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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Eugene Redmond's Drumvoices


 

The Critical Importance of Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices

 

After approximately two decades of being the scapegoat for those writers and critics who blamed its participants for all that was wrong with African American cultural and political nationalism, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is being recognized again as a crucial period in the growth of twentieth-century African American literature. For those of us who participated in BAM and in making assertions that we did not have to depend on non-blacks to authenticate and legitimize what we chose to call art, the value of the period has never been in question.  Nevertheless, periods of artistic growth seem always to be linked to specific motives or missions, silent or brashly articulated agendas for change.  Studies of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, provide evidence of how knotted and even contradictory those agendas can be, and studies of African American literature from 1930 to 1960 further reveal patterns of continuity and change in relation to political and social activities which themselves change slowly or with dramatic speed.  Read through a windowpane of change, Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices has invaluable critical importance. For those who know little about African American poetry, the book provides a generous overview of developments from the eighteenth century to 1976.  For those who assume they know a great deal about the poetry, it is necessary reminder that they may have forgot small but crucial details which can lead to the discovery of new facts.

 Blamed for displacing art with propaganda, for promoting sexism and essentialist discussions of the Black Aesthetic, and for delaying African American literature’s entry into the Vatican of the American Canon, the Black Arts Movement has begun now to re-emerge as a “legitimate” area for academic work.  At the risk of overstating the point, I suggest that critical formations by people who are simultaneously writers and critics (and not enslaved by the rules of the academic world) are significantly different from formations by critical thinkers (who may also be writers) who worry greatly about winning the approval of their academic peers.[1] Critics and writers who participated in literary and cultural work from 1960 to 1974 were little bothered by what is currently termed  “academic legitimacy,” although they were not ignorant of the need to provide substantial evidence to be used a general public and by teachers and students, especially those in what were then emerging Black Studies programs.   They were aware of a dual focus, of fighting battles on two fronts simultaneously.

On the other hand,  career-oriented scholars who cared more about their own investments and legitimacy within  institutions of American higher education were much annoyed by literary discussions and interpretations based on” race and superstructure” which challenged formal, structural,   or New Critical approaches to literary study.  They feared that attention to the vexed matter of race and to the dimensions of cultural production detracted from the obligation to speak of aesthetic values in literature, values that could be deemed universal.  Their quarrel with the ideologies of the Black Arts Movement was represented at the beginning of the 1980s in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association, 1979), edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto.  Most recently, one finds the residual traces of their quarrel in Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction to Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).  Against the dramatic background of such prevailing contention, Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices (1976) stands as a corrective for scholarly aberrations. Simple or deliberate “forgetting” is an aberration in need of constant monitoring.

 Lorenzo Thomas, one of the most brilliant thinkers who emerged from BAM, paid a generous compliment to James Edward Smethurst’s  study The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005).  In his blurb for the book, Thomas asserted: “Smethurst gets it right! His thorough research and astute analysis overcome two decades of deliberate critical misrepresentation to help us examine a tumultuous era when visionary leadership and nationwide grassroots participation created a dynamic, paradigm-changing cultural renaissance” (back cover of The Black Arts Movement….). Howard Rambsy II’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011), which focuses more specifically on issues of cultural production, received a discerning compliment from Smethurst: “Rambsy’s sharp analysis of the material production of Black Arts poetry, supported by an extraordinarily sensitive attention to significant historical and textual detail, greatly advance our knowledge of the Black Arts Movement “(back cover of The Black Arts Enterprise….).  The books by Smethurst and Rambsy are harbingers of the vast amount of work to be done in a future on fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction of the BAM period. So too is Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (2005) by Julius E. Thompson, a model for empirical research and thoughtful documentation.  A great amount of “getting-it-right” work remains to be done.  A small part of that work must be examinations of seminal texts published between 1960 and 1980. We gain a sense of the complexity of a period through the study of its seminal documents.          

Two of the most seminal texts on poetry are Stephen E. Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973) and Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976). This lecture concentrates on Redmond’s book, because I believe it is less well-known than Henderson’s theoretically informed anthology, and it is a compelling model of the investigation and documentation that must always serve as a foundation for African American literary histories. Unlike Henderson’s efforts to provide theoretical grounding for examinations of new black poetry of the 1960s, Redmond used his considerable knowledge about the unfolding of poetry in general  to provide a kind of “practical” grounding for understanding the multiple ingredients that made (and continue to make) the whole body of black poetry significantly different from other poetries.

Redmond’s approach was much dependent on informed curiosity (intuition). He undertook his work in the spirit of picaresque adventure.  His curiosity involved a substantial amount of field work ----traveling, meeting poets, doing informal  ethnography, writing up his findings with greater regard for completeness (telling a whole story)  than for filtering  the good from the bad .  It took Redmond approximately eight years to complete his field work, and it is rather unlikely that any of our young, contemporary

scholars have the stamina or funding to do such on-the-scene investigation of   poetry produced after 1976. The physical and financial expenses for such an undertaking are daunting.  In this sense, his work is an example of dedicated surveying that is still valuable and necessary for the later work of sorting, classifying, and making canonical judgments.

