Dudley Randall Biography
A Poet from an Early Age, Civil Rights Movement Inspired Randall, Broadside Press Published Black Poetry
Poet, publisher, editor
In his roles as poet and publisher, Dudley Randall was the leading exponent of the new black poetry movement of the 1960s. Randall, whose critically-acclaimed poems prompted Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to name him the Poet Laureate of the City of Detroit in 1981, started the Broadside Press out of his home in 1965 and ran it nearly single-handedly for a dozen years, promoting the work of a generation of black poets. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was quoted in Detroit Free Press as saying, "Many times I've called Dudley Randall a giant because he really sacrificed himself to young poets and the new black poetry, which he was responsible for stimulating in the 1960s. I feel he will go down in history as one of the major progressive black influences of our time."
Randall's entire career was dedicated to poetry and poets. Through the Broadside Press, he provided black poets with a way to have their poems published at a time when it was very difficult for them to get their works in print. In addition, he edited anthologies of black poetry and was an accomplished poet in his own right. He attended literary conferences, met and encouraged other black writers, contributed articles and poems to black journals, and organized poetry readings. Randall also taught black literature at the university level and was poet-in-residence for a time at the University of Detroit.
A Poet from an Early Age
Dudley Felker Randall was born in Washington, D.C., on January 14, 1914. His earliest recollection of composing a poem was when his mother took him to a band concert. Impressed by the big bass drums and bass horns, the four-year-old came home and wrote a poem to the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland." Randall's parents were both educated-his mother, Ada Viola Randall, was a teacher, while his father, Arthur George Clyde Randall, was a minister. His father was active in politics and often took Randall and his brothers to hear prominent black speakers, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, and James Weldon Johnson, leaders of the fledgling organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Randalls moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Dudley Randall was nine years old. By the time he was thirteen, Randall had published poems on the Young Poets Page of the Detroit Free Press, and he was bright enough to graduate from high school at age sixteen. After high school, he went to work in the blast furnace unit at Ford Motor Company's Rouge Plant. He told D. H. Melhem in Black American Literature Forum that he "agreed with the suggestion … that a wordless occupation, one that is rhythmical and monotonous, helps the creative process." In the poem "George," which appeared in Randall's first book of poetry, Poem Counterpoem, he wrote of the friendship and inspiration he took from a fellow worker in the foundry.
Though his workdays were monotonous, Randall found intellectual stimulation in the evenings at poetry readings, where he began a friendship with poet Robert Hayden, who later became a professor at the Univer-sity of Michigan and poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. Some of the poems Randall wrote during the 1930s would later be published in his two major collections, More to Remember and A Litany of Friends. After five years at Ford, Randall took a job with the United States Post Office as a clerk and letter carrier.
Randall was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in July of 1943 and served in the South Pacific as a supply sergeant in the Signal Corps. Returning to his postal job in Detroit after the war, he attended what is now Wayne State University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1949. Randall completed his Master's Degree in Library Science at the University of Michigan in 1951. For the next twenty five years, Randall would work as a librarian, first at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, then at Morgan State College (now University) in Baltimore, Maryland, and finally in 1956 in the Wayne County Federated Library System in his hometown of Detroit, where he moved from assistant branch librarian to branch librarian to head of the reference-interloan department.
In 1962 Randall became interested in Boone House, a black-oriented cultural center located in Detroit that offered poetry readings, art exhibits, jazz sessions, and other cultural activities. It was at a party at Boone House that Randall met Hoyt Fuller, editor of the periodical Black World and an important intellectual figure, and poet Margaret Danner. Every Sunday, Danner and Randall read their poetry to audiences at Boone House. The two poets later collaborated on the Broadside Press's first book publication, Poem Counterpoem, which was published in 1966.
Civil Rights Movement Inspired Randall
In 1963, a year of heightened civil rights activism, two startling events helped set in motion the forces that would convince Randall to start the Broadside Press. First was the September 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, that resulted in the deaths of four black children. In response to that tragic event, Randall wrote "The Ballad of Birmingham," a touching poem that takes the form of a conversation between a young black girl and her mother. Ironically, the child asks her mother for permission to go to a civil rights demonstration, but the mother makes her go to church, where she will supposedly be safe but is killed instead.
