Redmond, Eugene 1937–
Eugene Redmond 1937–
Poet, playwright, educator
As a poet, literary critic, journalist, editor, historian, choreographer, playwright, educator, social activist, Eugene B. Redmond wears many hats. Considered among the elite literary figures who helped to shape the African American arts movement in the late 1960s, Redmond has continued to be a driving force in the creative arts world. Although an international figure, he focuses much of his energy on his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois, which has benefitted richly from his efforts to renew the arts in that city.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1937, Redmond was raised just across the river in East St. Louis, Illinois, a city that made a deep imprint on his identity. “Wherever I go, East St. Louis is always a part of me,” Redmond told Rosemary Monaco of the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Newspaper. “My background is tattooed on me and is the setting for much of my poetry.” His mother, Emma Jean Redmond, died in 1946 when Redmond was still a young boy, and he rarely saw his father, John Henry Redmond. Thus, parentless by the age of nine, he was raised in part by his grandmother, Rosa A. Quinn, and, as he told Joyce Pettis of Afro-American Poets Since 1955, in part “by a group of neighborhood fathers-friends of my older brother and members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church I attended.”
In retrospect, it is no wonder that Redmond became a writer. His family always emphasized reading, and Redmond quickly learned to appreciate literature. Moreover, as a youth he earned money as a shoeshine boy, running errands, and collecting and reselling junk, all the while remarking upon and remembering every little detail along the way. “I noticed everything,” he told Monaco. “I kept a notebook and wrote things down. I was an introspective little kid, always asking questions and ruminating on things. I liked to be alone… The combination of the urge to write and my social consciousness came at a young age… 1 had to be a novelist.” From his early school years, moreover, Redmond was fascinated with the written and spoken word. Not only did he perform in high school and church plays, but he also was active on the Lincoln Senior High School newspaper and yearbook. Outside of school and church, he found time to compose songs for several neighborhood “doo-wop” groups, including his own, the
At a Glance…
Born Eugene B. Redmond in 1937 in St. Louis, MO to John Henry and Emma Jean Hutchinson Redmond; two daughters: Treasure, Ira. Education: Southern Illinois University, B.A., English literature, Political Science, 1964; Washington University, St Louis, MO, M.A., English literature, 1966.
Career: Poet, educator, activist, fast St. Louis Beacon, assistant editor, 1961-62; East St. Louis Evening Voice, associate editor, 1962-63; Alestle, editor-in-chief, 1963-64; East St Louis Monitor, co-founder, editor, 1963-69; Project Head Start, St. Louis, MO, director, 1965-66; Southern Illinois University, teacher-counselor, director of language workshops, poet-in-residence, Experiment in Higher Education, 1966-69; writer-in-residence: Oberlin College, 1969-70, Leiden University, University of Lagos-Nigeria, Wayne State University, Southern University at Baton Rouge, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Webster University-St. Louis, Carnegie Mellon University, Miles Davis Elementary School, East St Louis, IL; California State University, Sacramento, professor of English, poet-in-residence, 1970-85; East St Louis, IL School District, special assistant to superintendent for cultural and language arts, 1985-89; Wayne State University, Detroit, Ml, professor, English and Africana Studies, 1989-90; Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, professor, chairman of creative writing committee, 1990.
Addresses: Business —Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, 2223 Peck Building, Edwardsvilie, IL.
After serving with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1958 until 1961, where he periodically wrote poetry for the Marine magazine, Leather Neck, Redmond began to formalize his commitment to writing. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Southern Illinois University in 1964 and a master’s degree in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis in 1966. Throughout his college career, Redmond continued to pursue his interest in journalism, writing for the Southern Illinois University newspaper, the Alestle, and ultimately becoming its first African American student editor. In 1963 he also co-founded the East St. Louis Monitor, a weekly publication, and at various times for the next seven years he worked there as associate editor, editor of the editorial page, and executive editor.
The 1960s proved to be a dynamic period for Redmond. The upheaval of civil rights, African independence, and the sexual and cultural revolutions of the time had an enormous impact on him. “I struggled between wanting to be a writer and a civil rights activist, between wanting to be like Martin [Luther King] and wanting to be like Malcolm [X],” he reflected with Darrell McWhorter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In fact, the free speech and anti-war movements on the street and the emergence of black and ethnic studies in the classroom compelled Redmond to teach in addition to continuing his writing endeavors. He referred to himself as an “accidental academician.” And yet, while the initial impetus may have been accidental, Redmond has remained in academia ever since. The causes and energies of the 1960s, moreover, have also stayed with him, guiding him artistically and professionally. As he explained to Jabari Asim of the St. Louis American, “Since the mid-60s, excavation, reclamation and reconstruction of black heritage from millions of years ago to the present has been my most enduring preoccupation. I think it’s made me a better person, father, writer, and human being.”