The structure of Drumvoices is what one might expect: a chronological discussion of poets and poetry over seven chapters with a bibliographic index that, forty years ago, would have been considered cutting-edge for its inclusion of items beyond the expected print materials (general research aids, periodicals, anthologies, literary history and criticism, works on folklore and language).  “Occasionally, chronology is violated,” Redmond explained, “since any time barrier is, by definition, arbitrary” (xiii).  Of course, thematic aspects of any poetry lack chronological regularity, and it was only appropriate that Redmond endeavored to account for thematic recurrence.  His bibliographical index also included a discography and tape subset of relevant materials.  That portion of the index is important as evidence that supplementing the visual (print) with the audible in 1976 was important for reasons that differ somewhat from the interest in the twenty-first century in the spoken word and performance poetry and mixed forms involving music.  Today, sound is often the end in itself. In 1976, sound was more a means to achieve an end.

Interest in sound is as old as poetry itself.  As a poet and critical thinker who had a special interest in the power of sound in the various ways poetry was produced and used in African American cultures, Redmond did what any literary historian would do. He dealt with the obvious historical necessity of oral forms (orality) for transmitting African poetic traditions in the New World. His attention to sound , of course, alerted his most astute readers to the difficulty of representing sound in print, and it served as a reminder that authentic representation of black folk  speech was part of the debate James Weldon Johnson and others created in the 1920s about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s use of dialect versus standard English; it was part of what drove Sterling Brown to be quite exacting in his rendering of dialect and inspired Langston Hughes to embrace the blues and ordinary speaking as markers for authenticity. [2]

 

The title Drumvoices itself gives privilege to instrumentality, to the voice as drum, song, and dance (gesture). Thus, the idea of poetry as a tool for creative expression is prominent in Redmond’s treatment of history.  It is a sharp reminder that the origins of the poetry are located in the oral and in the written, that the two modes are Siamese twins which cannot be separated from one another. Reading his book is to some degree a participation in his gestures of recovering how black poetry came to be what it is.

In setting for himself the task of exploring the “complex storehouse of folk materials and themes” and “the chronological development of black poetry --- from about 1746 to the present [1976],” (2) Redmond undertook a difficult job.  As Darwin T. Turner reminded us in 1971, “although the study of Afro-American literature is not as old as the material itself, it is not significantly younger than the formal study of American literature, which has earned academic respectability in this country [the United States] only within the past eighty years.  Two years before the end of the Civil War, William Wells Brown, a former slave, described the achievement of early Afro-American writers in The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and by 1915, the words of black writers were being read, memorized, recited, studied, and revered by black students in the schools into which blacks were segregated…….In short, long before some of today’s teachers were born, black American literature had been read, taught, and, too often, forgotten” (4-5) [3] Redmond’s difficult task was to rectify the forgetting and to improve our options for remembering.

As I have previously hinted, participating in Redmond’s gestures of recovery can free us from the widely broadcast delusion that Black Arts Movement critics were guilty of crimes against the liberal study of African American literature.  They were not.  While it is intellectually legitimate to disagree with their quirks, ideologies, and artistic choices, it is cheap and mean-spirited to accuse them of being destroyers.  Indeed, without the dedicated scholarship of Eugene Redmond and others of his generation, the smoke of deconstruction would have us sit in darkness.

In his first chapter, “Black Poetry: Views, Visions, Conflicts,” Redmond carefully itemized specific problems:

·         In the study of black poetry, one must deal with “substantive background materials: the deepest philosophical, religious, ethical, artistic, and aesthetic tenets of black life and expression.”  Thus, one examines “the scope and range of black poetry via folk origins, methods of delivery, language, phonology, religiosity, racial character, recurring themes, individual and group identity, and poetic devices as they are developed indigenously or borrowed from other traditions” (2)

·         What is named “the black experience is complex and frustrating,” and it can only be defined through a process of endless questioning (3)

·         Poets are not in agreement about what black poetry is.  Writers who ask am I a poet first and then Black, or am I Black and then a poet will find themselves entrapped “in ideological and political prisons” (6)

·         Students of black poetry should arm themselves with “the tools of criticism and a knowledge of black culture,” including the deceptive playfulness of black humor, and knowledge of what black artists, scholars, and activists are debating (10-11)

·         Literary hustlers do exist.  One must not assume “that just because a statement is ‘relevant,’ it is poetry!” and one must realize “that the black experience is not monolithic ---although recurring trends and broad implications do exist in the areas of language, religion, humor, dance, music, and general life style” (13)

·         Students of black poetry are obligated to give attention to “the craft of poetry –hows and whys of poetry, and temper overmuch enthusiasm for the sociological aspects of the poetry (14)

Redmond is not to be accused of making strident demands that we abandon traditions; he is guilty of asking for a nuanced balance of tradition with what we might call an ethnic-positive interest in the cultural productions of one’s people. That is a crime of which anyone who makes a rigorous study of the history of African American poetry can be proud to be accused.

