It is a “marvel,” a “curious thing,” wrote the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, “to make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
Like all good poets, Cullen twines strands of meaning. But in the literal sense, he was hardly visionary. In a typical week, metro Detroit hosts, for instance, any number of poetry forums that are bulging with black poets, if not outright Afro-centric. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons staged his Def Poetry Jam in theaters nationwide; Black Entertainment Television hosted a weekly poets café. As you read these lines, the quasi-poetry of rap booms from millions of vehicles on the nation’s byways.
Between black poetry-as-curiosity in Cullen’s 1920s and today’s proliferation, there’s the life of poet and publisher Dudley Randall. That the late Detroit poet laureate was a force in the ’60s and ’70s boom in black poetry nationwide and the then-radical political messages these poets yearned to publish is indisputable — he founded arguably the most important and influential publishing house of the time for African-American poets: Broadside Press. Melba Joyce Boyd’s Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press documents Randall’s life and work; her book is an engaging and important contribution to the literature on the rise of black poetry, taking its place alongside the autobiographies of Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka and too few other works.
Wrestling with the Muse addresses the career of a poet as complex as the movement he helped engender. And it’s a uniquely Detroit story. The author, a one-time assistant to Randall, is a poet in her own right and a Wayne State University professor. She finds her own story and that of her subject at points inseparable.
According to Boyd’s telling, from the age of 6, Randall grew up in Detroit’s Black Bottom. His father had hoped and trained for a career as a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. But Arthur Randall bumped heads with the church hierarchy and wound up working, instead, in the Ford foundry. He was stern and apparently overbearing in contrast to his more introspective wife, Ada, a former college teacher (Hampton Institute) turned housewife and boardinghouse proprietress. Temperamentally, young Dudley took after his mother.
Belief in education, upward mobility and “the race” were givens in the Randall household. The elder Randall took his children to see the likes of writer-activists W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson when they came to town. Interviewed late in life, Dudley Randall reminisced about a youth that included paper routes, his Boy Scout troop based at Plymouth Congregational Church, and summers spent reading Shelley and Keats. He recalled listening to his dad recite Tennyson and Browning, and the excitement of listening to Joe Louis’ exploits on the radio.
Like many teens, Randall penned his first poem while smitten; unlike most, he kept writing more or less for the rest of his life.
He graduated from Eastern High and went to work in the Ford Rouge plant foundry (for 50 cents an hour) and then for the U.S. Post Office. At age 21 he eloped with a neighbor five years his junior, embarking on the first of three marriages.
At 23 a mutual friend introduced Randall to the slightly older Robert Hayden, a future U.S. poet laureate. Boyd paints the picture of two kindred sons of Black Bottom honing each other’s “aesthetic acumen,” both seeking to capture in verse the Black Bottom of the Depression, with its street corner pols, food vendors, hookers, parading Garveyites, children at play and full range of humanity. (The notion of the two future poet laureates kicking back and listening to Billie Holiday in a Paradise Valley club should suggest a poem to some reader out there.)
Hayden, a student at what is now Wayne State University, was already in an artsy milieu with a WPA writing gig and his left-labor associations. Randall would find himself in such supportive circles only later, after serving in World War II and enrolling through the G.I. Bill at Wayne. There he joined the Miles Poetry Workshop and met Hoyt Fuller, the Detroiter who later edited the influential Negro Digest and its successor, Black World.
Randall earned a master’s degree in library science at the University of Michigan, and worked for a time at Lincoln University in Missouri before returning to Detroit and a post at the University of Detroit.
By the early ’60s, he was tapped into a zeitgeist of black and white artists and activists, many of whom hung out at the Boone House, an old church parsonage where, as Randall put it, “musicians could play, artists could exhibit and poets could read their poems.”
Randall was propelled into publishing by one of the most heinous incidents of the civil rights movement: the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that left four little girls dead. Randall responded with “Ballad of Birmingham.” He had the poem printed on a single-sheet placard — a broadside in printers’ usage — with the copyright holder designated as Broadside Press. The poem proved popular enough to justify additional printings. Additional broadsides followed featuring some of the most esteemed black poets of the time (Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hayden), along with lesser-known and new firebrands on the scene such as LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka).
From broadsides it was a short leap to small books, and soon Broadside Press was cranking them out; his publishing house was born. By 1974, Randall and associates had published 192 African-American poets, dwarfing decades of output from the entire mainstream publishing industry.
