You may have never noticed it before, but when you walk into the lobby of The Standard, East Village, you’re actually walking into the ground floor of 27 Cooper Square, one of the East Village’s more historic tenement buildings. Built in 1845, the four-story brick building is a landmark of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s, and, once upon a time, it was a hub for iconic Beat writers and visual artists. Maybe the best thing about the building, though, is that one of those writers still lives there on the fourth floor—a tiny 82-year-old woman who goes by the name of Hettie Jones.
Hettie moved into the building in 1962 with her then husband, the writer, poet, playwright, and activist Everett LeRoi Jones, or “Roi,” as his peers and neighbors knew him. Hettie and Roi’s two daughters grew up in the apartment—Lisa, now a writer, and Kellie, an art history professor, curator of black contemporary art, and winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her work diversifying the Western canon.
The building at 27 Cooper Square has seen more than its share of political, activist, and artistic activity. It was here that Hettie wrote her twenty-four books—children’s books, poetry, and memoir—including How I Became Hettie Jones about her and Roi's interracial love story. It was also in their apartment that Roi wrote his seminal 1964 play The Dutchman, in which Clay, a black man, and Lula, a white woman, talk flirtatiously as they sit side by side while riding a train that could be called America. In the apartment, Hettie and Roi founded Totem Press—a small publishing operation where they edited books—and Yugen—a magazine that published Roi’s poetry and the prose of their friends and Beat Generation stars like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Submissions arrived at the kitchen table, and Hettie would piece the magazine together by hand, at night, page by page.
In the mid-ʼ60s, Hettie and Roi's marriage ended. Roi moved uptown to become a leader of the black power struggle, changing his name to Amiri Baraka and leading the Black Arts Movement. Hettie has continued to live in the same little building for 55 years, writing, teaching, and fighting for social and racial equality.
On a recent Friday, Hettie invited Standard Culture into her living room to discuss the art and activism that has filled her life. As you climb the steps to the apartment, it’s easy to imagine the parties for writers, jazz musicians, and activists that once took place here. Having been on the front lines during other traumatic times and having seen real change first-hand, Hettie has a valuable perspective on America’s current political moment. Sure enough, we left inspired by her witness, ready to keep pushing ahead.