Redmond’s passion for African American culture is most clearly visible through his poetry and through his perception of the role of the poet in society. According to Redmond, it is the function of the poet to serve as the griot, the historian and the “recorder of deeds” in traditional African culture. As he stated in Drumvoices, “The black poet, as creator and chronicler, evolves from these artisans-human oral recorders of family and national lore… To the black American griot-singer-poet the job of unraveling the complex network of his past and present-future worlds is a painful but rewarding labor of love.” According to Clifford Harper of the Black Scholar, “the poet as griot, the black community as literary source, Africa and Afro-America as continuum, and music as dominant influence are consistent thematic possibilities in Redmond’s poetry… [The community’s] lore, mythology, cosmology, and legend are the substance which he uses to contain (and give advice on) the cultural ‘heirlooms’ of the community.”
For Redmond, then, not only must the poet “expand the word to its widest and most robust possible usage,” as he told Asim, but the poet must also seek to fuse struggle, art, and the artist’s African heritage. In Redmond’s hands, this responsibility has been transformed into a unique art form. Not only does Redmond “make words dance on a page,” as he explained to Doug Kaufman of the Belleville News-Democrat, but “then I have a message that I sort of drive down the middle of that dance.” That message, too, concisely melds social commentary and emotion: concern about the abuse of African Americans woven into a celebration of survival and success, love and happiness in the face of that agony and adversity, a summary of the African American experience.
While his artistic goals have remained relatively constant, the tenor of Redmond’s work has metamorphosed since the 1960s. He himself admitted in a discussion with Suzanne Dolezal of the Detroit Free Press that “my poetry has changed quite a bit since the 1960s. I used to be fiery, angry, demanding, acrimonious. I have evolved into a love poet-my poems are about love between men and women, communal love, familial love.” Author Maya Angelou, in fact, has called him “black America’s greatest love poet.” His message of love further adds a strong element of universality to his work. As Redmond continued with Kaufman, “In celebrating my tradition-my particular thread that runs through this multi-cultural quilt that we call America-I am celebrating all other humans.”
Acutely aware of his environment, Redmond’s poetry is replete with images from East St. Louis: the noise of trains in the night, rivers, and bridges. Redmond also draws inspiration from music, which he perceives as an inseparable element of his cultural heritage. Thus, his poetry abounds with direct allusions to spirituals, blues, jazz, and soul and reveals an unmistakable indebtedness to black folk songs and expressions. As Maya Angelou once said about him, “His sermons on black beauty, black brotherhood and black romance have their roots in the black Baptist church, the Apollo Theater and the Blues joints. Preach it.” In essence, then, he is, as described by Asim, “a grass-roots poet whose sensibilities are firmly stationed in the hopes and aspirations of everyday people.” Noted James Crisa in Isthmus, “His is the poetry of the streets, of bravado and braggadocio, of love, and of the quiet, introspective moments when the poet must stare coldly at his inner self.”
No matter what the subject matter, Redmond wants his poetry to come alive and towards this end relishes in dramatizing it. In this way, he hopes to ensure that his poems achieve immortality. Thus, he often performs his poetry to music as choral dramas, incorporating a variety of instruments to enhance further the power of his work. As George Medovoy of the Sacramen to Un ion explained, Redmond combines the “archetypical” images of his people, everything, “including words, gestures, and sounds-and carves out a live audience as a performing troubadour.” In a similar vein, not only has Redmond published seven volumes of his poetry and had his work included in myriad other publications, but in 1973 he also recorded an album entitled Blood Links and Sacred Places. In 1999, moreover, he completed a four-part, four-hour documentary with Sylvester Lee which chronicled the history and contribution of music along the Mississippi River.
While Redmond, then, draws from such rich traditions as classical poetry and jazz, he concurrently challenges the boundaries of the traditions within which he operates. As his biography noted, he weaves “stylistic experiments into a musico-poetic fabric with mythic threads of the Black Folk Experience.” Critics have often said that Redmond’s writing is too radical. But, as interpreted by Orlando De Bruce of the Belleville News-Democrat, “it is a charge he embraces with pride, because he’s exposing something dear to him-the black experience.” In recent years, Redmond has watched with often mixed emotions as the tone of African American literature has evolved since the 1960s. It has become, he described to Dolezal, “more introspective, more personal, more… womanish.” He senses that the energy and idealism felt by so many African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s has given way to a self-centeredness and apathy which, he told Dolezal, he finds disturbing. “I miss the euphoria [of the 1960s], the emotion, the passion, the evangelical fervor.” And yet, Redmond continues to write, for, as he explored with Danita McAffee of the Alestle, poetry is his way of “keeping the faith.” Through poetry, he can step outside of himself. “If you don’t stand up for something, then you will fall for anything.”
