarian, love his work. I used it in projects in college.

The poet, virtually synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance (1910s to 1930s), lived in the home from 1947 to 1967 and died there. We found a slightly obscured historic marker and were dismayed to see the home appeared to be rapidly deteriorating. Portions were unpainted and wood rotted around the windows. The banister clung to life thanks to baling wire.

Mobile Barbershop, Harlem, New York City, June 2023

We asked a man who was entering the home about the condition, and he deferred to a man who was coming out of the basement. Les explained that his wife, Dr. Beverly Prince (a retired surgeon), has owned the home since 1985, eighteen years after Hughes’ death. She purchased it from the son of the couple who purchased it with Hughes. He answered vaguely when asked about preserving the home (this article explains some of his hesitance). He mentioned that a local group is attempting to revive the home and there would be an event of some sort the next night.

We jettisoned our plans to be in Brooklyn the next night and scoured the Internet to find the Eventbrite notice announcing a Grand Re-Opening at the home for the night in question. Had our walking tour not been canceled, had we not stayed in Harlem, had we not bumped into Les, none of it would have happened.

Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023

The evening started with us walking through the neighborhood waiting for the doors to open just a bit after 5:00 pm. The beautiful brownstones lining the street in the fading sunlight shimmering through the leaves looked just as they might have on a summer night during the Harlem Renaissance. To know that we would soon enter the space where Langston Hughes wrote the poem included at the top of this article, as well as many others almost felt overwhelming.

Once inside, we were welcomed as friends, eventually part of a group of around fifty musicians, poets, families, members of the Langston Hughes House community group, and Dr. Prince, as well as Les, who seemed happy we had made it back.

Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
Felicia Cade, Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023
(Left to Right, Les, Deidra, Unknown, Felicia, Two Unknown, Dr. Prince) Langston Hughes Home, Harlem, New York City, June 2023

The event took place on the main entry floor which was filled with photographs of Mr. Hughes, as well as a signed letter. Chairs lined the walls, and the front of the room was filled with a jazz trio and Mr. Hughes piano. Stunningly, his typewriter, where his fingers typed poems that defined an era, inspired generations, and holds a prominent place in the American story formed the centerpiece of the display.

The warm night began with music that Langston himself might have listened to inside those same walls. Felecia Cade hosted the event and made everyone comfortable. Outside, the street grew dark while inside the dimly lit, unairconditioned room warmed with the evening heat and the spirit of musicians and the poets who followed. Musical notes flowed into musical words inspired and informed by the poet whose home we inhabited for one steamy Harlem evening. Passion fused the decades between young poets who were not born in his lifetime, but who were born in his wake.

The music and poetry continued for hours, highlighted by a recitation by Stephanie Pacheco, New York City, and the state of New York’s current Youth Poet Laureate. Some of Langston’s journey was narrated by a historian. The jazz, the poetry, the space we shared made for an intoxicating evening, a visitation from the past, the sweaty reality that joins that time to this one. When a light in the corner began blinking, we both thought the same thing: He’s with us.

As the event ended, hugs and contact information were exchanged. We walked into the Harlem night awed at what we’d experienced. The singular night put me in mind of the recent concert event with Yo-Yo Ma in the difficulty of communicating this beautiful, random moment we were honored to experience. I’ll never think of Harlem without thinking of that night, the people who brought it to us, the serendipity that allowed it to happen, and that sacred spot at 20 East 127th Street, Harlem, New York City.

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