Honor a Legacy at the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading

The free-to-all poetry bash celebrates its twenty-eighth year as a staple of the Providence arts scene.
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Indigo Bethea reads while holding her infant son, Sovereign Gonzalez, during a past Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading. (Photo by Dhana Whiteing courtesy of Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading)

On Feb. 5, artists, musicians, writers, literary enthusiasts and civic and political leaders will come together for an event that’s become a longstanding tradition in the Providence arts scene.

The Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Providence Public Library. The event is free to attend, and co-directors April Brown and Kai Cameron invite all to come out to “see and be seen” and celebrate the legacy of a great American writer.

“We say it’s part church, part jazz concert, and just really a community celebration of Langston Hughes,” Brown says.

“And birthday party,” she adds. “Traditionally it’s done the first Sunday of February, and Langston Hughes was born on Feb. 1.”

The event has its origins in the 1990s, when Anne Edmonds Clanton, director of the now-shuttered Langston Hughes Center for Arts and Education, decided to honor the celebrated poet with a reading. According to Brown, Clanton had attended a reading of Walt Whitman’s poetry at the Providence Athenaeum and wanted to plan a similar event with the poetry of Langston Hughes. The city already had a rich Hughes legacy: George Houston Bass, the famous writer’s private secretary, was a playwright and Brown University professor who spent his later year in Rhode Island.

Today, the tradition continues to evolve and incorporates artists of all ages and walks of life. This year’s event includes readings by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Joe Wilson Jr., Valerie Tutson, Marlon Carey, Nirva LaFortune and Ray Rickman, among others. Joe Wilson Jr. will kick off the afternoon with his musings on Langston Hughes, and Mike Rollins and Co. will provide a jazz interlude.

“One of the things that we felt we did when we took it over was we brought the community back into the poetry reading,” Brown says. “It was first held at the RISD museum, and it was kind of a high-class event. We wanted to make it more available for regular people to participate in, and that’s what I think we’ve been able to do.”

As for the poems, Brown and Cameron say they’ll span the breadth of Hughes’ writing career, which began during the Harlem Renaissance and continued through World War II and the civil rights movement. His style, Brown points out, is visible in the slam poetry popular today, while the topics of his poems remain just as relevant now as when they were first published.

“When you read a Langston Hughes poem, you really can track it to what’s happening now in the present day. And that, I think, is the most important. Particularly for young people, I think they need to understand that art did not begin with Beyoncé. And it didn’t end with Langston Hughes. Our culture and our history is strong, and I think people need to understand that,” she says.

Their favorite poems? Brown likes “Let America Be America Again,” a poem about the unfulfilled American dream she says still rings true today. Cameron prefers the “Madam” series of poems, voiced by a fictional narrator as she navigates life’s difficulties.

“It’s very expressive. It’s something that I can relate to in that the voice of Madam is very definitive,” Cameron says. “She’s very sassy, and she’s speaking on the relationship of her being a strong Black woman in circumstances in which she can’t always display herself in that way. It always kind of resonates with me.”

Guests are asked to RSVP for the reading at lhughescpr.org. A livestream will also be available for those unable to attend in person.



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