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You don’t need to look far to find Dolores Kendrick’s mark on the city. Outside the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station, emblazoned below a sculpture by sculptor Barbara Grygutis, is “Journeys,” Kendrick’s brief yet formidable poem:
Go slowly in taking the steps, and fast when counting stars.
Kendrick’s marks on the District aren’t just physical. As D.C.’s second ever poet laureate—she succeeded Sterling Allen Brown, who held the position from 1984 until his death in 1989—Dolores Kendrick tirelessly advocated for poetry in classrooms and communities, developing creative writing programs within the city, and forging initiatives to incorporate the art of poetry into public life.
Kendrick served as poet laureate from 1999 until her death, from cancer complications, on Nov. 7. She was 90 years old and known as “the first lady of poetry,” according to her friend and colleague E. Ethelbert Miller.
As a poet, Kendrick was best-known for her 1990 book The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women, for which she won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Based on the accounts of various slaves—including Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Beloved—Kendrick created 34 eloquent and heart-wrenching lyrical monologues told from the perspective of slave women. It was later adapted for the theater and won the New York New Playwrights Award in 1997. In 1996, Kendrick collaborated with composer Wall Matthews and vocalist Aleta Greene on the album The Color of Dusk, inspired by the award-winning collection.
Kendrick’s other works include Through the Ceiling (1975), Now Is the Thing to Praise (1984), and Why the Woman is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative (2001), a collection of poems about a homeless woman. At the time of her death, Miller says that Kendrick had just finished a new collection of poems entitled Rainbow on Fire, which will be published by Black Classic Press.
But for all her literary accolades, Kendrick’s passion was teaching. “She was an educator as well as a poet,” Miller says. “In terms of our friendship, whenever we were talking, that’s how she presented herself to me.”
Kendrick never married or had children. She devoted her life to honing her craft and teaching the art of poetry. During her tenure as poet laureate, “she took a position that was created for Sterling Brown … and she brought [it] meaning and legitimacy,” Miller adds. In that time, she worked with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to establish a number of initiatives aimed at promoting poetry, including the Poetry Out Loud competition and the Poet-In-Progress program.
Born in D.C. on Sept. 7, 1927, Dolores Teresa Kendrick grew up in LeDroit Park during a period when the neighborhood was an epicenter for artists and intellectuals. Kendrick’s father, Ike, founded the weekly black newspaper Capitol Spotlight, and her mother, Josephine, was a music teacher with a fondness for jazz. “You had scholars and all kinds of professors who lived in the neighborhood,” Kendrick told City Paper in 1999. “We also had some members of a jazz quartet who lived upstairs, and a lot of times, they’d come and jam in our apartment.”
Kendrick graduated with a teaching certificate from Miner Teacher’s College, an African-American college that would later merge with the University of the District of Columbia, and earned her MA at Georgetown University. She taught in D.C. public schools for 20 years and helped found the School Without Walls in 1971. Later, she taught literature and poetry at New Hampshire’s prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy for 21 years.
During her time at Exeter, she would often invite writers, poets, and deep thinkers she was friends with—including James Baldwin and Rita Dove—to speak to her students. Kendrick told The Washington Post in 2011 that she is the only black woman to have her portrait hanging on the school’s walls.
Kendrick’s lasting legacy is as a poet who used her voice as a black woman to lift up the voices of other black women. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, a poet who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, recalls how “life-altering” it was when she first read The Women of Plums, as the only black student in her MFA program in Alabama in the early 1990s.
“One of the things I was so amazed by [in The Women of Plums] was that all of the poems were gorgeous, but that she wanted to make sure she was including traditional black vernacular in this crafted space,” Jeffers says. “That was very important to her, to set the tone with black people’s voices, and in the same way that Zora Neale Hurston did with her fiction—with black women’s voices, that the traditional language that we use is important.”
Despite a body of work that spans from the Black Arts movement of the ’60s and ’70s, up until today, Kendrick wasn’t terribly well known outside the District or the Phillips Exeter community.
Katelynd Anderson lived next to Dolores Kendrick at the Carrollsburg Condominiums in Southwest D.C. for the past two years. In college, Anderson had read The Women of Plums, but hadn’t made the connection that her next-door neighbor was its author. It wasn’t until about six months after she moved in, when a friend was visiting and recognized Kendrick, that Anderson learned she was living next to D.C.’s poet laureate. “I didn’t know who she was when we met her, until a friend [of mine] came by and met her when we were walking by her door,” Anderson recalls.
As a neighbor and friend, Anderson says “[Kendrick] would always ask what I was reading. She was always interested in what other people were reading. One of the things she always said was ‘What you read defines who you are.’”
Kendrick leaves behind a large legacy of championing D.C.’s literary community. Miller says that she was “very important for this city,” adding that her work should be taught in D.C. schools .“If we have these poets laureate, if I’m a D.C. public school teacher, I should be teaching their work in the classroom,” he says. “When you’re walking down the street and you see [her work], it should mean something.”
“She was very much about community and very much about giving back to younger black poets and black writers,” says Jeffers. “That’s one of the things that I have learned from her stellar example, from the stellar example of her cohort, that you have to be generous. If we have to lose her, at least what a glorious example that she has left for us.”
“I’ve been in Washington for much of my life, and I worked in the school system here,” Kendrick told City Paper in 1999, after being named poet laureate. “I want to make poetry very visible … in this city.”