Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Poet Laureate (Always) at Work

Eugene B. Redmond addressing middle school students at Malcolm X celebration, May 2011
In 1976, officials in East St. Louis acknowledged Eugene B. Redmond as the Poet Laureate of the city. The move to honor Redmond in that way may have been one of the single best arts and humanities related decisions the city has made in its 150-year history.

Since accepting the laureateship, Redmond has been on an almost non-stop mission to celebrate black history and promote cultural arts in East St. Louis. Over the decades, he has organized events in the city featuring renowned poets such as Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Jayne Cortez, Walter Mosley, Quincy Troupe, and many more.

For decades, he hosted a "Break Word with the World" poetry event in the fall, an annual Kwanzaa celebration in December, multiple activities in February for Black History month, and a "Fresh and Ancestral" cultural event including poetry, presentations on history, African drumming, and dance in the spring.

Along the way, his writers club met twice a month in the city for their regular workshop meetings. The club celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. That's 25 years of bi-monthly meetings. (In the early days, the group was meeting weekly and during the summers.)

Redmond, in typical fashion, taking photographs.

At some point, someone should probably try to track the amount of resources Redmond steered toward East St. Louis over the years. Beginning in 1990 when he accepted a position as literature and creative writing professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) until 2007 when he retired, Redmond was the most important lobbyist for the university to designate funds to support arts and humanities events in East St. Louis.

For more than 15 years, when and if SIUE provided complimentary tickets for events for secondary school students and citizens in East St. Louis, funding for promotional materials related to the humanities in the city, and even cookies and punch for cultural events in East St. Louis, chances are Redmond had something to do with the decision for the university to make contributions.

And let's not even talk through his photographic documentation related to East St. Louis. There's simply too much to discuss for a single blog entry. Let's start here though:

Just about every week for more than two decades now, a selection of photographs of literary artists taken by Redmond has appeared in The East St. Louis Monitor weekly newspaper. Perhaps no newspaper in the country has published images of so many different nationally known and local black literary artists. 

If you are a poet in the area and you have read your work on two or more occasions at public events in East St. Louis where Redmond was in attendance, then, I am willing to wager he has taken photographs of you. I'll go further: if you are a person who's attended a public event in East St. Louis where Redmond was in attendance and you and he have the slightest of connections, I'm willing to wager he has taken photographs of you.

Redmond has taken over 100,000 photographs of artistic and cultural events, friends and family, students and attendees at events over the last 3 to 4 decades. At the very least, about 20,000 of his images were taken in East St. Louis.

Along with his love for his hometown, I imagine that Redmond's title as Poet Laureate of East St. Louis motivated him to become such a tireless advocate and arts organizer for the city.

Redmond was 39 or so when he was honored as Poet Laureate in 1976. The Black Arts Movement was supposedly coming to an end. But who knew then, that what Redmond learned participating in the far out arts organizing that typified the movement would become a blueprint for what he would do to coordinate efforts in East St. Louis from the 1980s onward?

Related content: Eugene B. Redmond and the EBR Collection

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