                In Chapter II “The Black and Unknown Bards,” Chapter III “African Voice in Eclipse (?): Imitation and Agitation (1746-1865), Chapter IV “Jubilees, Jujus, and Justices (1865-1910), Chapter V “A Long Ways from Home” (1910-1960) and Chapter VI “Festivals and Funerals: Black Poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, Redmond provides the richest kind of historical description.  He weaves verifiable facts about the creation and publication of poetry with his often surprising commentaries on such well-known poets as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Melvin B. Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden and on such unknown bards as Albery Allson Whitman, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., Owen Dodson, Leslie Pinckney Hill, N. J. Loftis, Sam Cornish, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Conrad Kent Rivers.  These unknown bards are not completely unknown.  They, like the hundreds of poets Redmond identifies by name and geographical location, are simply not prime candidates for inclusion in the canon.  Despite his being an accomplished poet whose work is highly valued among non-academic audiences, Redmond himself has not been chosen for sainthood in either the Norton Anthology of African American Literature or Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition.  Fortunately, his importance is noted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature.

                Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History is a unique contribution to the study of African American poetry, a work of inspired scholarship that guides us into knowing in great detail who spoke or wrote African American poetry from 1746 to 1976.[4]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] In an interview with Howard Rambsy II on March 6, 2010, Eugene Redmond intimates that his writing of Drumvoices was not a self-conscious academic enterprise; there were many iterations of Drumvoices before it was published as a book. Redmond was very curious about discovering what philosophy and aesthetics might undergird black poetry, and he was convinced that being black did not guarantee that one would write “black poetry.”  Redmond proudly says that he met all of the people he mentions in the book who were alive between 1968 and 1976.  I am grateful to Rambsy for sharing this information with me in an email, dated March 2, 2013, with an eleven minute segment of the interview.
[2] An enlightening discussion of language, folk art and high (canonized) art is Bernard W. Bell’s The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974). The third volume in the Broadside Critics Series, Bell’s book argued that the folk ideology of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was germane for understanding some of the issues Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement writers and critics were obligated to engage. What alarmed James Weldon Johnson was the misrepresentation of black speech by the use of dialect that consisted of “mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation”; what he championed was a form that would be “freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment” (Johnson, “Preface” The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1922. Rtp. 1959. 41-42.)
[3] Turner, Darwin T. and Barbara Dodds Stanford. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Literature by Afro-Americans. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971.
[4] Since 1976, Redmond has continued to document the development of African American poetry through his publication of works by and interviews with poets in his magazine Drumvoices Revue. He has also produced an extensive body of visual documentation, approximately 100,000 photographs. See Howard Rambsy II, “Eugene B. Redmond, The Critical Cultural Witness,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011): 69-89.

 

The Critical Importance of Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices

 

After approximately two decades of being the scapegoat for those writers and critics who blamed its participants for all that was wrong with African American cultural and political nationalism, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is being recognized again as a crucial period in the growth of twentieth-century African American literature. For those of us who participated in BAM and in making assertions that we did not have to depend on non-blacks to authenticate and legitimize what we chose to call art, the value of the period has never been in question.  Nevertheless, periods of artistic growth seem always to be linked to specific motives or missions, silent or brashly articulated agendas for change.  Studies of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, provide evidence of how knotted and even contradictory those agendas can be, and studies of African American literature from 1930 to 1960 further reveal patterns of continuity and change in relation to political and social activities which themselves change slowly or with dramatic speed.  Read through a windowpane of change, Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices has invaluable critical importance. For those who know little about African American poetry, the book provides a generous overview of developments from the eighteenth century to 1976.  For those who assume they know a great deal about the poetry, it is necessary reminder that they may have forgot small but crucial details which can lead to the discovery of new facts.

 Blamed for displacing art with propaganda, for promoting sexism and essentialist discussions of the Black Aesthetic, and for delaying African American literature’s entry into the Vatican of the American Canon, the Black Arts Movement has begun now to re-emerge as a “legitimate” area for academic work.  At the risk of overstating the point, I suggest that critical formations by people who are simultaneously writers and critics (and not enslaved by the rules of the academic world) are significantly different from formations by critical thinkers (who may also be writers) who worry greatly about winning the approval of their academic peers.[1] Critics and writers who participated in literary and cultural work from 1960 to 1974 were little bothered by what is currently termed  “academic legitimacy,” although they were not ignorant of the need to provide substantial evidence to be used a general public and by teachers and students, especially those in what were then emerging Black Studies programs.   They were aware of a dual focus, of fighting battles on two fronts simultaneously.

