For almost 30 years, writer Shay Youngblood has found a retreat at the Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York. The estate was a haven for Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, and still nurtures promising young talent. Black Girl in Paris is one of the books Youngblood worked on there. A film adaptation of the book was just released and is available on HBO and OnDemand this month.
As part of our series “KERA Voices: Making Black History,” Youngblood remembers the very first day she took a seat at the table.
Your first introduction to Yaddo is by another artist telling you where things are, what the rules are, what time dinner is. I’ll never forget this artist — his name was Doug.
We go up this red carpeted staircase and then we turn left and he opens the door and he said, “This is your room,” and I looked at him, and I thought, he’s going to be in so much trouble. He certainly has made a mistake.
I’m sitting there on the bed and I literally waited for about 10 or 15 minutes and didn’t unpack and didn’t move off the bed. Because I thought that he was going to come back and tell me it was all a mistake.
I was exhausted and I laid down and took a nap.
The time kept ticking by. He said you can come down for drinks around 6 p.m. if you like. And I remembered this story about Carson McCullers who wrote ‘Member of the Wedding.’ She is from my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. And in the biography it said that she was so afraid of going down to dinner and she was so shy that she stayed in her room for 3 or 4 days drinking and didn’t come down.
And I thought, ‘I’m not going to be like that, I’m going to be brave and go down!’ So I walk down the red carpeted staircase, I cross the great hall, I walked into the dining room and I heard this voice say, “Oh Shay! I’ve been waiting on you!”
And it was a tall white woman with bright white hair, the most beautiful blue eyes. Her name was Virginia Spencer Carr, and she was Carson McCullers’ biographer, and she had heard that I was coming, and knew that I was from Columbus, Georgia. And she gave me the warmest welcome I think I’ve ever had anywhere. And we became friends.
I’ve made some of the most enduring friendships, I would say, at Yaddo and other artists’ colonies. But I encourage people to kind of create their own artist residencies where they are — find two or three or four like-minded people and gather together once a month or so and cook a meal and talk about art into the night.