Interview with Rita Dove – July 2014

Posted on July 14th, 2014 by

On July 1st, director Aviva Kempner had the pleasure of interviewing the poet Rita Dove for our upcoming film, The Rosenwald Schools. Dove, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and served as the United States Poet Laureate, gave a wonderful interview. She told us about several of the luminaries who received Rosenwald fellowships early in their careers: Marian Anderson, Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston.

In her interview, Dove delved into the particulars of Langston Hughes’ two Rosenwald fellowship periods, beginning in 1931 and 1941. During his first Rosenwald fellowship, Langston traveled to almost every Southern state to do poetry readings at black colleges and universities. When he received the Rosenwald fellowship in 1931, Langston was living at the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA. The grant money allowed him to purchase a car and print copies of his work to bring along on his trip South. Click here to see a picture of Langston in front of his new car, at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Dove related the origins of Langston’s journey to the South in her interview. It was Mary McLeod Bethune who influenced him to undertake the trip, suggesting that there were many residents of Southern states who weren’t aware of his work and would respond strongly to it. Stephanie Deutsch (author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South) recently blogged about Mary McLeod Bethune’s connection to another Rosenwald fellowship recipient, Zora Neale Hurston. The 135th anniversary of Bethune’s birth was last Thursday (July 10th) and she has a statue in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Park.


Mary McLeod Bethune in 1938
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

While in Alabama, Langston held a reading at Tuskegee and also visited the Scottsboro Boys on death row. We wrote about this important visit in November of last year, on the occasion of their posthumous pardon by the state of Alabama.

In her interview, Dove pointed out how important it was for African American artists of that time to travel South:

Many artists who grew up in the Midwest or the urban north in fact were the progeny from the Great Migration. For them to go south was a very, very brave thing [and] sometimes it ended up producing remarkable work.

Dove described this as a theme in the Rosenwald fellowships. Artists like Hale Woodruff, Eldzier Cortor and Jacob Lawrence (who made the amazing “Great Migration” series) used their Rosenwald grants to travel the South and depict it in their artworks. In fact, Dove herself grew up in Ohio, and she poignantly described her experience visiting Georgia for the first time as a child in the early 1960s.


Rita Dove, poet
Photo Credit: The Ciesla Foundation, July 2014

Many thanks to Rita Dove for agreeing to be interviewed and for hosting our crew in her home.