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Dudley Randall was known as much for his work as an editor and publisher as for his poetry; his role was key in the publishing and popularization of contemporary African American poetry. Called Detroit’s ”First Poet Laureate,” Randall was the founder of Broadside Press, a Michigan-based publishing company that helped launch the careers of many black poets, including Etheridge Knight and Haki R. Madhubuti.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
First a Poet
Randall’s interest in poetry has been lifelong. Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a minister and a teacher, he wrote his first poem when he was four years old, moved to Detroit when he was nine, and saw his poems first published in the Detroit Free Press when he was thirteen. A bright student, Randall graduated early. After working in Ford’s River Rouge foundry for five years and serving in the army, he returned to school and earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan. Randall, who became the reference librarian for Wayne County, also became fluent in Russian, visited Europe, Africa, and Soviet Russia, and later translated many Russian poems into English.
Randall’s first book of poetry, Poem Counterpoem (1966), was perhaps the first of its kind; the volume contains ten poems each by Margaret Danner and Randall. The poems are alternated to form a kind of double commentary on the subjects they address in common.
Cities Burning (1968) focuses on the poet’s urban environment and political turmoil’s of the 1960s. The third and more inclusive collection More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades (1971) displays Randall’s artistic breadth in poems that address universal themes and explore ”contradictions in human psychology and the black arts movement,” according to R. Baxter Miller. Later collections After the Killing (1973), Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (1975), A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems (1981), and Homage to Hoyt Fuller (1984) show Randall’s polished craftsmanship.
Broadside Press—Randall’s other contribution to black poetry in America—began in 1963. Randall had composed the poem ”The Ballad of Birmingham” after a bomb exploded in an Alabama church, killing four children. The attack was a response to the civil rights movement, in which African Americans sought to achieve basic rights already afforded to their white counterparts. Birmingham was specifically targeted by civil rights activists—led by Martin Luther King Jr.—in an attempt to overturn unfair segregation laws through nonviolent protests. ”Folk singer Jerry Moore of New York had it set to music, and I wanted to protect the rights to the poem by getting it copyrighted,” the publisher recalled in Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (1975). Leaflets, he learned, could be copyrighted, so he published the poem as a broadside, a single sheet of paper that could be printed and sold for a minimal price. Randall’s ”Dressed All in Pink,” composed after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, also recorded by Moore, became number two of the Broadside series, which was to include close to one hundred titles by 1982.
Randall became a book publisher when poets at a Fisk University conference nominated him to collect and publish poems about slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. The result was For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1967). By that time, aware that major publishers were seldom accepting works by young black poets, Randall became dedicated to publishing works by emerging black authors. Indeed, Randall’s encouragement was essential to the writing careers of several black poets. Etheridge Knight, for example, was in prison when he contributed three poems to the Broadside anthology For Malcolm, and Randall’s visits ”convinced a hesitant Knight of his talent,” Suzanne Dolezal reports in an article for Detroit magazine. Randall published first books for Knight and for Haki R. Madhubuti, two poets who now enjoy international acclaim.
With remarkable energy and commitment, Randall supported the modern black movement for self-determination. To achieve editorial freedom and flexibility, Randall declined partnerships as well as incorporations. Having devoted Broadside Press to poetry, he feared that stockholders would demand profits and lower quality or chase after profits into the realm of prose. While his income from the press went into publishing new volumes, he paid royalties to other poets. He confessed, ”I am not well qualified to operate in a capitalistic society. I came of age during the Great Depression, and my attitude toward business is one of dislike and suspicion.” Dedicated to ideals, he remembered well the pragmatic lessons of the Harlem Renaissance. When the Depression came in the 1930s, white publishers dropped black authors, who only a few years earlier were exotically popular. He recommended therefore that Afro-Americans ”build a stable base in their own communities,” and he devoted most of his professional life to providing the foundation.
Altogether, the press produced nearly sixty volumes of poetry and criticism under Randall’s tenure, all showcasing black writers, who rewarded his dedication by remaining loyal to Broadside even when larger publishing houses with generous promotion budgets beckoned. Gwendolyn Brooks insisted that Randall, not Harper & Row, would publish her autobiography; Sonia Sanchez preferred Broadside to the Third World Press, the small press founded by Madhubuti. Poet Nikki Giovanni explained to Dolezal: ”Broadside was neither mother nor father of the poetry movement, but it was certainly midwife. [Dudley] … allowed his poets to find their own voices. That was the charm of Broadside.”
As a poet and publisher, Randall helped revitalize black poetry in America. Yet by 1977, his determination to supply low-priced books to stores already in debt to him brought the small press, also deeply in debt, to the crisis point. The Alexander Crummell Memorial Center, a church in Highland Park, Michigan, bought the press, retaining Randall as its consultant. Though the poets he once encouraged found other publishers since the sale, Randall continued to be concerned for new poets and anticipated the publication of more new works after the press started publishing again, which indeed it did.
