Wednesday, November 14, 2007
AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE & CULTURE SOCIETY SYMPOSIUM - DAY 2
DAYBREAK in Saint Louis and we all piled into vans for the quick trip from our former hospital hotel (at my age I still get the willies when I see that my hotel room used to be an intensive care unit) over to the University of Saint Louis main campus for another day of scholarship and fellowship. The morning began with concurrent sessions -- I was chairing a panel featuring Kathy Lou Schultz and Cynthia Davis on poets and the archive.
AT our lunch break, we took a moment to honor society members for their publications in the field and we heard the Lincoln University Vocal Ensemble. (That's Missouri's Lincoln, not Pennsylvania's.) Following an afternoon of intensive critique, speculation, textual illumination and all around elucidation, we reconvened for an evening of poetry and communion. Naomi Long Madgett performed a retrospective reading from her work, sharing an abundance of autobiographical detail in the process. Then Eugene Redmond read, joined at one point by members of the writing workshop he has worked with over the years. Redmond was also the recipient of the Society's Sterling Brown Award. I was asked to provide the introduction for Redmond's reading, and I reproduce that introduction below.
"Neither of the boys understands what’s going on,"
The driver’s wife noted.
"Who does?" the young poet asked himself.
--Eugene Redmond 1968
This is truly how we will know and hear him, Eugene B. Redmond, the poet who wrote these lines, reflecting upon his experiences traveling to the funeral of brother poet Henry Dumas in 1968. But for many among us, this was not how we first knew him. Like others in this room, I first knew of Redmond as the author of Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. I was a student when I came across that invaluable book, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Eugene Redmond simply was my introductory course in the history of black American poetry.
A bit of context is required to make the full significance of that fact clear. I had, of course, been reading black poetry for as long as I’d been reading, and I attended an undergraduate institution, Federal City College, where courses in African American literature and even African American literary criticism were required of all English majors, which is to say that I was the product of an educational apparatus that assumed African American literature as central to any educated person’s core curriculum, rather than viewing it as some late supplement. But even at Federal City College, in those days there were no stand-alone courses in which students read only poetry. So while I was well-versed and well-read, I did not yet have a systematic knowledge of African American poetry’s broad history, nor was I likely to gain such knowledge at any then-available graduate program in English studies. (Yes, I am that old.)
But I also need to underscore the significance of the way that I first came across Drumvoices. I found the paperback edition sitting right there on the shelf in my local chain book store. It had been published as an affordable pocketbook by a mainstream commercial house, Doubleday. Those among us who write such things can only shake our heads in wonder at marvel. Wasn’t that a time? When you could buy a pocketbook of a major scholarly tome from a commercial publisher in a chain store. I had known of Phillis Wheatley; now I would know of Joseph Seamon Cotter. I had read Paul Laurence Dunbar, now I read of Alberry Whitman. The first book of poetry I ever bought with my own money had been The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones; now I would learn of the Umbra poets. So fundamental was Redmond’s book to my enterprise that I was still turning to it decades later as I was writing my own critical histories. And I still send my students to it today, as it remains unsurpassed in its area.
Even when first reading Drumvoices, though, I knew this book had to have been written by a poet. Who else would care enough to devote so much of himself to such a project? Who else should care for poetry so assiduously, if not another poet. The book’s cover affirmed that Redmond was indeed a poet, but it took a bit of digging around in journals to find that poetry. That’s when I learned that the elegiac poet of those lines commemorating Henry Dumas was also the mischievous poet of the "Double Clutch Lover," of whom he wrote: "Her fury and her fire was in her cold-cold fame," a delicately metered line for an uncontrollable lady. Over the years I would come to know of such collections as The Eye in the Ceiling, In a Time of Rain and Desire and so many others. And then there was the day, rummaging about in a dusty Chicago music store, when I finally possessed myself of a copy of Redmond’s legendary seventies record album, Blood Links & Sacred Places, whose "live in the studio vibe," as one reviewer termed it, easily outlasts its cultural moment. Redmond was, and is, a poet possessed of an uncommon ear and an historical sweep. The ear leads him to note, as he does in that poem for Henry Dumas, that "New Yorkers talk differently than East St. Louisans," (though I hasten to note that it was the Washington, D.C. poet of the keyboards, Edward Kennedy Ellington, who brought us the "East Saint Louis Toodle-oo." It’s his dedication to history, and to the history of his friends, that leads Redmond to his care-taking of the literary estate and reputation of the incomparable Henry Dumas, and also leads Redmond, as all of his friends will attest, to compile a photographic record of, well, everything.
It is the historian and poet who will stand before us this evening, but Eugene B. Redmond is also a world class teacher, whose influence may still be felt in places as far-flung as Sacramento and Southern Illinois. In addition to the award he will receive tonight, Eugene Redmond has been honored by the NEA, the Pan-African Movement USA, the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award. But in the end, as in the beginning, Eugene B. Redmond will always be known among us as our leading drum voice.