Sunday, July 3, 2011

Eugene Redmond and the Ghosts of Dunham, Hurston, & Schomburg

Zora Neale Hurston drumming in Haiti
 I'm not sure if Eugene B. Redmond believes in ghosts. But his incredible approaches to collecting materials related to black people and culture are certainly haunted by the spirits of Arthur (Arturo) Schomburg, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham. Clearly.

Schomburg (1874 – 1938) collected a wide range of books, art, artifacts, and various rare materials related to what we now refer to as black diaspora. His materials form the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture--one of the largest, most renown collections featuring materials related to African American history and culture in the world.

Hurston (1891 - 1960) and Dunham (1909 – 2006) were anthropologists, artists, and simply put, two of the greatest human repositories of black culture to walk the earth. These two women carried more knowledge and rare materials related to black folk culture on the tips of their left-hand pinky fingers than many research libraries have in their entire collections. Ok, ok, I'm exaggerating. But only slightly.


When Redmond met Dunham in East St. Louis during the 1960s, he was at a vital stage in his processes of building awareness and expertise in what we would come to refer to regularly as "black studies." It was likely Redmond's serious interest in building awareness and expertise that led him to Dunham in the first place.

Dunham was a crucial connection--exposing Redmond to all kinds of social and artistic worlds. Among other things, he witnessed her developing her large scrapbooks, which she regularly filled with newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials that she wanted to preserve and showcase.

Dunham's training as an anthropologist meant that she was modeling for Redmond how to study and document black people in precise and organized ways. Even today when you hear Redmond reflect on his learning experiences during the mid to late 1960s, he frequently mentions that it was during this time that he began to study African American thought and culture in "systematic ways." I imagine that he's reflecting, in part, on the lessons he gained from Dunham as she assembled those large scrapbooks.

Over the years, as Redmond became aware of other African American collectors and cultural historians, I'm sure that he noticed the overlap between Dunham and figures such as Schomburg and Hurston, who had also traveled widely, collecting and documenting along the way.

Today, Redmond is quickly approaching 50 years of active documentation of African American cultural history, especially in relation to literary and artistic activity. Somewhere amid the hundreds of books and recordings and the thousands of photographs and flyers, there are these familiar, powerful forces. The spirits of Dunham, Hurston, and Schomburg offering strength to his approaches to collecting.

Related content: Eugene B. Redmond and the EBR Collection

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