When Randall died in 2000, an obituary in the Detroit News, comparing him to the famous founder of seminal R&B music label Motown, described him as ”the other Berry Gordy, the one who never left the west side of Detroit, never made millions and never became a glitter-sprinkled celebrity. Yet he, too, beamed black voices around the world.”
Works in Literary Context
A child during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Randall became a poet of the next generation and, later, he helped to pioneer a third poetic era during the 1960s. Exploring racial and historical themes, introspective and self-critical, his work combines ideas and forms from Western traditional poetry as well as from the Harlem Renaissance movement. Often incisive humor and cryptic satire inform his work.
More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades ”displays [Randall’s] artistic breadth” in poems that address universal themes and explore ”contradictions in human psychology and the black arts movement,” observes Miller. Miller also sees ”Randall’s aesthetic theory” in poems that depict ”the artist as a modifier of both literary tradition and classical form.” Randall defined this aesthetic himself in Negro Digest: ”Precision and accuracy are necessary for both white and black writers. … ‘A black aesthetic’ should not be an excuse for sloppy writing.” Randall also warned that ”what we tend to overlook is that our common humanity makes it possible to write a love poem, for instance, without a word of race, or to write a nationalistic poem that will be valid for all humanity.”
The Humanity of Poetry
Randall shied away from the label ”pacifist,” yet he was strongly antiwar; see especially the title poem of his 1973 collection After the Killing and the ”War” section of A Litany of Friends. He did, however, accept the designation ”humanist.” He told of meeting Arna Bontemps in the 1960s at the Black Writers’ Conference sponsored by the University of Wisconsin: Randall, upon asking permission to join a group seated in the cafeteria, was told by Bontemps, ”Yes, Dudley, since you’re the only humanist here.”
Randall enlarged the humanness of poetry written in English. His democratic instincts were offended by what he called ”poet snobs.” In a forthright, unpublished poem about the period of his depression, he caustically contrasted some poets’ affectation of slovenliness with his own genuine reluctance to care for his body when he was despairing of life itself. With ribald wit he lists the authentic ”credentials of dirtiness” and defends his subsequent choice to dress well for public appearances. He felt strongly that poets should be interested in other people. ”Shy and self-centered” in his early years, he gradually gained what he referred to as ”negative capability” (adapting John Keats’s phrase) by thinking of whatever person he meets instead of himself. Randall admired writers in whom he saw this capacity.
Works in Critical Context
The influence of Randall ”has been one of the strongest— some say the strongest—in the black poetry movement of the last 15 years,” observes Suzanne Dolezal. According to R. Baxter Miller, ”Beyond Randall’s contributions as a poet, his roles as editor and publisher have proven invaluable to the Afro-American community.” Dolezal also acknowledges both his editorial work and his poetry:
Randall provided a forum for just about every major black poet to come along during those years. And dozens of anthologies include his own rapid, emotional lyrics about Detroit’s bag ladies, lonely old drunks, strapping foundry workers and young women with glistening, corn-rowed hair.
Critics regard Randall’s poetry as a bridge between the works of earlier black writers and of the writers of the 1960s. ”Exploring racial and historical themes, introspective and self-critical, [Randall’s] work combines ideas and forms from Western traditional poetry as well as from the Harlem Renaissance movement,” Miller notes. In an essay on Randall in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, he elaborates: ”Although attracted to the poetry of antiquity, including classical conventions, he also gives his energetic support to modern originality. . . . Black American literary art has benefited from his great talent and love for fifty years.”
After the Killing Reviewing After the Killing (1973) for Black World, Frank Marshall Davis declares, ”Dudley Randall again offers visual proof of why he should be ranked in the front echelon of Black poets.” When the poet evades ”cliches and hackneyed rhymes, he excels at his craft,” says Miller. Brief notices about Randall’s books in library trade journals were generally complimentary, in keeping with Davis’s and Miller’s assessments.
- Barksdale, Richard K., and Keneth Kinnamon. ”Part VI: Since 1945.” In Black Writers of America: Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Barksdale and Kinnamon. New York: Macmillan, 1972, pp. 808-809.
- King, Woodie, Jr., ed. The Forerunners: Black Poets in America. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981.
- Thompson, Julius E. Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.
- Melhem, D. H. ”Dudley Randall: A Humanist View.” Black American Literature Forum 17, no. 4 (1983): 157-167.
- Rowell, Charles H. ”In Conversation with Dudley Randall.” Obsidian 2, no. 1 (1976): 32-34.
- Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. ”Black Silence, Black Songs.” Callaloo 6, no. 1 (1983): 156-165.
- ”Etheridge Knight (1931-1991).” The Poetry Foundation Web site. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ archive/poet.html?id=81870.
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