Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3633
SOURCE: “Broadside Press: A Personal Chronicle,” in The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd B. Barbour, Porter Sargent Publisher, 1970, pp. 139-48.
[In the following essay, Randall offers a history of Broadside Press, including a description of its early years, its philosophy and business structure, and its significant publications. Randall further states his concern for the need of more small black presses that specialize in the genres of the essay, drama, and reference.]
Broadside Press did not grow from a blueprint. I did not, like Joe Goncalves when he planned the Journal of Black Poetry, save money in advance to finance the press. Broadside Press began without capital, from the twelve dollars I took out of my paycheck to pay for the first Broadside, and has grown by hunches, intuitions, trial and error.
Our first publication was the Broadside “Ballad of Birmingham.” 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. Learning that leaflets could be copyrighted, I published it as a Broadside in 1965. Jerry Moore also set the ballad “Dressed All in Pink” to music, and in order to copyright it I printed this poem also as a Broadside. Being a librarian, accustomed to organizing and classifying material, I grouped the two poems into a Broadside Series, and called them Broadsides number one and number two. Since Broadsides, at that time, were the company's sole product, I gave it the name Broadside Press.
In May 1966 I attended the first Writers’ Conference at Fisk University, and obtained permission from Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson, and Margaret Walker, who were there, to use their poems in the Broadside Series. I wrote to Gwendolyn Brooks and obtained her permission to use “We Real Cool.” This first group of six Broadsides, called “Poems of the Negro Revolt,” is, I think, one of the most distinguished groups in the Broadside Series, containing outstanding poems by some of our finest poets.
At that time my intention was to publish famous familiar poems in an attractive format so that people could buy their favorite poems in a form worth treasuring. A reviewer in Small Press Review, however, suggested that I could serve contemporary poetry better by publishing previously unpublished poems. Beginning with Broadside twenty-five, I have attempted to do this, I try to make the format of the Broadside harmonize with the poem in paper, color, and typography, and often employ artists to design or illustrate the Broadsides. Some Broadsides outstanding for their appearance are number four (“The Sea Turtle and the Shark,” by Melvin B. Tolson), designed in blue by sculptor-painter Cledie Taylor; number six (“We Real Cool,’ by Gwendolyn Brooks), lettered white on black by Cledie Taylor to simulate scrawls on a blackboard; and number eighteen (“Black Madonna,” by Harold Lawrence), gold on white with an illustration by painter Leroy Foster.
The first book planned (but not the first published) by Broadside Press was For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X. This book had its genesis at the first Fisk University Writers’ Conference. As I was walking to one of the sessions, I saw Margaret Walker, the poet, and Margaret Burroughs, the painter, sitting in front of their dormitory. Mrs. Burroughs was sketching, and Miss Walker was rehearsing her reading, for she was to read her poems that afternoon. I sat down to watch and to listen, and when Miss Walker read a poem on Malcolm X, I said, “Everybody's writing about Malcolm X. I know several people who've...
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written poems about him.”
“That's right,” Margaret Burroughs said. “Why don't you collect the poems and put out a book on Malcolm?”
I thought it over for a few seconds, snapped my fingers, and said, “I'll do it. And you can be my co-editor.”
Thus the anthology For Malcolm was born.
Most conferences have much talk, but little action. Mrs. Burroughs and I decided to inject some action into this conference by announcing our book at the final session, and offering the writers there a concrete vehicle for their poems. David Llorens promised to announce it in Negro Digest (now Black World) and in a few days I received the first poem. This anthology is notable not only for the many fine poems it includes, but also because it brings maturer poets such as Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks together with younger poets such as LeRoi Jones, Larry Neal, Bobb Hamilton, Sonia Sanchez, Julia Fields, Etheridge Knight, David Llorens, and others. My editorship of the book acquainted me with many of the younger poets and with the periodicals Soulbook and Black Dialogue, and led to rewarding friendships with some of the poets.
Although this anthology was the first book planned by Broadside Press, it was not the first one published. Because of printer's delays, it was not published until June 1967. In the meantime, Poem Counterpoem, by Margaret Danner and myself, was published in December 1966; it is the first book published by Broadside Press. It has a unique format, as its title suggests. The poems are arranged in pairs, a poem by each author on facing pages, and each pair of poems is on the same or a similar subject. The most obvious example of this pairing is the last pair of poems, each of which bears the title “Belle Isle.”