Beyond teaching and writing, Redmond has also devoted himself to several major projects, focused predominantly around the rejuvenation of East St. Louis and its cultural life. Appointed poet laureate of the city in 1976, Redmond places great emphasis on the responsibilities which he has thereby assumed. He is determined not only to revitalize East St. Louis for those who live there but also to reshape the national image of the city. As Darlene Roy, president of the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club, commented in Limelight, Redmond is “a citizen of the world, and yet he decides to make [East St. Louis] his cultural matrix.”
Towards this end, Redmond has been active in promoting the works of one of his mentors, the dancer, choreographer, author, and humanitarian Katherine Dunham. Known as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” she pioneered a groundbreaking form of dance in the early 1930s that blended cultural anthropology with the artistic genre of dance. Dunham was, according to Redmond in a discussion with B. Denise Hawkins of Black Issues in Higher Education, “the center, the vortex of the racial, cultural and political whirlwind in this region of the country.” From 1967 until 1969, Redmond served as the senior consultant to the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, not only writing, acting, and directing for the Center but also supervising the writing and drama departments. He also served, as he recounted to Dolezal, as Dunham’s “confidant, chauffeur, and son.”
Dunham has continued to provide inspiration for Redmond and other artists in the East St. Louis area. In fact, her spirit proved to be the catalyzing force behind Redmond’s efforts to develop the East St. Louis Cultural Revival Campaign. As Redmond detailed to Jason White of the East St. Louis Journal, Dunham “is the one who inspired us to start to look at the history of the community, especially the cultural and intellectual.” The campaign itself utilizes the arts to rally the community in support of economic development, beautification efforts, and other civic improvements. “We see the arts as leaders,” Redmond continued with White. “They suggest the culture and traditions of a community, the resourcefulness, the creativity and innovativeness. They reflect the intelligence of the community.” In keeping with its motivating force, one of the first focal points of the campaign was the reopening of the Katherine Dunham Center. Consecrated in the traditions of African folklore so as to imbue the new with the ancestral, the Center opened as a museum in June of 1999 with a baptismal christening. The site even includes a typical African village featuring authentic thatched huts of several sizes.
Since 1968, Redmond has served as the literary executor of the Henry Dumas estate, collaborating with author Toni Morrison on publishing the vast majority of Dumas’ poetry and prose. Redmond initially met Dumas in 1967 when, as young men, both taught at Southern Illinois University’s Experiment in Higher Education. The Experiment was part of the vision of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to wage war on poverty, ignorance, abuse, and unemployment by giving the disadvantaged an education. As Redmond recollected in a piece he wrote about Dumas for Essence, “We gathered together the general-education courses and shook them up like dice, redistributing them and flavoring them with Black history, culture, and consciousness.” When Dumas was accidentally shot and killed on a subway platform in New York in 1968, Redmond not only succeeded him as director of language workshops and as poet-in-residence at the Experiment; he further continued the efforts he had begun with Dumas including sponsoring student literary publications, promoting poetry readings throughout the city, and encouraging other local cultural projects.
In recognition of Redmond’s persistent efforts to share his talents and his passions, in 1986 a group of East St. Louis authors formed the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club in his honor. The EBR Writers Club, as it is most commonly known, has become the vehicle through which Redmond nurtures his growing cadre of protegees. This diverse group of writers meets bimonthly to discuss multicultural issues and to critique each others’ creative efforts. The club also promotes an eclectic menu of programming, including the Soular Systems Ensemble, a performance group within the club, and “Break Word with the World,” an annual “media awareness” forum which focuses on the abuses of the media in distorting or marginalizing citizens based on color, race, sex, religion, or political persuasion. The group further sponsors the annual East St. Louis Project, which brings together poets, historians, photographers, novelists, videographers, anthropologists, editors, journalists, teachers, and students with the expressed aim of chronicling the city’s literary and cultural history. This highly-active, well-publicized club has, in fact, often been credited with energizing the cultural arts renaissance in the East St. Louis area.
Dedicated to his craft, Redmond has also published several analytical books. Perhaps his most noteworthy has been Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History. First published in 1976, the only critical history of African American poetry was the result of eight years of exhaustive research, travel, interviews, and writing. Surveying African American poetry from 1746 until 1976, the study highlighted what Redmond characterized as the “complex web of beliefs, customs, traditions, and significant practices that tie diasporan black cultures to their African origins.” He also traced the historical, cultural, and literary roots of African American poetry in a way which illuminated that knowledge of music, dance, American history, and folk literature are necessary for its complete understanding. As Paula Giddings acclaimed in Encore American & Worldwide News, “What Redmond has been able to accomplish in Drumvoices is to delineate the uniqueness of Black poetry while at the same time placing it solidly within the context of American culture.”