Poetry vs. politics
In the streets, the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” gave way to the James Brown hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” The black literary scene shifted in tandem, and Broadside became a major vehicle for quickly rising stars in sync with the times. It was a time for voices like Don L. Lee and Nikki Giovanni, the most influential and popular of the new poets, respectively.
This new poetry was hot, hip, in-your-face and outta-my-way! It was controversial, sometimes crossing the line between newfound pride and a kind of “counter-supremacy” (to recycle a term from writer Greg Tate).
“Can you kill/Can you piss on a blond head/Can you cut it off/Can you kill”? wrote Giovanni in the period classic, “The True Import of Current Dialogue: Black vs. Negro.”
“So much of the work is blatantly separatist, blatantly non-poetry,” lamented Hayden, who was pilloried and castigated for insisting that he was — as others should be — an artist first, black second.
Like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who became an important ally to Broadside Press, Randall sided with the bravura of the younger generation, excesses excused, if not entirely embraced. As one peer observed, what Randall published was different — at least in style — from what he wrote. Randall maintained his aesthetic ground in poems that continued the calm, steadying cadences that he had been crafting since the 1940s. His 1948 poem “Roses and Revolution” was so visionary most readers assume it was written against the backdrop of protest marches and cities in flames.
When the times caught up to his revolutionary vision, Randall was no less militant, but he knew the difference between politics and pomp.
While the throngs crowned themselves the descendants of enslaved kings and queens, Randall explains in “Ancestors” that his pride was undiminished when he discovered that his family tree leads back to a guy who slept where he worked: in the mud of the royal pigpen.
More to the core of his artistry, along with poems to be recited at the barricades, Randall kept on writing and publishing love poems as well. In his poem “Sanctuary,” he writes of love as the only refuge from the times:
So step into the circle of my arms
while we are hurled, with the other doomed spirits,
around and around in the fury of the whirlwind.
As Boyd explains, later in the ’70s, Broadside was vexed by debts and a changing national mood (out with Afros, in with discos). Randall twice lost control of the press. The upsets brought on bouts of depression, during one of which Randall torched his personal papers and was a trigger-pull away from suicide when his wife, Vivian, pulled him from the brink.
Randall rebounded with a burst of uncharacteristically bawdy verse, beginning with an old man’s ode to the miniskirt. Boyd recounts her efforts to help Randall through the dark days of depression when she was in Detroit. The visionary publisher and poet died at age 86 in 2000. His publishing house carries on his legacy in a much diminished fashion today. A live poetry series also continues the Broadside vision.
It was at the height of the Broadside Press era in the early 1970s, when Boyd, armed with a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan, went to work as an awe-struck assistant to the low-key Randall, who was running his internationally renowned operation from a former fast-food shack on Livernois.
In time, Randall became more of a mentor to Boyd than her boss, encouraging the young poet to pursue advanced degrees and critiquing and publishing her poetry. Randall stood by Boyd, and her relationship with him deepened, when Boyd’s family became embroiled in a tragic and notorious Detroit conflagration in 1972. One of Boyd’s brothers, a cousin and another man, apparently chasing drug dealers out of the neighborhood vigilante-style, wound up in a shoot-out that left four cops wounded. The ensuing police manhunt for the shooters turned into a rampage in the city’s black communities — one cop was killed and another wounded in a second shoot-out with the wanted trio.
Two of the young, black radicals (including Boyd’s brother) were ultimately killed by cops, escalating police-community tensions to a fever pitch that would only subside with the election of Coleman Young as mayor in 1973. Young, in turn, would name Randall as the city’s poet laureate.
Boyd says she was honored and a bit flabbergasted when Randall chose her as his official biographer. The author has repaid the honor of his request with an even-handed, respectful biography (though a firmer editorial hand and better copy editing could have smoothed some roughness and glitches).
By intent, this is a book longer on literary analysis than sleuthing; a good deal of what Detroit playwright Ron Milner called “the mystery of Dudley” remains to the end.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t a wealth of material here about a poet and his far-flung associates, his city and his times. Randall was the vehicle for a great deal of important poetry to be seen and heard, and in his own craftsmanship there’s a reminder of what’s worth listening to.
Broadside Press and University of Detroit Mercy Press recently issued A Different Image: The Legacy of Broadside Press, an anthology of Broadside Press poetry, edited by Gloria House, Albert M. Ward and Rosemary Weatherston. Boyd is editing an anthology of Randall’s writings for publication next year.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].