Dolores Kendrick, a teacher and poet who channeled the voices of female slaves in her writing and advocated for an expansive role of poetry in public life, organizing festivals and youth programs in her nearly two decades as Washington’s poet laureate, died Nov. 7 at her home in the District. She was 90 and had just completed the manuscript of her latest book, a collection of new and selected poems titled “Rainbow on Fire.”
The cause was complications from cancer, said a niece, Jeri Roysner.
Ms. Kendrick was little known outside of Washington and the classrooms of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where for 21 years she taught students not to “kill” poems by overanalyzing them.
Yet in five books of lyrical, frequently conversational poetry, she established herself as what Joanne Gabbin, founder of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, described as “the poet’s poet”: a friend and favorite of African American writers such as Michael S. Harper, Rita Dove and James Baldwin, with whom she dined in Paris and hosted at Exeter.
“Dolores Kendrick is one of the important writers of our times,” another friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, told the Washington Times in 1999. “Her work is careful, accessible, warmly aggressive. She is a passionate poet, but always manages control, avoiding sloppy emotion.”
As Ms. Kendrick put it, her writing was akin to “concentrated orange juice” — an occasionally tart distillation of argument and emotion that she began cultivating as a teenager, when a teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington criticized her prose style as flowery and excessive.
Her reputation rested largely on “The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women,” a 1989 volume that won the Anisfield-Wolfe Award for books that address racism or the diversity of human cultures. Written while Ms. Kendrick was teaching at Exeter, consumed by a history of black women in America and suffering a bout of insomnia, the book chronicled 34 slave women from the era of the Middle Passage to the years after the Civil War.
“Still, Carrie, be still, child. Don’t cry,” Ms. Kendrick wrote in “Hattie on the Block,” about a mother and daughter who are nearly separated as they’re sold into slavery:
See. They finished the biddin’. Money
be paid. We’s together, God heard my
haltin’ words through the ears of these
deafened people; you an’ me from this strange
pulpit. Look lively, child. We be sold,
but we ain’t bought.
The book drew from oral histories and historical accounts such as those of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave whose story inspired Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” two years earlier, and was adapted into an opera and theatrical productions that were performed at the Kennedy Center and, in 2016, at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington. An album based on some of the poems, “The Color of Dusk,” was released by Baltimore-born composer Wall Matthews and singer Aleta Greene in 1996.
Still, Ms. Kendrick remained little known in her home town until D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams appointed her poet laureate in 1999, triggering a resurgence of interest in her life and work. The position had been vacant for a decade following the death of poet Sterling Brown, who had been named the city’s first poet laureate in 1984.
Ms. Kendrick “elevated her position,” said Washington poet E. Ethelbert Miller, an early champion of her work. “Dolores could piss people off, insisting that if you were a writer, you get paid and you get treated a certain way,” but she was also “the first lady of poetry” in the District, he said.
Taking the title of laureate only on the condition that she be given an office in which to organize programming and events, Ms. Kendrick created an annual award series for young poets and a summer poetry festival for high school students in the District.
Initially appointed to a three-year term, Ms. Kendrick served as poet laureate until her death, long enough to see her poems engraved on statues at the NoMa-Gallaudet University Metro station and outside the downtown restaurant Zaytinya.
“I don’t believe poetry should be a solitary intellectual adventure,” she told The Washington Post in 2011. “It should be a relationship with people, it should forge a connection. Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”
Dolores Teresa Kendrick was born in Washington on Sept. 7, 1927, and raised in the LeDroit Park neighborhood near Howard University. Her father, publisher Robert “Ike” Kendrick, founded the Capitol Spotlight, a popular black weekly newspaper in the District, and her mother was a music teacher.
Ms. Kendrick studied English at Miner Teachers College, a blacks-only institution that later became part of the University of the District of Columbia, and graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in teaching in 1970.
She taught at D.C. public schools for nearly 20 years, helping establish the progressive School Without Walls program, before moving to Exeter soon after receiving her master’s degree. She received Fulbright and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships while publishing her first books of poetry, “Through the Ceiling” (1975) and “Now Is the Thing to Praise” (1984), and said she decided to retire when poems began coming to her in the middle of classes.
Ms. Kendrick released “Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative,” a poetic saga about a homeless woman, in 2001.
She leaves no immediate survivors — getting married, she said, would have infringed on her writing and teaching — and in recent years seemed wistful about the changes in her home town.
“I suppose the Washington that exists today had to come,” she told The Post in 2011. “The old Washington was segregationist and racist to the point where we couldn’t go downtown to get a hot dog. Our parents would fix us meals before we left so we would not have to endure that indignity. . . . But integration also brought its own problems. The black community somewhat disintegrated, and the seasons changed. It is a very different time, now.”