exploring DRUMVOICES

The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History

Welcome to a digital exhibition about this 1976 work by Eugene B. Redmond.

Toward a History of Eugene B. Redmond's Drumvoices

By Howard Rambsy II

Near the close of a poetry reading that Eugene B. Redmond was giving in the mid-1960s, an audience member approached and asked for a particular selection. "Brother," the man said to Redmond, "we want to hear some black poetry." Redmond had been reading love poems and poems about his community "without actually coloring them." So now, someone was making what was then an unusual request. Some black poetry.

Redmond was taken aback. He was born in 1937. He had grown up in a time when the word "black" was almost never paired with "poetry." That audience member at the reading, however, had recently spent time in New York City, where the rumblings of black arts were beginning to form into a Black Arts Movement. Initially, the request for "black poetry" embarrassed and angered Redmond, but more importantly, he was prompted to consider an answer.

"I remember," Redmond told me in an interview, "tossing and turning in my sleep, 'What does he mean, what does he mean, 'black poetry'?"

Over the next several years, the quest to come to terms with black poetry would haunt Redmond. First, he sought to simply write a black poem, and then later a series of black poems. But he wasn't satisfied. He sought to produce something on a larger scale. By this time, in 1967, he met the dancer, choreographer, and cultural worker Katherine Dunham while working in East St. Louis.

Dunham's employment of dancers, singers, visual artists, actors, playwrights, poets, and drummers in the production of a single show had an enduring impact on Redmond. The convergence of "voices" and "drums" in the various Dunham productions was becoming an integral component of Redmond's artistic philosophies and outlook. Yet there was still another matter. What about the formal histories of African American poetic expression?

In the fall of 1969, Redmond left East St. Louis, Illinois, and journeyed to Ohio, where he began as writer-in-residence at Oberlin College. Among other advantages, the position at Oberlin gave Redmond access to the school's library, which held an extensive collection of literary works by and about African Americans, including slave narratives and poetry. Redmond was now taking a systematic look at the histories and formation of a tradition, or perhaps even a series of traditions.

He was writing poetry, but he still wanted a more comprehensive articulation of black poetry, so he wrote a play and then another one. He wanted these dramatic works to explore aspects of what he called "a Black Folk Saga." Not fully satisfied that he adequately addressed the nature of black poetry, Redmond developed a series of lectures and a pamphlet on the subject. Over time, he transformed those writings into an extended essay and submitted the project to a series editor as a short booklet. The editor rejected Redmond's project, but complimented his accompanying bibliography.

Redmond decided that he needed to produce a much more expansive treatment concerning the histories of black poetry. He needed to cover everything from the past African beginnings up through the then current 1970s. He needed to identify the hundreds of poets and poetic styles who comprised the interrelated histories of African American poetry. He needed to incorporate the lessons he acquired from Katherine Dunham.

He continued researching, and he continued writing. At some point during the process, he settled on a phrase -- drumvoices -- that had been brewing ever since he formulated it during his days working with Dunham. In one interview, Redmond had noted to me that "the longest connection of course, and oldest connection, and most circuitous connection, is that the drum was the first means of speaking over distances, drum voice."

By the mid-1970s, Redmond had traced multiple poetic voices over vast distances. Those voices had spoken to him the way drums had in West Africa. He had labored to transcribe and translate some of what he had seen, read, heard, witnessed. For more than ten years, he had been fulfilling a request to present ideas concerning "some black poetry." And the result? Well, the result was this remarkable book -- Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976).

Footnote: The quotations above are from the author's interview with Redmond on November 23, 2011. View the video of the interview or read the transcript at online at The Eugene B. Redmond Interviews (Interview 2).

Eugene Redmond at a typewriter
Eugene Redmond at a typewriter.

Cover of Drumvoices
Drumvoices front cover.

Back cover of Drumvoices
Drumvoices back cover.