On the other hand,  career-oriented scholars who cared more about their own investments and legitimacy within  institutions of American higher education were much annoyed by literary discussions and interpretations based on” race and superstructure” which challenged formal, structural,   or New Critical approaches to literary study.  They feared that attention to the vexed matter of race and to the dimensions of cultural production detracted from the obligation to speak of aesthetic values in literature, values that could be deemed universal.  Their quarrel with the ideologies of the Black Arts Movement was represented at the beginning of the 1980s in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association, 1979), edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto.  Most recently, one finds the residual traces of their quarrel in Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction to Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).  Against the dramatic background of such prevailing contention, Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices (1976) stands as a corrective for scholarly aberrations. Simple or deliberate “forgetting” is an aberration in need of constant monitoring.

 Lorenzo Thomas, one of the most brilliant thinkers who emerged from BAM, paid a generous compliment to James Edward Smethurst’s  study The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005).  In his blurb for the book, Thomas asserted: “Smethurst gets it right! His thorough research and astute analysis overcome two decades of deliberate critical misrepresentation to help us examine a tumultuous era when visionary leadership and nationwide grassroots participation created a dynamic, paradigm-changing cultural renaissance” (back cover of The Black Arts Movement….). Howard Rambsy II’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011), which focuses more specifically on issues of cultural production, received a discerning compliment from Smethurst: “Rambsy’s sharp analysis of the material production of Black Arts poetry, supported by an extraordinarily sensitive attention to significant historical and textual detail, greatly advance our knowledge of the Black Arts Movement “(back cover of The Black Arts Enterprise….).  The books by Smethurst and Rambsy are harbingers of the vast amount of work to be done in a future on fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction of the BAM period. So too is Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (2005) by Julius E. Thompson, a model for empirical research and thoughtful documentation.  A great amount of “getting-it-right” work remains to be done.  A small part of that work must be examinations of seminal texts published between 1960 and 1980. We gain a sense of the complexity of a period through the study of its seminal documents.          

Two of the most seminal texts on poetry are Stephen E. Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973) and Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976). This lecture concentrates on Redmond’s book, because I believe it is less well-known than Henderson’s theoretically informed anthology, and it is a compelling model of the investigation and documentation that must always serve as a foundation for African American literary histories. Unlike Henderson’s efforts to provide theoretical grounding for examinations of new black poetry of the 1960s, Redmond used his considerable knowledge about the unfolding of poetry in general  to provide a kind of “practical” grounding for understanding the multiple ingredients that made (and continue to make) the whole body of black poetry significantly different from other poetries.

Redmond’s approach was much dependent on informed curiosity (intuition). He undertook his work in the spirit of picaresque adventure.  His curiosity involved a substantial amount of field work ----traveling, meeting poets, doing informal  ethnography, writing up his findings with greater regard for completeness (telling a whole story)  than for filtering  the good from the bad .  It took Redmond approximately eight years to complete his field work, and it is rather unlikely that any of our young, contemporary

scholars have the stamina or funding to do such on-the-scene investigation of   poetry produced after 1976. The physical and financial expenses for such an undertaking are daunting.  In this sense, his work is an example of dedicated surveying that is still valuable and necessary for the later work of sorting, classifying, and making canonical judgments.

The structure of Drumvoices is what one might expect: a chronological discussion of poets and poetry over seven chapters with a bibliographic index that, forty years ago, would have been considered cutting-edge for its inclusion of items beyond the expected print materials (general research aids, periodicals, anthologies, literary history and criticism, works on folklore and language).  “Occasionally, chronology is violated,” Redmond explained, “since any time barrier is, by definition, arbitrary” (xiii).  Of course, thematic aspects of any poetry lack chronological regularity, and it was only appropriate that Redmond endeavored to account for thematic recurrence.  His bibliographical index also included a discography and tape subset of relevant materials.  That portion of the index is important as evidence that supplementing the visual (print) with the audible in 1976 was important for reasons that differ somewhat from the interest in the twenty-first century in the spoken word and performance poetry and mixed forms involving music.  Today, sound is often the end in itself. In 1976, sound was more a means to achieve an end.