The first edition, limited to five hundred numbered, autographed copies, had a four-by-five inch format like that of the Russian poetry series “The Young Guard,” which sold for ten or twelve kopeks (eight or ten cents), and which favorably impressed me when I visited Russia in 1966. The American public, however, buys books like cabbages, by weight not by content, and it did not sell well in this format. The second printing was enlarged to the regular book size of eight by five inches, and although it contained the same poems and the same number of pages, it sold better. The book is now in its second, revised edition and its third printing. I suppose a few copies of the original printing are still available at a few bookstores.
The next book to be published by Broadside Press was one of our best selling books, Black Pride, by the popular young poet, Don I. Lee, I had met Mr. Lee when the copies of For Malcolm arrived at Mrs. Burroughs’ Museum of African American History. Don Lee, at that time an assistant at the Museum, whose quiet manner belied the fires underneath, helped us as we autographed and mailed authors’ copies. Later, he sent me some poems for comments, and then sent me a copy of his first book, Think Black, which he had had privately printed in an edition of 700, which sold out in one week. I wrote him a note thanking him for his book and commented on it.
When his second book, Black Pride, was ready, he asked that Broadside Press publish it, and that I write the introduction. We published Black Pride in 1968, and took over Think Black. In 1969, we published his Don't Cry, Scream, in both paperbound and cloth editions. The cloth edition of Don't Cry, Scream was a first with Broadside Press, but shortly afterward we put out our second hardcover book, the second edition of For Malcolm.
At this writing, Think Black has had twelve printings, and there are twenty-five thousand copies in print. Black Pride is in its seventh printing, and Don't Cry, Scream, just out in March 1969, had its third printing (5000 copies) the following September. It is only lack of money which prevents these printings from being 10,000 instead of 5000, as they sell rapidly and it is hard to keep bookstores in supply. All together, there are about 55,000 copies of Don Lee's books in print at this time. This has occurred without book reviews in the mass media. The only reviews of Lee's books have appeared in small black and underground magazines. In March 1969 there was an article on Lee by David Llorens in Ebony, a widely circulated black magazine, but the article appeared after, not before, Lee had attained his popularity.
Another poet who has been warmly praised is Etheridge Knight. He contributed three poems to For Malcolm, and I corresponded with him in Indiana State Prison. I asked him to do a book for Broadside Press, and we published his Poems from Prison in 1968, which is now in its third printing. Mr. Knight is now living in Indianapolis, and is working on his second book of poetry.
James Emanuel's first book of poetry, The Treehouse and Other Poems was also published in 1968, as was my second book of verse, Cities Burning. The same year we become distributors for Nikki Giovanni's second book, Black Judgment, and published Margaret Danner's Impressions of African Art Forms. This book, which is a facsimile of the original edition privately printed in 1960, has the distinction of being the only volume of poetry completely devoted to the vivid, varied, sophisticated arts of Black Africa. In 1969, books by Jon Eckels, Beatrice Murphy and Nancy Arnez, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Stephany were published.
Our list has expanded considerably from the two Broadsides with which we began in 1965. Now, in 1970, we have sixteen books and thirty-two Broadsides. Scheduled to be published are books by Lance Jeffers, Doughtry Long, and John Raven. Among books promised to us are two by Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker, winner of the Yale University Younger Poets Award.
In 1969 we published our second anthology, Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets. Robert Hayden and I, both of whom have taught at the University of Michigan, were asked by the chairman of the Department of English to compile a small collection of black poetry, as students had pointed out that the anthologies used in the introduction-to-poetry courses contained no black poets. Because of pressures of time in moving to different teaching posts, Mr. Hayden had to withdraw from the project, but I completed it, and the new anthology can be used both by students and by the general reader. We are also distributing an anthology of poetry and prose, Black Arts: An Anthology of Black Creations, edited by Ahmed Alhamisi and Harun Kofi Wangara, and published in 1969 by Alhamisi's Black Arts Publications. In a different dimension is Broadside Voices, which is a series of poets reading their own books on tape. So far, James Emanuel, Dudley Randall, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Jon Eckels, Beatrice Murphy and Nancy Arnez, Marvin X, Willie Kgositsile, Don Lee, and Stephany have taped their books. James Emanuel was the first to complete a tape, and he read so well that Etheridge Knight, to whom I sent Emanuel's tape as a model, said that Emanuel gave him an inferiority complex in regard to his own reading. Knight made four tapes before he produced one which was satisfactory.
