An undying Black Renaissance
Interview with Eugene B. Redmond
Amatoritsero Ede (A.E.): There seems to be a renaissance in African American poetics – by poetics I include all the arts from hip-hop, rap to poetry; popular culture in short –what would you say is responsible for this – especially in African American poetry.
Eugene B. Redmond (E.B.R.): The predominance of acoustical, visual, percussive, and performative experiences and modes (in African America) underlies this renaissance. African American poetry has always been grounded in protest and cultural reclamation cum exaltation—with sermonic/ritualistic concepts and patterns. So, poets, taking their cues from griots and djalis such as bluesicians, jazzicians, funklorists, and boasters/toasters, are extending on the sermonic/ritualistic. Specifically, the “two trains running”—oral and written—remain the core of AA poetry and are given impetus by communal contexts and forms, thanks to everything from spoken arts (especially slams, open mics, and “Def Poetry Jam”) to the numerous “literary” workshops, readings, and publications that dot most urban forests of poetries. Among some of the leaders of this renaissance are Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madbubuti, and Jayne Cortez—all of whom helped to shape the “renaissance of the 1960’s, a.k.a. Black Arts Movement. Newer leaders include Kevin Powell, Ras Baraka (Amiri’s son), Michael Datcher, Saul Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, Adrian Castro, Lisa Teasley, Ruth Forman, Kwame Dawes, Brian Gilmore, Angela Shannon, Jabari Asim, Paul Beatty, and Natasha Tretheway.
A.E.: It somehow reminds one of the Harlem Renaissance poetic energy; any connections?
E. B. R.: Of course, Harlem and BAM (I and II) come from the same literary/cultural loins. In the first place, several HR alums—such as Sterling Brown, Arna Bontemps, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Langston Hughes, especially—literally and literarily passed the torch on to the BAM folks (Baraka, Alice Walker, Quincy Troupe, June Jordan, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reed, Kalamu ya Salaam, Sanchez) who, in turn, passed it on to BAM II poets like Melba Boyd, Jabari Asim, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tony Medina, Brenda Marie Osbey, Kevin Powell, Sapphire, and the whole phenomenon under the rubric of spoken arts/slam poetry. In addition to the cultural and aesthetic energies handed down, a sense of Black “self” and activism was attached to the baton.
A.E.: Talking of the Harlem Renaissance brings to mind Amiri Baraka’s poem, ‘Someone Blew up America’. Its raw anger reminds one of Claude Mckay – say in a poem such as ‘If we Must Die’. Are the politics or, better put, the activism and uplift of black consciousness and the Black Arts Movement in resurgence in black America?
E.B.R.: Yes. All of the above are at “peak” right now . . . the spokespeople (from Baraka to Tavis Smiley to Jesse Jackson to Maulana Karenga—creator of Kwanzaa—to Angela Davis) are at the heights of activism, as are the poets/consciousness-raising rappers and w/riters (like Sanchez, Cortez, Medina, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Sekou Sundiata, Askia Muhammad Toure), and the Afrocentric elocutionists such as Karenga, Molefi Asante, Rosalind Jeffries, Margaret Burroughs, Madbubuti, and Juwanza Kunjufu. Some are “poets” of the podium and soap box, granted. There are parallels and differences, e.g., while HR “discovered” the African “self,” BAM became it, “commuting” from Africa to the U.S. and various points along the diaspora. All of it gives the poetry and activism a Pan African/Pan World “flava.”
A.E.: What is a kwansaba? And how is it connected to the idea of kwanzaa or the kwansaba candle lighting? Do you write mainly kwansabas?
E.B.R.: Recently, I’ve been writing many kwansabas, 49-word poems that I and fellow writers invented in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1995. The 49 words are distributed thusly: 7 lines of 7 words per line, of which no word—except in cases of proper nouns—can have more than 7 letters. “Kwansaba” is a neologism born of words “kwanzaa” and “Nguzo Saba”—the 7 “principles” of Kwanzaa—including Umoja (“unity”), Kujichagulia (‘self determination”), Ujima (“collective work and responsibility”), Ujamaa (“cooperative economics”), Nia (“purpose”), Kuumba (“creativity”), and Imani (“faith”). We, members of the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club, being a community-based unit, wanted to express the origins and principles of kwanza—and Black Culture—via an aesthetic system with poetry at the center. Hence, the kwansaba which allows us to promote an “original” AA poetic form and celebrate the principles of kwanzaa through the “kwansaba candle lighting ritual.” Aware that the Arabic numeral “seven” has many meanings and implications for African peoples and others the world over—seven wonders, “seventh son” of DuBois—we think deeply about the astrological, numerological, and spiritual associations of “seven.” Numerous examples of the kwansaba are found throughout Drumvoices Revue nos. 11, 12, and 13.
Eugene B. Redmond
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #40
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...Since 2002
ISSN 1479-425X March 2006