Interest in sound is as old as poetry itself.  As a poet and critical thinker who had a special interest in the power of sound in the various ways poetry was produced and used in African American cultures, Redmond did what any literary historian would do. He dealt with the obvious historical necessity of oral forms (orality) for transmitting African poetic traditions in the New World. His attention to sound , of course, alerted his most astute readers to the difficulty of representing sound in print, and it served as a reminder that authentic representation of black folk  speech was part of the debate James Weldon Johnson and others created in the 1920s about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s use of dialect versus standard English; it was part of what drove Sterling Brown to be quite exacting in his rendering of dialect and inspired Langston Hughes to embrace the blues and ordinary speaking as markers for authenticity. [2]

 

The title Drumvoices itself gives privilege to instrumentality, to the voice as drum, song, and dance (gesture). Thus, the idea of poetry as a tool for creative expression is prominent in Redmond’s treatment of history.  It is a sharp reminder that the origins of the poetry are located in the oral and in the written, that the two modes are Siamese twins which cannot be separated from one another. Reading his book is to some degree a participation in his gestures of recovering how black poetry came to be what it is.

In setting for himself the task of exploring the “complex storehouse of folk materials and themes” and “the chronological development of black poetry --- from about 1746 to the present [1976],” (2) Redmond undertook a difficult job.  As Darwin T. Turner reminded us in 1971, “although the study of Afro-American literature is not as old as the material itself, it is not significantly younger than the formal study of American literature, which has earned academic respectability in this country [the United States] only within the past eighty years.  Two years before the end of the Civil War, William Wells Brown, a former slave, described the achievement of early Afro-American writers in The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and by 1915, the words of black writers were being read, memorized, recited, studied, and revered by black students in the schools into which blacks were segregated…….In short, long before some of today’s teachers were born, black American literature had been read, taught, and, too often, forgotten” (4-5) [3] Redmond’s difficult task was to rectify the forgetting and to improve our options for remembering.

As I have previously hinted, participating in Redmond’s gestures of recovery can free us from the widely broadcast delusion that Black Arts Movement critics were guilty of crimes against the liberal study of African American literature.  They were not.  While it is intellectually legitimate to disagree with their quirks, ideologies, and artistic choices, it is cheap and mean-spirited to accuse them of being destroyers.  Indeed, without the dedicated scholarship of Eugene Redmond and others of his generation, the smoke of deconstruction would have us sit in darkness.

In his first chapter, “Black Poetry: Views, Visions, Conflicts,” Redmond carefully itemized specific problems:

·         In the study of black poetry, one must deal with “substantive background materials: the deepest philosophical, religious, ethical, artistic, and aesthetic tenets of black life and expression.”  Thus, one examines “the scope and range of black poetry via folk origins, methods of delivery, language, phonology, religiosity, racial character, recurring themes, individual and group identity, and poetic devices as they are developed indigenously or borrowed from other traditions” (2)

·         What is named “the black experience is complex and frustrating,” and it can only be defined through a process of endless questioning (3)

·         Poets are not in agreement about what black poetry is.  Writers who ask am I a poet first and then Black, or am I Black and then a poet will find themselves entrapped “in ideological and political prisons” (6)

·         Students of black poetry should arm themselves with “the tools of criticism and a knowledge of black culture,” including the deceptive playfulness of black humor, and knowledge of what black artists, scholars, and activists are debating (10-11)

·         Literary hustlers do exist.  One must not assume “that just because a statement is ‘relevant,’ it is poetry!” and one must realize “that the black experience is not monolithic ---although recurring trends and broad implications do exist in the areas of language, religion, humor, dance, music, and general life style” (13)

·         Students of black poetry are obligated to give attention to “the craft of poetry –hows and whys of poetry, and temper overmuch enthusiasm for the sociological aspects of the poetry (14)

Redmond is not to be accused of making strident demands that we abandon traditions; he is guilty of asking for a nuanced balance of tradition with what we might call an ethnic-positive interest in the cultural productions of one’s people. That is a crime of which anyone who makes a rigorous study of the history of African American poetry can be proud to be accused.

                In Chapter II “The Black and Unknown Bards,” Chapter III “African Voice in Eclipse (?): Imitation and Agitation (1746-1865), Chapter IV “Jubilees, Jujus, and Justices (1865-1910), Chapter V “A Long Ways from Home” (1910-1960) and Chapter VI “Festivals and Funerals: Black Poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, Redmond provides the richest kind of historical description.  He weaves verifiable facts about the creation and publication of poetry with his often surprising commentaries on such well-known poets as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Melvin B. Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden and on such unknown bards as Albery Allson Whitman, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., Owen Dodson, Leslie Pinckney Hill, N. J. Loftis, Sam Cornish, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Conrad Kent Rivers.  These unknown bards are not completely unknown.  They, like the hundreds of poets Redmond identifies by name and geographical location, are simply not prime candidates for inclusion in the canon.  Despite his being an accomplished poet whose work is highly valued among non-academic audiences, Redmond himself has not been chosen for sainthood in either the Norton Anthology of African American Literature or Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition.  Fortunately, his importance is noted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature.

                Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History is a unique contribution to the study of African American poetry, a work of inspired scholarship that guides us into knowing in great detail who spoke or wrote African American poetry from 1746 to 1976.[4]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] In an interview with Howard Rambsy II on March 6, 2010, Eugene Redmond intimates that his writing of Drumvoices was not a self-conscious academic enterprise; there were many iterations of Drumvoices before it was published as a book. Redmond was very curious about discovering what philosophy and aesthetics might undergird black poetry, and he was convinced that being black did not guarantee that one would write “black poetry.”  Redmond proudly says that he met all of the people he mentions in the book who were alive between 1968 and 1976.  I am grateful to Rambsy for sharing this information with me in an email, dated March 2, 2013, with an eleven minute segment of the interview.
[2] An enlightening discussion of language, folk art and high (canonized) art is Bernard W. Bell’s The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974). The third volume in the Broadside Critics Series, Bell’s book argued that the folk ideology of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was germane for understanding some of the issues Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement writers and critics were obligated to engage. What alarmed James Weldon Johnson was the misrepresentation of black speech by the use of dialect that consisted of “mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation”; what he championed was a form that would be “freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment” (Johnson, “Preface” The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1922. Rtp. 1959. 41-42.)
[3] Turner, Darwin T. and Barbara Dodds Stanford. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Literature by Afro-Americans. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971.
[4] Since 1976, Redmond has continued to document the development of African American poetry through his publication of works by and interviews with poets in his magazine Drumvoices Revue. He has also produced an extensive body of visual documentation, approximately 100,000 photographs. See Howard Rambsy II, “Eugene B. Redmond, The Critical Cultural Witness,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011): 69-89.

 

The Critical Importance of Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices

 

After approximately two decades of being the scapegoat for those writers and critics who blamed its participants for all that was wrong with African American cultural and political nationalism, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is being recognized again as a crucial period in the growth of twentieth-century African American literature. For those of us who participated in BAM and in making assertions that we did not have to depend on non-blacks to authenticate and legitimize what we chose to call art, the value of the period has never been in question.  Nevertheless, periods of artistic growth seem always to be linked to specific motives or missions, silent or brashly articulated agendas for change.  Studies of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, provide evidence of how knotted and even contradictory those agendas can be, and studies of African American literature from 1930 to 1960 further reveal patterns of continuity and change in relation to political and social activities which themselves change slowly or with dramatic speed.  Read through a windowpane of change, Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices has invaluable critical importance. For those who know little about African American poetry, the book provides a generous overview of developments from the eighteenth century to 1976.  For those who assume they know a great deal about the poetry, it is necessary reminder that they may have forgot small but crucial details which can lead to the discovery of new facts.

 Blamed for displacing art with propaganda, for promoting sexism and essentialist discussions of the Black Aesthetic, and for delaying African American literature’s entry into the Vatican of the American Canon, the Black Arts Movement has begun now to re-emerge as a “legitimate” area for academic work.  At the risk of overstating the point, I suggest that critical formations by people who are simultaneously writers and critics (and not enslaved by the rules of the academic world) are significantly different from formations by critical thinkers (who may also be writers) who worry greatly about winning the approval of their academic peers.[1] Critics and writers who participated in literary and cultural work from 1960 to 1974 were little bothered by what is currently termed  “academic legitimacy,” although they were not ignorant of the need to provide substantial evidence to be used a general public and by teachers and students, especially those in what were then emerging Black Studies programs.   They were aware of a dual focus, of fighting battles on two fronts simultaneously.

On the other hand,  career-oriented scholars who cared more about their own investments and legitimacy within  institutions of American higher education were much annoyed by literary discussions and interpretations based on” race and superstructure” which challenged formal, structural,   or New Critical approaches to literary study.  They feared that attention to the vexed matter of race and to the dimensions of cultural production detracted from the obligation to speak of aesthetic values in literature, values that could be deemed universal.  Their quarrel with the ideologies of the Black Arts Movement was represented at the beginning of the 1980s in Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association, 1979), edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto.  Most recently, one finds the residual traces of their quarrel in Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction to Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).  Against the dramatic background of such prevailing contention, Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices (1976) stands as a corrective for scholarly aberrations. Simple or deliberate “forgetting” is an aberration in need of constant monitoring.

