A St. Louis-area poet is lending her voice to the small but growing movement of activists calling for protests that disrupt U.S. society to spur social and economic justice.
Treasure Shields Redmond is a professor at Southwestern Illinois College and author of a book on civil rights trailblazer Fannie Lou Hamer. She is calling for a St. Louis-area strike by black workers during the Labor Day weekend. She’s calling the event Strike for Black Lives in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The action also will urge black consumers not to spend money for a week to disrupt the U.S. economy to protest racial inequality in the United States. For Shields Redmond, the strike evokes the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the 1960s to spark change by similarly disrupting established institutions.
“What we need to create is what King called “nonviolent tension” in the ‘Letter from [the] Birmingham Jail,’” she said. “Nonviolent tension, crisis-packed. And all of a sudden people get clarity. They can create something beautiful like the civil rights bill.”
Shields Redmond, 45, can barely remember a time when the struggle for equality was not present in her life her writing. Before coming to St. Louis as a teenager she spent her early years in Meridian, Miss., with her mother Elsie Lee Shields, an avid reader and essayist who loved the movement’s biggest voices.
“I remember her telling me things like, ‘you know that James Baldwin, he can stone write,’” she said, laughing.
She also spent time with her father, Eugene Redmond, longtime poet laureate of East St. Louis. In the 1970s, he was part of the Black Artists Group collective, which also began the career of celebrated jazz saxophonists Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett.
Shields Redmond’s parents steeped rooted her in activism and black culture.
“The ability to be apolitical, that just wasn’t accessible to me,” she said.
In Mississippi, she and her mother attended a charismatic black Baptist church. For a brief time, her parents identified with the Nation of Islam. But her mother returned to the Baptist church, where Shields Redmond developed her identity as artist and progressive activist.
“I was lucky enough to be raised in a version that wasn’t hyper concerned with gay people,” she said of her mother’s church. “It wasn’t hyper-concerned with women’s dress and whether or not we wore lipstick.”
In high school, she discovered that there was more to activism than its long church-dominated leadership. As a teenager, she heard the music of the rap group Public Enemy and was captivated by its fusion of rap and politics. Turned on by the group’s song “Party for Your Right to Fight,” which honors a number of civil rights-era black activists, she approached her mother, excited about the music.
“I went to my mother, who’d lived through all that, and I was like ‘did you know there was a group called the Black Panthers and there was a government conspiracy to break them up?’” she recalled. “And she was like ‘yeah, I think I knew that.’”
That upbringing set the stage for Shield Redmond’s continued intellectual and political awareness -- one that would go beyond black and white.
“As I grew into becoming a women I began to see more and more the intersectional identities that I inhabited as a black woman, as a southerner, as a women from a working poor household and working poor home community, as a mother, as an educator,” she said. “In many ways as a product of the black migration.”
Last fall Shields Redmon released “Chop: A Collection of Kwansabas for Fannie Lou Hamer,” a collection of poems celebrating the civil rights icon who advocated for sharecroppers and voting rights.
She continues to draw on politics in her writing, as she did in the long poem “Say Her Name,” which she wrote in memory of Sandra Bland, the young black woman who died in July, 2015, while in police custody in Texas.
There is much work to be done to address racial inequality, Shields Redmond said, and that motivates her to keep writing and organizing.
“Do I despair sometimes? Yes I do,” she said. “But then I have to seek self-care, and spend time with people who love me and who I love, and re-energize myself.
“Because right is always right, it doesn’t stop being right no matter how many people are killed. And we have to remain with our minds stayed on freedom.”