The second significant event of 1963 that Randall poeticized was the assassination of President Kennedy. "Dressed All in Pink" captures the tragedy of Kennedy's untimely death and the failed promise of Camelot in the image of Mrs. Kennedy's bloodstained dress turning from pink to dark red. Jerry Moore, a New York folksinger, had set both poems to music. In order to protect his copyright interest in the poems, Randall decided to publish them as broadsides, or single sheets, and copyright them.
Randall wrote in Broadside Memories, which was published for the tenth anniversary of Broadside Press: "Being a librarian, accustomed to organizing and classifying material, I grouped the two poems into a Broadside Series, and called them Broadside number one and number two." In 1965 Randall published each one in an edition of 1,000 and sold them for fifty cents apiece. "The Ballad of Birmingham" was reprinted in several collections, including Poem Counterpoem and Cities Burning; "Dressed All in Pink" also appeared in Cities Burning. Since his press was only offering broadsides at the time, he decided to call it the Broadside Press.
Randall expanded the Broadside Series when he attended a writers conference at Fisk University in May of 1966. He obtained permission from poets Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson, and Margaret Walker to use their poems. He also wrote to Gwendolyn Brooks, whom he had met earlier in the year, and got her permission to use "We Real Cool." These first six Broadsides were grouped as "Poems of the Negro Revolt," which in Broadside Memories Randall described as "one of the most distinguished groups in the Broadside Series, containing outstanding poems by some of our finest poets." Poems in the Broadside Series were presented artistically and often included illustrations.
Broadside Press Published Black Poetry
"Broadside Press began without capital, from the 12 dollars I took out of my paycheck to pay for the first Broadside, and has grown by hunches, intuitions, trial and error," Randall wrote in Broadside Memories. Throughout his twelve years as publisher of the press, from 1965 through 1977, he maintained its financial and artistic independence, never accepting loans or outside funding. Many of the poets he published refused to accept royalties, insisting the proceeds from the sale of their books be used for the press. Even after she had won the Pulitzer prize and was being published by Harper & Row, a major New York publisher, Brooks choose Randall's Broadside Press to publish books of her verses and, later, her autobiography. Her support of the Broadside Press was characteristic of the loyalty poets felt toward the press and its publisher.
The press's first book was the Danner-Randall collaboration, Poem Counterpoem, published in 1966. This was followed in 1967 by For Malcolm, a collection of poems about slain leader Malcolm X. Co-edited by Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs, For Malcolm included poems by such established poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker, as well as several younger poets. Around the time For Malcolm was published, Randall decided that Broadside Press would become the primary outlet for young black poets to have their works published, since major publishers had not yet begun to accept their poems.
Among the relatively young poets Randall published in the late 1960s were Don L. Lee (later Haki R. Madhubuti), Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight. According to Black Writers in America, these were poets who were "committed in their poetry to the cause of political, social, and moral revolution, and all believe that poetry and other forms of artistic expression should serve the ends of revolution." Nikki Giovanni later told the Detroit Free Press, "Broadside was neither the mother nor father of the poetry movement, but it was certainly midwife. Dudley understood the thrust of the movement, which was essentially vernacular. He … allowed his poets to find their own voices. That was the charm of Broadside."
In 1969 Randall edited and published a second anthology, Black Poetry. The idea for the book originated at the University of Michigan's Department of English, where both Randall and Robert Hayden were teaching. The department chairman asked the two poets to compile a small collection of black poetry in response to student complaints that standard anthologies didn't include black poets. While Hayden had to drop out of the project due to other commitments, Randall saw it through to completion. With the publication of the two anthologies, and the addition of several important writers to the Broadside list, Randall "enhanced the prestige of the press as the unquestioned leader in black publishing," according to Black American Literature Forum.
Randall's Own Poetry
Randall's first major collection of poetry, More to Remember, was published in 1971 by Haki R. Madhubuti's Chicago-based Third World Press. It contained poems Randall had written during the past four decades, starting in the 1930s. While many of Randall's poems were written in free verse and used the vernacular, he also showed an interest in traditional poetic forms and offered some translations from Russian and French. According to Black American Literature Forum, "The book shows a wide range of interests, prosodic skill, and experimentation."
More to Remember followed two smaller chapbooks of Randall's poetry. Cities Burning, published by Broadside Press in 1968, contained poems that reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s as well as poems Randall had written many years previously. Love You, published in 1970, revealed more of Randall's lyrical poetry and contained the notable verses, "The Profile on the Pillow" and "Sanctuary." Randall's other chapbook, After the Killing, was published in 1973 by Third World Press and would be his last book of verse until the 1981 collection, A Litany of Friends.