 Lorenzo Thomas, one of the most brilliant thinkers who emerged from BAM, paid a generous compliment to James Edward Smethurst’s  study The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005).  In his blurb for the book, Thomas asserted: “Smethurst gets it right! His thorough research and astute analysis overcome two decades of deliberate critical misrepresentation to help us examine a tumultuous era when visionary leadership and nationwide grassroots participation created a dynamic, paradigm-changing cultural renaissance” (back cover of The Black Arts Movement….). Howard Rambsy II’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011), which focuses more specifically on issues of cultural production, received a discerning compliment from Smethurst: “Rambsy’s sharp analysis of the material production of Black Arts poetry, supported by an extraordinarily sensitive attention to significant historical and textual detail, greatly advance our knowledge of the Black Arts Movement “(back cover of The Black Arts Enterprise….).  The books by Smethurst and Rambsy are harbingers of the vast amount of work to be done in a future on fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction of the BAM period. So too is Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (2005) by Julius E. Thompson, a model for empirical research and thoughtful documentation.  A great amount of “getting-it-right” work remains to be done.  A small part of that work must be examinations of seminal texts published between 1960 and 1980. We gain a sense of the complexity of a period through the study of its seminal documents.          

Two of the most seminal texts on poetry are Stephen E. Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973) and Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976). This lecture concentrates on Redmond’s book, because I believe it is less well-known than Henderson’s theoretically informed anthology, and it is a compelling model of the investigation and documentation that must always serve as a foundation for African American literary histories. Unlike Henderson’s efforts to provide theoretical grounding for examinations of new black poetry of the 1960s, Redmond used his considerable knowledge about the unfolding of poetry in general  to provide a kind of “practical” grounding for understanding the multiple ingredients that made (and continue to make) the whole body of black poetry significantly different from other poetries.

Redmond’s approach was much dependent on informed curiosity (intuition). He undertook his work in the spirit of picaresque adventure.  His curiosity involved a substantial amount of field work ----traveling, meeting poets, doing informal  ethnography, writing up his findings with greater regard for completeness (telling a whole story)  than for filtering  the good from the bad .  It took Redmond approximately eight years to complete his field work, and it is rather unlikely that any of our young, contemporary

scholars have the stamina or funding to do such on-the-scene investigation of   poetry produced after 1976. The physical and financial expenses for such an undertaking are daunting.  In this sense, his work is an example of dedicated surveying that is still valuable and necessary for the later work of sorting, classifying, and making canonical judgments.

The structure of Drumvoices is what one might expect: a chronological discussion of poets and poetry over seven chapters with a bibliographic index that, forty years ago, would have been considered cutting-edge for its inclusion of items beyond the expected print materials (general research aids, periodicals, anthologies, literary history and criticism, works on folklore and language).  “Occasionally, chronology is violated,” Redmond explained, “since any time barrier is, by definition, arbitrary” (xiii).  Of course, thematic aspects of any poetry lack chronological regularity, and it was only appropriate that Redmond endeavored to account for thematic recurrence.  His bibliographical index also included a discography and tape subset of relevant materials.  That portion of the index is important as evidence that supplementing the visual (print) with the audible in 1976 was important for reasons that differ somewhat from the interest in the twenty-first century in the spoken word and performance poetry and mixed forms involving music.  Today, sound is often the end in itself. In 1976, sound was more a means to achieve an end.

Interest in sound is as old as poetry itself.  As a poet and critical thinker who had a special interest in the power of sound in the various ways poetry was produced and used in African American cultures, Redmond did what any literary historian would do. He dealt with the obvious historical necessity of oral forms (orality) for transmitting African poetic traditions in the New World. His attention to sound , of course, alerted his most astute readers to the difficulty of representing sound in print, and it served as a reminder that authentic representation of black folk  speech was part of the debate James Weldon Johnson and others created in the 1920s about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s use of dialect versus standard English; it was part of what drove Sterling Brown to be quite exacting in his rendering of dialect and inspired Langston Hughes to embrace the blues and ordinary speaking as markers for authenticity. [2]

 

The title Drumvoices itself gives privilege to instrumentality, to the voice as drum, song, and dance (gesture). Thus, the idea of poetry as a tool for creative expression is prominent in Redmond’s treatment of history.  It is a sharp reminder that the origins of the poetry are located in the oral and in the written, that the two modes are Siamese twins which cannot be separated from one another. Reading his book is to some degree a participation in his gestures of recovering how black poetry came to be what it is.

In setting for himself the task of exploring the “complex storehouse of folk materials and themes” and “the chronological development of black poetry --- from about 1746 to the present [1976],” (2) Redmond undertook a difficult job.  As Darwin T. Turner reminded us in 1971, “although the study of Afro-American literature is not as old as the material itself, it is not significantly younger than the formal study of American literature, which has earned academic respectability in this country [the United States] only within the past eighty years.  Two years before the end of the Civil War, William Wells Brown, a former slave, described the achievement of early Afro-American writers in The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and by 1915, the words of black writers were being read, memorized, recited, studied, and revered by black students in the schools into which blacks were segregated…….In short, long before some of today’s teachers were born, black American literature had been read, taught, and, too often, forgotten” (4-5) [3] Redmond’s difficult task was to rectify the forgetting and to improve our options for remembering.