There are interesting sound effects in some of the tapes. An explosive sound which occurs at a dramatic moment in Emanuel's tape near the end of “A View from the White Helmet” is the sound of an automobile backfiring. The percussive sounds at the beginning of Sonia Sanchez's tape, which she recorded in my home, are the tapping of her shoes as she walked back and forth while reading. When I played back the first few poems, I detected the noise, and asked her to pull off her shoes.
In 1968 Broadside Press began United States distribution of Paul Breman's Heritage Series, imported from England, which includes Conrad Kent Rivers’ posthumous The Still Voice of Harlem and Russell Atkin's Heretofore. Eventually the series will include books by Lloyd Addison, Ray Durem, Owen Dodson, Audrey Lorde, Dudley Randall, Ishmael Reed, and other poets.
Up to now, Broadside Press has published poetry only. A new departure will be the series Broadside Critics, which will be pamphlets of criticism of black poetry by black critics. James Emanuel has consented to be editor of the series. Pamphlets for which tentative commitments have been made are: Don L. Lee on poets emerging during the 1960's, Arna Bontemps on Jean Toomer, Robert Hayden on Countee Cullen, James Emanuel on Langston Hughes, and Dudley Randall on Gwendolyn Brooks. It is hoped that these pamphlets will be enlightening and influential.
I have not locked myself in any rigid ideology in managing Broadside Press, but I suppose certain inclinations or directions appear in my actual activities. As clearly as I can see by looking at myself (which is not very clearly, because of the closeness) I restrict the publications to poetry (which I think I understand and can judge not too badly). An exception is the new Broadside Critics, which, even though prose, will be concerned with poetry. I reserve the press for black poets (except in For Malcolm), as I think the vigor and beauty of our black poets should be better known and should have an outlet. I try to publish a wide variety of poetry, including all viewpoints and styles (viewpoints as opposed as Marvin's X's and Beatrice Murphy's, styles as diverse as James Emanuel's and Don L. Lee's). I deplore incestuous little cliques where poets of a narrow school or ideology band together, cry themselves up, and deride all others. I believe that in the house of poetry there are many mansions, and that we can enjoy different poets for the variety and uniqueness of their poetry, not because they are all of a sameness.
Broadside Press has not been subsidized or funded by any individual, organization, foundation, or government agency. It is, has been, and always will be, free and independent. It is a free, black institution. Support for the Press has come from the grassroots, from poets who donated their poems to the anthology For Malcolm, in honor of Malcolm; from the poets in the first group of the Broadside Series, who steadfastly refused payment for their poems; from the many persons who subscribed in advance for the Broadside Series and the anthologies, so that they could be printed; and from others who donated sums above their subscriptions. It is the poets and the people who have supported Broadside Press.
I've declined partnerships, mergers, and incorporations, as I want freedom and flexibility of action; want to devote the press to poetry; and am afraid that stockholders in a corporation would demand profits and would lower quality or go into prose in order to obtain profits. Income from the press goes into publishing new books in an attractive and inexpensive format. I pay royalties to other poets, but royalties on my own books go back into the press. I'm not against royalties for myself, or profits for the company, if they ever come, but I'm more interested in publishing good poetry.
Once Gwendolyn Brooks asked me what title to call me by. I replied that since I, in my spare time and in my spare bedroom, do all the work, from sweeping floors, washing windows, licking stamps and envelopes, and packing books, to reading manuscripts, writing ads, and planning and designing books, that she just say that Dudley Randall equals Broadside Press.
In a broader sense, though, Broadside Press is, in embryo, 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. I don't think it's necessary to belabor the importance of poetry. Poetry has always been with us. It has always been a sustenance, a teacher, an inspiration, and a joy. In the present circumstances it helps in the search for black identity, reinforces black pride and black unity, and is helping to create the soul, the consciousness, and the conscience of black folk.