Declining Years of Broadside Press
During Randall's twelve years as publisher, Broadside Press flourished artistically but failed to turn a profit. During his tenure at the press, Randall published more than 90 broadsides and 55 books, as well as a series of sound recordings, but the press ran largely on the dedication of its staff and the poets it published. Randall described the enterprise in Broadside Memories as "one of the institutions that black people are creating by trial and error and out of necessity in our reaching for self-determination and independence."
By 1977 Broadside Press was no longer financially viable, and Randall sold it to a local church, which retained him as a consultant. The sale plunged Randall into a depression that kept him from writing for nearly three years. In 1980 he began to write again, and his second major collection, A Litany of Friends, was published by Lotus Press in 1981. A Litany of Friends contains forty-eight new poems, along with twenty-four of Randall's earlier poems. The poems are grouped into five sections covering friends—especially those who helped him through his depression—love, war, Africa, and selfhood. While some critics considered it a remarkable collection and a recovery of his poetic powers, Black American Literature Forum pointed out that Randall had been criticized for not writing "stirring political broadsides, calls for justice, exhortations to black unity." He responded to his critics in the final poem of the collection, "A Poet Is Not A Jukebox," stating that his immediate concern was to revive his economic and creative life. In this poetic statement, Randall "maintains his freedom to choose, in his own time, his own subjects, those which move him personally."
Approaching his seventieth birthday, he edited a collection of essays and poems that Broadside Press published in 1984 as Homage to Hoyt Fuller. In 1987, Randall severed his relationship with Broadside Press and retired. The press did not forget him, however, and in 1990 he was honored at the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Broadside Press. In 1997 Randall was honored by the Chrysler Corporation Fund, which donated an endowed scholarship in his honor to the Department of Africana Studies at Wayne State University. Randall died on August 5, 2000 in Southfield, Michigan. But his legacy of activism and art lives on. James Edward Smethurst wrote in the Journal of American History that "Detroit's Broadside Press was the most influential African American literary publisher of the 1960s and 1970s-and arguably the most important U.S. small press ever." The documentary film, The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, which premiered in 1996, recounts Randall's impact on African American publishing, especially in making the Midwest its hub. In 2004, Melba Joyce Boyd published Wrestling With the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, a biography of Randall and an investigation of his part in defining black poetry. The book includes parts of Randall's autobiography, which he had not yet finished at the time of his death. In the end, Randall will be remembered as Haki R. Madhubuti wrote in Black Issues Book Review, "as the influential anchor of the flourishing Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s."
(With Margaret Danner) Poem Counterpoem, Broadside Press, 1966.
Cities Burning, Broadside Press, 1968.
Love You, Paul Breman, 1970.
More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades, Third World Press, 1971.
After the Killing, Third World Press, 1973.
A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems, Lotus Press, 1981.
(Editor and contributor with Margaret G. Burroughs) For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X, Broadside Press, 1967.
(Editor) Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets, Broadside Press, 1969.
(Editor and author of introduction) The Black Poets, Bantam, 1971.
(With Gwendolyn Brooks, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Haki R. Madhubuti) A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Broadside Press, 1975.
Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known, Broadside Press, 1975.
(Editor) Homage to Hoyt Fuller, Broadside Press, 1984.
(Editor with Louis J. Cantoni) Golden Song: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology of the Poetry Society of Michigan, 1935–1985, Harlo, 1985.
Barksdale, Richard K., and Keneth Kinnamon, editors, Black Writers in America: A Comprehensive Anthology, Macmillan 1972.
Black Poets: The New Heroic Genre, Broadside Press, 1983.
Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, 1989.
Boyd, Melba Joyce. Wrestling With the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, Columbia University Press, 2004.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale Research, 1985.
King, Woodie, Jr., editor, The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1981.
Miller, R. Baxter, editor, Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 17, no. 4, 1983, p. 157; February 1984.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December 2000, p. 14.
Black World, December 1971; September 1974.
Callaloo, Vol. 6, no. 1, 1983, p. 156.
Detroit Free Press Magazine, April 11, 1982.
Journal of American History, March 2005, p. 1546.
Negro Digest, February 1965; September 1965; January 1968; December 1969.
New York Times, January 30, 1984.
New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1972.
Obsidian, Vol. 2, no. 1, 1976, p. 32.
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