I don’t know how poet Kim Roberts even finds time to read—she’s busy with her own writing (check out her recent book The Kimnama); she edits the online poetry quarterly Beltway; and she is tireless in chronicling and promoting D.C.’s fascinating literary history (among her achievements here are coordinating the DC Celebrates Whitman Festival: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass, and in conjunction with D.C.’s recent Big Read of The Great Gatsby a tour of DC called “Jazz Age Stories of the Rich & Scandalous!”). Plus, she has written here for this blog about having been published in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet. And these are just the activities I know about!
Nevertheless, she found time to send in a report about a recent novel that caught her attention:
I just finished reading a novel I want to highly recommend: When Washington Was in Vogue: A Lost Novel of the Harlem Renaissance, by Edward Christopher Williams (Amistad, 2004).
The book takes place in DC in the fall and winter of 1922-23, and consists of a series of letters that Davy Carr, a veteran of WWI, writes to his friend Bob Fletcher (who is living in New York). The novel is a rare look at the vibrant African American middle class who lived in this city, with terrific characterizations, including a narrator who realizes he's in love long after we readers have figured it out. There is not a single white character in the book. Originally published anonymously in serial form in The Messenger (a socialist, African American magazine in New York), the book is a lively read.
And for those of us who live in Washington, DC, it's great to see a Harlem Renaissance tale that recognizes that not all the action was really in Harlem. Here is Davy Carr's description of Griffith Stadium (now the site of Howard University Hospital), during a game between rival university teams from Howard and Lincoln Universities:
"The scene was the American League Ball Park on Georgia Avenue, situated a short block from the center of colored Washington, on the edge of its best residential district, and on the road from that district to the University. The park seats, I am told, twenty-two thousand people. While I lay no claim to proficiency in estimating crowds, I should say there were about twelve thousand people present. However, it was not the size, but the average quality of the crowd which was interesting and significant. Almost everyone was well dressed, large numbers were richly dressed, and too many were overdressed. All the great centers of colored population were represented, from Atlanta to Boston, and from Chicago to Atlantic City. Most of the women came to show their clothes, and, with the exception of the students, and those who had bets on the game, the major part of the crowd paid little attention to the contest itself, for the people and not the game were the real center of interest for most of them. From the viewpoint of the majority of the spectators, it was a social function, and not an athletic contest.
"Hundreds of women, young women and mature women, were made up as if for a full-dress ball, and somehow 'makeup' does not look well at ten o'clock in the morning on a sunny day...The tickets to the game ran from two dollars to one dollar...I saw signs of prosperity on every hand. Outside on Georgia Avenue and the streets adjoining there were hundreds of automobiles parked."
About: Kim Roberts is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007, http://www.vrzhu.com). She has published in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet, and in anthologies with wide-ranging themes, including: animals, sensuality, family, physical trauma, spirituality, and politics. For a couple of years, she was poet-in-residence with a modern dance company (Jane Franklin Dance), and her poems have been set to music by a rock band and a classical composer. She co-edits the Delaware Poetry Review (http://www.depoetry.com) and for the past eight years has edited Beltway Poetry Quarterly (http://www.beltwaypoetry.com), which White Crane magazine calls "the repository of the brain of DC poetic history" and the Washington Post calls "a comfortable gathering place" for Washington poets that is "accessible, current, and inclusive." More information than you actually need about Kim Roberts can be found on her website: http://www.kimroberts.org.