Instead of trying to justify poetry and the necessity of our own presses such as Broadside and the others like it—Don L. Lee's Third World Press, Tom Dent's Free Southern Theatre, Eugene Perkins’ Free Black Press, LeRoi Jones’ Jihad Productions, Ed Spriggs’ and Nikki Giovanni's Black Dialogue Press, Joe Concalves’ Journal of Black Poetry Press, Casper Jordan's and Russell Atkins’ Free Lance Press, and Norman Jordan's new Vibration Press—it would be more fruitful to look toward the future and plan how to turn these small beginnings into viable and permanent institutions. One must recognize, however, their lack of capital in a capitalistic society where a large proportion of small businesses fail every year.
I admit that 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. Writers who send me manuscripts and speak of “making a buck” turn me off.
Capitalistic writers praise the profit motive as a powerful incentive. I think they're liars. I have to confess that I seldom think of profits. My strongest motivations have been to get good black poets published, to produce beautiful books, help create and define the soul of black folk, and to know the joy of discovering new poets. I guess you could call it production for use instead of for profit.
Nevertheless, I think we should remember the lesson of the Negro Renaissance, and try to stay solvent in this jungle society. Negro writers who were a fad during the twenties were dropped by white publishers and readers when the Depression came in the thirties. Black publishers should try to build a stable base in their own communities. It is the black bookstores which are most genuinely interested in their books. In my own home town, Detroit, neither of the large department stores (in a black neighborhood, incidentally) and almost none of the white book stores stock Broadside books. Vaughn's Book Store (black) alone carries all of them. There is an interdependence between black booksellers and black publishers. One Chicago bookseller, who had just opened a store, told me, “Only Broadside and Free Black Press would give me credit. The white companies wouldn't do it.”
Publishers should foster the closest and most helpful relations with these small bookstores, should visit them, furnish them with advertisement and information, and help them with ordering.
They should encourage their authors to give readings in the bookstores and to meet their readers. They should encourage sound business practices among them by such means as giving extra discounts for early payment. Black book jobbers should be developed, as the white book jobbers are singularly uninterested in the small black publisher. Baker & Taylor, Campbell and Hall, and other large white jobbers, for instance, do not stock Broadside Press books, but only order single copies when they receive an order. We need black distributors who'll buy large quantities of books from black publishers and furnish them promptly to the trade.
We need more small publishers who will specialize in other genres besides poetry. We have always had good actors, but we have not had black playwrights to furnish them material. Today, however, we have a flowering of dramatists in LeRoi Jones, James Baldwin, Ed Bullins, Douglas Turner Ward, Owen Dodson, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, and others. Black publishers, like the French and the Baker Companies, could publish their plays in inexpensive pamphlets like poetry, and could supply mimeographed copies of parts to the many schools, colleges, churches, and grassroots theatres springing up over the country which are clamoring for meaningful material.
We have produced many fine essayists, of eloquence and moral urgency, from Frederick Douglass through Du Bois, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, and Jones to Addison Gayle and Larry Neal. Essays, like poetry and the drama, are another genre which could be published in inexpensive pamphlets, singly or in collections.
Reference librarians, like myself, have often been frustrated by the gaps in reference materials on the Negro. Ira Aldridge, for instance, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, has only in the last few years been included in biographical or theatrical reference works. Teachers, librarians, professors, and scholars could compile bibliographies, handbooks, directories, indexes, and biographical works to supplement inadequate reference works like Who's Who in America,Encyclopedia Americana,Contemporary Authors, and others. These would find a ready market in libraries, schools, colleges, businesses, and homes. A forthcoming example of such a work is Charles Evans’ Index to Black Anthologies, which will index anthologies likely to be left out of Grainger's Index to Poetry. Another example, although not a reference work, is my own Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets, the title of which is self-explanatory.
Large works such as novels, biographies, and non-fiction books, which are more costly to produce and market, will have to be left to more affluent publishers, like the Johnson Publishing Company, which has already published several novels and non-fiction books.
There is a growing market for black books, not only among the young black high school and college students, but also among older, less educated persons. A neighbor told me that he saw a worker on the production line of an automobile factory with a copy of the anthology For Malcolm in his hip pocket. I often get orders for poetry books which are scrawled and misspelled on paper torn from notebooks, and once received an order scrawled on part of a brown paper bag. I am more pleased to receive such individual orders than to receive a large order from a bookstore or a jobber, for they show that black people are reading poetry and are finding it a meaningful, not an esoteric, art.
