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Saturday, April 9, 2016


Eugene Redmond's Drumvoices Then and Now

Four decades after their publication, 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) continue to serve as beacons for commentary on poetry.  Henderson's speculations about speech and music as poetic references drew attention to the play of sounds, those of the human voice and those produced by instruments, and we haven't exhausted what needs to be said about poetry from the angles of sociolinguistics and ethnomusicology.  If Henderson's work was basically synchronic, Redmond's model for investigation and documentation was overtly diachronic.  It provided a foundational model for subsequent literary histories and provoked  arguments among poets and critics  about the idea of mission.  It is difficult to determine which of the two books has had the greater impact on scholarship, pedagogy, and non-academic discussions of how poetry can be said to function.  On the other hand, it is easy to notice that no one has tried to account for African American poetry's evolving from 1976 to the present  by using Redmond's on-the-scene, participant/observer methods.

When Drumvoices appeared in 1976, more people were receptive to the notion that poetry (or literature in general)  should be discussed as a tradition, and they were more attuned to thinking that the achievements of individual poets ought to be accounted for in a tradition.  At present,  many writers  appear to have slight interest   in a tradition which can't be easily  detached from  concepts of obligation, history, and politics; they seem eager  to celebrate the association of individual talent with craft, aesthetics, symbolic prizes, and the hype of non-threatening "literary" values upon which reputations depend.  The unspecified sense of morality implicit Redmond's use of the word "mission" seems to be anathema.  It would be rash to say the retreat from one form of responsibility is deliberate or consciously "intended," but rereading Drumvoices alerts us to  significant attitudinal differences those of 1976 and the ones which have currency in 2016.

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 and recalling  is prominent in Redmond’s treatment of history.  It is a sharp reminder that the origins of African American   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  this book is to some degree a participation in Redmond's  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) [1] Redmond’s difficult task was to rectify the forgetting and to improve our options for remembering

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)

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 provided the richest kind of historical description.  He wove  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 identified by name and geographical location, are simply not prime candidates for inclusion in the canon as it is defined by the ubiquitous anthologies published by W. W. Norton.

African American poetry did not cease to have a "mission" between 1976 and the present, but ideological shifts, the impact of new technologies on the production and distribution of poetry, changes in tastes linked to class identities, and the fetish of academic legitimacy undermined the will to depict the plurality of missions.  The descriptions of missions are extant in many books and articles, but they are not organized in any single book one might call a continuation of Drumvoices or a supplemental updating.

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.[2] Shall we  ever have a similar guide for the speaking and writing of black poetry from 1976 to 2016?  That question patiently awaits a response.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            April 9, 2016

[1] 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.
[2] 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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