Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
Dudley Felker Randall was one of the most influential forces in African American poetry from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. One reason is that his poetry provides a bridge between the more traditional Western poetic forms used by earlier writers such as Countée Cullen and the new themes and style of the generation of poets springing up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that he established Broadside Press, which became a primary forum for new black voices.
Randall was born in Washington, D.C. His father, a minister, and his mother, a schoolteacher, provided him with early access to the world of poetry and the world of political thought, both of which became central to his literary career. At four, he wrote his own lyrics to the song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which he heard at a band concert with his mother; at thirteen, he won a poetry prize in a contest sponsored by the Detroit Free Press. During his childhood, Randall’s father took him to hear such great black poets and political figures of the day as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois. After Randall’s graduation from high school in 1930, jobs were scarce because of the Depression. Eventually he found work at Ford Motor Company and then with the United States Post Office. During World War II, he served in the Army in the South Pacific. After the war, he returned to school, eventually receiving a master’s degree in library science from Michigan State University. He worked at libraries in Missouri and Maryland before returning to Michigan, where he was employed by the Wayne County Federated Library System until 1969. From 1964 to 1969, Randall was poet-in-residence and librarian at the University of Detroit. In 1962 and 1966, he received the Tompkins Award for both poetry and fiction from Wayne State University.
In 1965 Randall established Broadside Press. Its inception occurred when he wished to copyright his poem, “Ballad of Birmingham.” He paired it with another ballad, “Dressed All in Pink.” These became Broadside’s numbers one and two, thus giving the press its name. Both are rhymed ballads. “Ballad of Birmingham” tells of a child killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. The mother, afraid of danger, denies her child’s request to attend a freedom march, sending the child to church instead. The last stanza portrays the mother discovering her child’s shoe in the rubble. “Dressed All in Pink” is in the style of a folk ballad, complete with a prince and princess out for a ride. The royal couple are President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, riding through Dallas. Broadside poems by other writers followed. Soon the series provided inexpensive copies of poems by both new and established African American writers.
The first book of poetry that the press published was a collaborative work between Randall and Margaret Danner called Poem Counterpoem. The two produced pairs of poems on the same subject, and they were set side by side. Randall published a second collection in 1968, Cities Burning. Its twelve poems reflect the variety of styles and themes that characterizes Randall’s work, as he blends rhymed and free verse, political commentary, and traditional subject matter. In view of this balance, the poem “Black Poet, White Critic” seems particularly ironic, as it presents a critic’s advice to avoid “controversial subjects like freedom and murder” in order to concentrate on universal symbols, such as the white unicorn.
With the publication of Cities Burning, Randall’s reputation as a poet and publisher grew. He doubled as poet-in-residence and reference librarian for the University of Detroit from 1969 to 1975. During this time, he also taught courses in black literature at the university, gave a number of readings, and was involved in conferences and seminars throughout the country. In 1966, Randall, with a delegation of black artists, visited Paris, Prague, and the Soviet Union, where he read his translations and his own poems to Russian audiences. In 1970, he visited West Africa, touring Ghana, Togo, and Dahomey and meeting with African writers.
Broadside published works by other black writers as well. The anthology For Malcolm, co-edited by Randall, was a landmark volume that combined many of the best of the older generation of African American writers with strong new voices: Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka (at that time known as LeRoi Jones), Sonia Sanchez, and Etheridge Knight. Soon authors who had been published elsewhere sought out Broadside Press. It published a number of works by Gwendolyn Brooks; although Randall advised her that she might be better off with an established firm, she insisted on using Broadside. Nikki Giovanni brought her second book, Black Judgment, to Broadside in 1968.
Randall also continued writing, as well as editing and publishing. His next book of poetry, Love You, was a collection of fourteen love poems, ranging from the traditional to free verse. More to Remember, a volume of collected poems, again reveals Randall’s variety in style and theme. During the late 1960’s Randall toured the Soviet Union and West Africa. Several of the poems in his next book, After the Killing, reflect this. “African Suite” contains a series of poems set in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. It also includes a translation from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. A Litany of Friends, contains eighty-two poems and is divided into five sections according to theme: “Friends,” “Eros,” “War,” “Africa,” and “Me.”
After his retirement in 1975, Randall continued his involvement in writing conferences and readings, but he devoted the majority of his time to the Broadside Press and his own writing. Randall was appointed poet laureate of the city of Detroit in 1981. In 1985 he sold Broadside Press. A celebration of his eighty-second birthday in 1996, held at the Detroit Institute of Arts, was marked by the premiere of Melba Boyd’s documentary film about Randall’s life, called The Black Unicorn. Randall died after a long struggle with congestive heart failure on August 5, 2000.