Forever socially as well as artistically active, Redmond has written a book examining the continuing spirit of the Million Man March held in Washington, D.C. in October of 1995. Entitled Visible Glory: The Million Man March, the book is a compilation of poems, interviews, speeches, and photographs from the event. The march was significant for Redmond because, as he explained to Paul Mackie of The Telegraph, “Black people are metaphorically spoken of as being invisible. And the march was an attempt to determine who black people are and to come to grips with that invisibility.”
Sporting his trademark beret-“the obvious mark of an artist,” he humors-Redmond remains devoted to his students at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and to the cultural life of East St. Louis. He also serves as the cultural arts consultant and poet-in-residence for public school district 189 in East St. Louis. Each semester Redmond seeks to teach his students the art of clear expression as well as textual analysis. The very thing that motivates Redmond as a writer is what he attempts to inspire in his students. “I encourage students to bring their experiences into poetry,” he commented in the Belleville News-Democrat. “I want the jewels of their emotions.” He is also committed to several other literary endeavors-training beginning writers in the community, teaching poetry in the schools, and producing Drum-voices Revue, a multicultural literary magazine. Furthermore, he tours, giving readings, performances, and lectures which focus upon what he has termed the “central cultural literacy” as the “nervous system” of human understanding and self-awareness.
Clearly, Redmond’s accomplishments and contributions are prolific. As the staff of The Community School in East St. Louis noted, “Eugene Redmond has made a major contribution to the obtainment of justice, equality, dignity, pride and cultural enrichment for his Black, Brown, and Tan brothers and sisters through his creative efforts as a poet, teacher, lecturer, philosopher and activist in community development.” And yet, not surprisingly, Redmond vows to do more. As he discussed in an interview with Asim, “you do it because you have to, you do it because you need to, you do it because you’re being pushed in a kind of healthy way by the people around you, your peers, and by the generations of writers aborning, and you’re being pulled by the writers who are moving toward the other end of the tunnel… And you can never fill their steps, you can never take their place, but you stand there because you want their light, and you want to be transfused, you want that transfusion from the elderhood, from the history, from the culture. But also, you’re a guardian: you’re a vault, you’re a bank, you’re a repository.”
Sentry of the Four Golden Pillars, 1970.
River of Bones and Flesh and Blood, 1971.
Songs from an Afro/Phone, 1972.
Consider Loneliness as These Things, 1973.
In a Time of Rain & Desire, 1974.
Eye in the Ceiling, 1991.
Visible Glory: The Million Man March, 1998.
The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1999.
Alestle, April 30, 1991, p. 7; November 14, 1995, p. 8.
Belleville News-Democrat, October 27, 1989, pp. 1C, 4C; October 18, 1993, pp. 1A, 3A.
Black Issues in Higher Education, July 14, 1994, pp. 65-66.
Black Scholar, September 1977, pp. 48-51.
Detroit Free Press, February 24, 1989, pp. 1B, 3B.
East St. Louis Journal, December 31, 1997, p. 8A; October 14, 1998, pp. 1A, 3A.
East St. Louis Monitor, January 29, 1987, p. 2A; May 7, 1987, p. 3A; August 13, 1987, p. 1B; January 5, 1989, p. 1B; June 25, 1998, p. 10B; October 15, 1998; December 10, 1998; May 27, 1999, p. 3B; February 25, 1999; June 10, 1999.
Encore American & Worldwide News, January 3, 1977, p. 39.
Essence, February 1999, p. 63.
IATE Newsletter, Fall 1989, pp. 1, 6.
Isthmus of Madison Wisconsin, February 10-16, 1984.
Jet, July 19, 1999.
Limelight, February 1998, pp. 4-7.
Riverfront Times, December 30, 1992-January 5, 1993, p. 12.
Sacramento Bee, June 30, 1977.
Sacramento Observer, November 29-December 5, 1973.
Sacramento Union, January 19, 1974.
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale Newspaper, February 1999, p. 6.
St. Louis American, 1989, pp. 30, 58; September 10-16, 1998; September 24-30, 1998, p. C2; August 19-25, 1999, pp. A1, A7.
St. Louis Argus, September 11, 1986, p. 5.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3, 1989, pp. 3D, 9D; October 8, 1993; May 27, 1999; June 20, 1999, p. C4.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch magazine, Magazine, November 25, 1990, p. 6; September 6, 1992, p. 16.
Telegraph, December 28, 1997, p. 2.
Washington Post, June 1, 1997, p. X17.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from press releases from Black River Writers and River Styx, and the curriculum vitae of Eugene Redmond.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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