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Howard Rambsy is hard to categorize: professor mixes media in the message

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2013 - In a recent Beacon article on the heels of his 75th birthday celebration, poet, scholar and East St. Louis Poet Laureate Eugene Redmond talked about growing up in East St. Louis, the development of his poetry over the years, his work as a professor at California State University Sacramento and eventually Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and his mentoring of young writers in East St. Louis.

When asked to name a younger person whom he admired for their work, Redmond mentioned Howard Rambsy II, an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at SIUE and director of the Black Studies Program at the university. Recently, the Beacon interviewed Rambsy in his office in Peck Hall at SIUE. Rambsy discussed his work in areas such as modern black literature, visual literacy and textual scholarship (how book designs influence readers)  — as well as Redmond’s influence on him.

Rambsy was born in Jackson, Tenn., and earned his undergraduate degree in English and history at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., before attending Penn State University, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees.

One of the primary reasons Rambsy applied to SIUE for his first teaching position was that Redmond was a professor there.

"I read Dr. Redmond’s book, (“Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History”’ as an undergrad," Rambsy said, as he sat in an office overflowing with books. "So I was very much aware of him as a scholar before I came to SIUE. But I actually have another interesting association with him that goes back to my days as a grad student at Penn State. Ismael Reed had come to give a talk at the university and I was taking photos of him throughout the event. I’ve always been fascinated with photography, and worked as a reporter for a while as a student.

"At a certain point, Reed said, 'Who’s that taking all the photos? Is Eugene Redmond here?' At the time I didn’t get his comment. But after I met Dr. Redmond here at SIUE, I realized he was always taking photos at every event he attended. So that’s when I finally got Reed’s joke."

Fascinated with the movement

Photography was just one of the interests that Rambsy shared with Redmond. Rambsy was also fascinated with the black arts movement that Redmond had worked to document in his 1976 book, “Drumvoices.” And Rambsy was especially intrigued by the movement in the 1960s and ‘70s — a period that Redmond had experienced firsthand.

"One of the reasons I applied for a teaching job at SIUE was because I knew Dr. Redmond was here," Rambsy recalled "My doctoral dissertation actually took ‘Drumvoices’ as a starting point. In fact that dissertation became the basis for my own book, ‘The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African-American Poetry,’ which focuses on black poets and writers of that time and especially the anthologies and books, magazines, journals and recordings their work was available in — especially outlets owned by blacks."

Rambsy was also fascinated by the many references to both Malcolm X and the legendary jazz musician John Coltrane that were a common thread in much of the works by black writers that appeared in periodicals and anthologies during that time period. Malcolm X's influence on those earlier writers eventually manifested in another project that Rambsy created — something he called the Malcolm X Mixtape.

In conjunction with black studies students and contributors Adrienne Smith, Dometi Pongo and Al Henderson, Rambsy began forming a project designed to make Malcolm X relevant to a new generation of students. Here’s how Rambsy describes the project in the SIUE black studies blog:

"For us, one goal was to advance black studies by channeling the spirit of Malcolm. We wanted to represent, or perhaps reconfigure, aspects of his vision for modern audiences using new media and innovative delivery styles. We thought … about producing something that might inspire a greater sense of awareness about topics and themes such as politics, anti-black racism, education, slavery, revolution, and justice. The something we came up with was this mixtape, which we released on flash drives. The production contains 10 raps songs by Pongo and 5 original video compositions by Henderson."

Music — especially Coltrane

For Rambsy, the music of John Coltrane has held a special fascination. Music was a given for him growing up, but his interest in Coltrane — and jazz — has grown exponentially since his early days in college.

"My dad was a musician and a music teacher," Rambsy said. "So music was always part of the environment I grew up in. I heard mostly popular music on the radio when I was young, but later on in college, I really began to get into jazz — especially Coltrane.

"Music is definitely central to the conversation when you’re addressing black culture and the black arts movement. It’s a thread that runs through everything. And in terms of the black arts movement of the ‘60s and 70s, music was always part of the common ground. It seemed like every anthology of black literature in that era had a poem referencing John Coltrane."

The importance of Coltrane in Rambsy’s work is reflected in the opening statement on the "about" page on his website:

"I want to be a force for real good." — John Coltrane

"W.W.J.C.D? What Would John Coltrane Do? It’s a question I have asked myself for years now, and discovering answers has guided my endeavors. For Coltrane, creativity, consistency, practice, and eclecticism were central to his vision and life’s work. In order to emulate Trane, I have had to find ways to become ‘a force for real good’ in my activities as a scholar, writer, and curator of mixed media exhibits."

That deep interest in Coltrane, jazz and other music manifests itself in the way that Rambsy approaches teaching at SIUE. He begins almost all of his classes by playing music for his students.

"I do play a lot of music in my classes, particularly jazz," Rambsy explains. "I use it to set a mood for everyone. In addition, music speaks to everyone — and also displaces me as the 'expert' in the classroom. It opens up the conversation."

Eclectic interests

Rambsy is working on a project he calls the "Novel Category Machine." He explains it as a method to use digital technology to organize and display categories of information about African-American literature. 

Rambsy’s eclectic interests also include textual scholarship studies such as a look at the changing graphic designs for covers by the novels of Richard Wright over the years and an examination of cartoonist Aaron McGruder, who authors the popular cartoon series "The Boondocks."

And Rambsy also continues to collaborate with Eugene Redmond on mixed media exhibits that feature photos from Redmond’s large collection.

"I started doing mixed media exhibits while I was in grad school," says Rambsy. "And I continued that approach in working to put together exhibits based around Dr. Redmond’s extensive collection of photos. So he continues to be a great friend and collaborator.

"And I do have to mention that Dr. Redmond has also brought me around to being a Miles Davis fan as well as Coltrane," he said with a laugh. "You can’t have any conversation with him about East St. Louis that doesn’t include Miles eventually."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.