Neala Schleuning

Meridel Le Sueur was a powerful influence on my intellectual and political development. I “met” Meridel in 1973 when I was hired by the Minnesota Historical Society to identify items relating to women in their collection. I kept stumbling across the name Meridel Le Sueur. I decided I HAD to interview this woman and research the stories behind her journalistic and fictional narratives. My goal was to validate her stories with historical truths. For example, I read “Salvation Home,” a short article about young women committed to Faribault Mental Hospital. They were subsequently sterilized against their will – an improbable story that actually took place in the 1930s. In the 1980s I was teaching a Women’s Studies course in Austin, Minnesota, and one of the women taking the class had worked at Faribault. She verified the story – apparently many of the young women had been sent there because they were “wild,” uncontrollable girls. They were sterilized to keep them from getting pregnant.

I learned that all of her stories were real stories of real people, facing real challenges, building real lives. They were our joyful stories, our stories of struggle.

I arranged an interview with Meridel in the fall of 1974. As we sat down in the afternoon sun, she folded her hands and began quizzing me! When I had completed my “interview,” we turned to talking about her life, her writings, and her political views. At one point in the conversation, a wasp started crawling across her hands, probing here and there. I recoiled, but she just said, “Don’t worry, it’s only a witch doctor come to listen to us!” To this day, I reflect on the value of all life forms.

Early in 1975 Meridel invited me to join the Twin Cities Women’s Film Collective. The collective produced the 45-minute documentary film of her life and ideas– “My People Are My Home.” It’s available today on the Internet Archives.

Many of our conversations turned into my book – America: Song We Sang without Knowing – The Life and Ideas of Meridel Le Sueur. This was a different biography – in part because Meridel was resistant to being pinned down to dates and times and people. We all have a story, and her life was her story, unfolding every day.  For example, when I asked if she had ever been married, she smiled coyly and asked me what I meant by “marriage!”

The book is a series of real and imagined dialogues around the central themes of her writings – politics, women, and the earth. She taught me how to look at the world with love and compassion. The most challenging part of writing the book was interpreting her political philosophy. Although she had been active in the Communist Party, a close reading of her work convinced me that her ideas were more consistent with what today we call social anarchism. The people – a democratic, collective people – lie at the heart of her vision for our society and our future.

Meridel was a great force of energy unlike anyone I’ve ever met. When she walked into a room, the whole dynamic changed. People were drawn to her warmth, her very presence. She uplifted us all. We loved her, we loved ourselves. She always engaged with us, taught us, energized us, challenged us to create a new world based on social justice, respect for one another, and love for our home, the earth.

August 2020

Neala Schleuning–Select Bibliography

Climate Chaos: Making Art and Politics on a Dying Planet
Minor Compositions, 2021

America: Song We Sang Without Knowing
The Life and Ideas of Meridel LeSueur
Little Red Hen Press, 1983

Women, Community, and the Hormel Strike of 1985-86
Greenwood Press, 1994


Louis Alemayehu

Author of Home at the End of Another World

Memories of Meridel LeSueur

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.”

January 15, 2014