Memories of Meridel LeSueur

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The first time I saw Meridel I was a college student working for the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church just a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Washington DC. Parts of DC had become burnt out war zones. There was a mass meeting in a Washington DC African American church. It was the summer of 68 and the Poor People’s March & Campaign was camped in the nation’s capital on Washington Mall.

I didn’t know who Meridel was back then. I had never heard of her, but at this time, neither had most of the women who came to embrace her in the 70s and 80s in the transformative flames of the emerging Women’s Movement. This particular day Andy Young, whom I had met when he visited Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota a year or two before, was in the pulpit when I witnessed “this old white woman”, who could have been a street person for all I knew, rose to speak. I don’t remember specifically what she said, but I still feel the energy of her fierce lack of upper class elegance as she radiated a burning truth…brave, direct, determined, clear about the reality of our present time and what was now at stake. She certainly got my attention, but I never assumed out paths would cross again.

Flash forward to 1977. I was education director at the African American Cultural Arts Center in Minneapolis. We invited Gwendolyn Brooks, whom I knew by then personally from my activism in the Black Arts Movement in Chicago. We invited her to be a keynote speaker for a week of events. After Gwendolyn’s presentation, Meridel approached me shyly. She introduced herself and asked if I would introduce her to Gwendolyn Brooks. In retrospect, that was an easy, yet historic request in bringing these two brilliant truth tellers of insight and integrity together.

The third encounter took place with the emergence of the Mississippi River Revival Festival in 1981, which was instigated by folksinger/activist Larry Long along with some other activists and artists who had been influenced by Pete Seeger’s Hudson River Revival. This was the real deepening of my relationship with Meridel. One day about a dozen of us performers gathered on Nicollet Island on the shore of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis to do a photo shoot for the festival. Somehow she and I got to talking about African American poet Jean Toomer. I had recommended that we used a quote from his Brown River Smile on the poster for the festival.

“The Mississippi, sister of the Ganges/Main artery of earth in the Western world, /is waiting to become/In the spirit of America, a sacred river. /Whoever lifts the Mississippi/Lifts himself and all America;/whoever lifts himself/Makes that great brown river smile. /The blood of earth and the blood of man/Course swifter and rejoice when we spiritualize.”

It turns out that Toomer’s first wife, Wisconsin native Margery, was one of Meridel’s closest friends. From this point on in our relationship, Meridel poured stories into my soul both historic and personal. Toomer was a devotee and active follower of the Eastern European spiritual teacher and mystic, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (January 13, 1866 – October 29, 1949). I understand for a while Toomer held classes in Harlem on spiritual development for some of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. For while, I was afraid to listen to Meridel recite her poetry because I didn’t want to unconsciously imitate her voice. To me she sounded like she had just sipped the finest wine and it lingered on her tongue. I had already absorbed much from Gwendolyn as well as her spiritual son Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee). I was trying to find my voice still and I surely learned from both of them. Make no mistake, the rich soil I grew from was an African American community on the Southside of Chicago whose members were from the Deep South, the North, the West Indies and Canada, all either working class or professionals. Few of them were more than 20 years away from life on the land or some small town or village.

At some point much later, I realized that philosophically I had more in common with Meridel than most of my models and teachers from the Black Arts Movement. This was also partially due to my connection and alliance with activist in the American Indian Movement here in Minnesota. When all is said and done, I am still learning from the presence of Meridel in my lived experience, but also from the work she left behind. Today the connection is not only to her, but also with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. I am blessed beyond my understanding.

All I can figure out right now is to give what I have been freely given from Chicago to Minneapolis to Bear Butte & Prairie Island to Ethiopia and back again. I try as John Coltrane stated long ago, “I just want to be an agent for good”. My living is further informed by the words of Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hahn: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”