No sweeter celebration of Valentine's Day than to share this exchange, which fills my heart with hope. Sometimes, when we put our energy together, we can get it done.
February 14TH, 2011
Dear Mr. Shallal,
Various characterizations of Busboys and Poets, your own and others', suggest that it is a space created and named in honor of the late Langston Hughes, his work and his legacy within and beyond the District of Columbia. It is true that wonderful things happen in the Langston Room. We have all, at one point or another, been present to witness the wittiness, the bravery, the signifying and the song that characterizes Hughes’ work as it emanates from the stage and the various poets who have graced it over the years.
As poets who have sat in those chairs and booths as well as stood upon that stage, we ask you to consider the ways in which placing a cardboard cutout of Hughes within Busboys and Poets—making of him a character, a mascot, more than a presence—unfortunately does not honor his legacy.
Our objections to this display are varied. Some of us feel it is improper that Hughes be physically reduced to a gimmicky object within a space commemorating part of his experience as a young writer in Washington, D.C. Others hope that if you must have a cutout image of Hughes in the space that it be an image that aspires to communicate Hughes’ greater significance rather than the unsophisticated semantic connection to your business’ name. Even with our mélange of concerns about this matter, we all agree that it is a gesture that does not suit Busboys and Poets’ relationship to Hughes’ legacy and its relationship with the poets, local and national, who continue his work and who patronize Busboys and Poets.
The poet Ethelbert Miller this week asked the following on his blog: “POLITICS AND POETRY? What would Langston do?” Fortunately for us, Hughes’ words are still present. Your staff attempted to answer the question of how he would feel about this moment, and respond to the week’s events, by posting the following quote on the Busboys and Poets twitter feed and attributing it to Hughes: "I am glad I went to work at the Wardman Park Hotel (as a busboy), because there I met Vachel Lindsay." Firstly, the parenthetical in the quote is not Hughes’ language but an addition on the part of whoever manages the Busboys and Poets twitter feed (and should therefore be marked with brackets). Secondly, while this quote does suggest Hughes appreciated the opportunity to slip his poems to the critic Vachel Lindsay, the following excerpt from Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea makes it fairly clear that he did not appreciate being made a spectacle as a “bus boy poet”:
The widespread publicity resulting from the Vachel Lindsay incident was certainly good for my poetic career, but it was not good for my job, because from then on, very often the head waiter would call me to come and stand before some table whose curious guests wished to see what a Negro bus boy poet looked like. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, so when pay day came, I quit.
If Busboys and Poets is in the business of honoring Langston Hughes and, of the utmost importance to a poet, his words, we suggest that you seriously consider his own words about his own life as they pertain to this matter.
Some of us saw the physical cutout. Many of us only heard about it or saw pictures before we, as a group, could come to you and ask that it be removed. As a showing of good faith, we have enclosed with this letter a check for $150.00 (the stated price of the cutout in the 02/08/2011 Washington Post column detailing its disappearance) to compensate you for your lost property. We only ask, respectfully, that this image not be replaced. It is not necessary and, for us, serves as more of a deterrence than a welcome.
In the interest of strengthening the relationship between Busboys and Poets and the local, active poetry community, we extend the offer to help initiate and sustain a dialogue between you, your management, your advisors and the poets whose work and organizations fill Busboys and Poets. To date, it has been a fruitful yet unexamined relationship. We want it to continue, but in a manner that fosters open lines of communication and a mutual mindfulness.
Kyle G. Dargan Michael Gushue Bettina Judd
Sandra Beasley Laura Hartmark Gregory Pardlo
Reginald Dwayne Betts Melanie Henderson Joseph Ross
Cornelius Eady Randall Horton Myra Sklarew
Thomas Sayers Ellis Reuben Jackson Sonya Renee Taylor
Brian Gilmore Fred Joiner Dan Vera
[Letter hand-delivered to the Busboys & Poets at 14th & V Streets.]
February 14th, 2011
dear poets and friends...
i want to thank you for your measured response surrounding the issue of the langston cut out. i sincerely appreciate your thoughtful words and your wisdom which i am humbled to receive.
i want to preface my remarks by saying that it was truly my intention to honor langston hughes as i saw him in all his manifestations. as someone who has worked in restaurants most of my life, i find no embarrassment to any work in the business however i do understand being respectful to a legacy that is far larger than i and which i feel a greater sense of mission to protect and honor.
i would like you to know i have no intention of replacing the cut out. i will respectfully return the check to you.
as a follow up i am convening a meeting with our poets in residence this coming week to discuss many of the issues that have been festering for too long. issues related to compensation and other concerns that the greater poetry community may have and has had even before busboys and poets came into existence.
my own personal story is also much deeper than busboys and poets. i will share it with you and others in due time.
The heart is a bird. The heart is a swooping eagle. The heart, when motivated, is a really powerful thing. Is there work to be done still? Sure. Lots. But damn, I love my city.