As I have previously hinted, participating in Redmond’s gestures of recovery can free us from the widely broadcast delusion that Black Arts Movement critics were guilty of crimes against the liberal study of African American literature.  They were not.  While it is intellectually legitimate to disagree with their quirks, ideologies, and artistic choices, it is cheap and mean-spirited to accuse them of being destroyers.  Indeed, without the dedicated scholarship of Eugene Redmond and others of his generation, the smoke of deconstruction would have us sit in darkness.

In his first chapter, “Black Poetry: Views, Visions, Conflicts,” Redmond carefully itemized specific problems:

·         In the study of black poetry, one must deal with “substantive background materials: the deepest philosophical, religious, ethical, artistic, and aesthetic tenets of black life and expression.”  Thus, one examines “the scope and range of black poetry via folk origins, methods of delivery, language, phonology, religiosity, racial character, recurring themes, individual and group identity, and poetic devices as they are developed indigenously or borrowed from other traditions” (2)

·         What is named “the black experience is complex and frustrating,” and it can only be defined through a process of endless questioning (3)

·         Poets are not in agreement about what black poetry is.  Writers who ask am I a poet first and then Black, or am I Black and then a poet will find themselves entrapped “in ideological and political prisons” (6)

·         Students of black poetry should arm themselves with “the tools of criticism and a knowledge of black culture,” including the deceptive playfulness of black humor, and knowledge of what black artists, scholars, and activists are debating (10-11)

·         Literary hustlers do exist.  One must not assume “that just because a statement is ‘relevant,’ it is poetry!” and one must realize “that the black experience is not monolithic ---although recurring trends and broad implications do exist in the areas of language, religion, humor, dance, music, and general life style” (13)

·         Students of black poetry are obligated to give attention to “the craft of poetry –hows and whys of poetry, and temper overmuch enthusiasm for the sociological aspects of the poetry (14)

Redmond is not to be accused of making strident demands that we abandon traditions; he is guilty of asking for a nuanced balance of tradition with what we might call an ethnic-positive interest in the cultural productions of one’s people. That is a crime of which anyone who makes a rigorous study of the history of African American poetry can be proud to be accused.

                In Chapter II “The Black and Unknown Bards,” Chapter III “African Voice in Eclipse (?): Imitation and Agitation (1746-1865), Chapter IV “Jubilees, Jujus, and Justices (1865-1910), Chapter V “A Long Ways from Home” (1910-1960) and Chapter VI “Festivals and Funerals: Black Poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, Redmond provides the richest kind of historical description.  He weaves verifiable facts about the creation and publication of poetry with his often surprising commentaries on such well-known poets as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Melvin B. Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden and on such unknown bards as Albery Allson Whitman, Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., Owen Dodson, Leslie Pinckney Hill, N. J. Loftis, Sam Cornish, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Conrad Kent Rivers.  These unknown bards are not completely unknown.  They, like the hundreds of poets Redmond identifies by name and geographical location, are simply not prime candidates for inclusion in the canon.  Despite his being an accomplished poet whose work is highly valued among non-academic audiences, Redmond himself has not been chosen for sainthood in either the Norton Anthology of African American Literature or Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition.  Fortunately, his importance is noted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature.

                Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History is a unique contribution to the study of African American poetry, a work of inspired scholarship that guides us into knowing in great detail who spoke or wrote African American poetry from 1746 to 1976.[4]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] In an interview with Howard Rambsy II on March 6, 2010, Eugene Redmond intimates that his writing of Drumvoices was not a self-conscious academic enterprise; there were many iterations of Drumvoices before it was published as a book. Redmond was very curious about discovering what philosophy and aesthetics might undergird black poetry, and he was convinced that being black did not guarantee that one would write “black poetry.”  Redmond proudly says that he met all of the people he mentions in the book who were alive between 1968 and 1976.  I am grateful to Rambsy for sharing this information with me in an email, dated March 2, 2013, with an eleven minute segment of the interview.
[2] An enlightening discussion of language, folk art and high (canonized) art is Bernard W. Bell’s The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974). The third volume in the Broadside Critics Series, Bell’s book argued that the folk ideology of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was germane for understanding some of the issues Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement writers and critics were obligated to engage. What alarmed James Weldon Johnson was the misrepresentation of black speech by the use of dialect that consisted of “mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation”; what he championed was a form that would be “freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment” (Johnson, “Preface” The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1922. Rtp. 1959. 41-42.)
[3] Turner, Darwin T. and Barbara Dodds Stanford. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Literature by Afro-Americans. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971.
[4] Since 1976, Redmond has continued to document the development of African American poetry through his publication of works by and interviews with poets in his magazine Drumvoices Revue. He has also produced an extensive body of visual documentation, approximately 100,000 photographs. See Howard Rambsy II, “Eugene B. Redmond, The Critical Cultural Witness,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Issue 1 (2011): 69-89.

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