We are a nation of twenty-two million souls, larger than Athens in the Age of Pericles or England in the Age of Elizabeth. There is no reason why we should not create and support a literature which will be to our own nation, and to the world, what those literatures were to theirs.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
Dudley Randall 1914-2000
(Full name Dudley Felker Randall) American poet, essayist, and publisher.
The following entry provides an overview of Randall's career through 1990. See also Dudley Randall Criticism (Volume 1).
Randall is widely recognized for his commitment to publishing the works of young black poets. He is also noted for his promotion of small black presses and black literary achievement, his high standards for both the aesthetic value and social relevance of poetry, and his influence on an entire generation of poets. As publisher, critic, and poet, Randall is recognized for bridging the generation gap between the Harlem Renaissance poets of the 1920s and the emerging young African-American poets of the 1960s, who are often referred to as members of a “new” Harlem Renaissance. Randall is particularly credited with influencing the careers of Etheridge Knight and Haki R. Madhubuti (also known as Don L. Lee). In addition to his work as poet, Randall is acclaimed as the founder and editor of Broadside Press, a company that helped launch the careers of many young black poets. Two early successful volumes published by Broadside include For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1967), a collection of poems by various authors in memory of Malcolm X, and Poem Counterpoem (1966), which included ten poems by Randall and ten poems by Margaret Danner.
Randall was born on January 14, 1914, in Washington D.C. When he was nine, his family moved to Detroit, and at the age of thirteen Randall won first prize for a sonnet he wrote in a poetry contest sponsored by The Detroit Free Press, for which he received one dollar. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Wayne State University in 1949, and in 1951 he received a master's degree in library science at the University of Michigan. Randall worked at both the Ford Motor Company foundry and the United States Post Office, and served in the United States Army Signal Corps. In the 1950s and 1960s, Randall was a librarian at Lincoln University, Morgan State College (now Morgan State University), and at the Wayne County Federated Library System. In 1969, he was visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan. Randall founded Broadside Press in Detroit in 1963, originally in order to publish “broadsides,” or one-page reprints of previously-published famous poems in an aesthetically pleasing format, suitable for framing. But Randall and his colleagues soon saw the need for a small press to publish the works of young black poets often overlooked by larger publishing houses. Randall conceived the idea for the first major publication of Broadside Press at a conference at Fisk University, where he noted that a number of poets had written about Malcolm X. Consequently, Broadside Press published For Malcolm, a collection of poems written by various authors in memory of Malcolm X. Randall remained editor of Broadside Press from 1965 to 1977, during which time he published over sixty volumes of poetry and criticism, including five volumes of his own poetry. Randall edited a collection titled Black Poetry in 1969. Collections of Randall's own poetry include Cities Burning (1968), Love You (1970), More to Remember (1971), and After the Killing (1973). In 1977, he sold the press, but continued to work for Broadside as a consultant. In 1981, A Litany of Friends was published, and that same year he was named First Poet Laureate of Detroit by Mayor Coleman Young. Randall died on August 5, 2000 of congestive heart failure at the age of 86.
For Malcolm includes poems by established black writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker, as well as younger poets such as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Etheridge Knight, Larry Neal, and Sonia Sanchez. Although For Malcolm was initially conceived first, problems at the printer delayed its publication and another collection, Poem Counterpoem, was published before it. Randall collaborated with Margaret Danner to write Poem Counterpoem, which is organized so that ten poems with corresponding themes by each author appear on facing pages. In “Ballad of Birmingham,” Randall refers to the infamous Alabama incident in which four girls were killed by a bomb blast set by white terrorists in Martin Luther King Jr.'s church. Randall's poem features a girl whose mother forbids her to attend a rally; fearing for her daughter's safety, she encourages the girl to attend church instead, where the youngster is killed by the bombing. Folk singer Jerry Moore was later given Randall's permission to set the lyrics of “Ballad of Birmingham” to music. Another poem, “Dressed all in Pink,” refers to the outfit worn by Jackie Kennedy at the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and was also set to music. In “Booker T. and W. E. B.” Randall creates a fictional dialogue between the two black leaders, a dialogue which ultimately favors Du Bois's views. Black Poetry is a unique publication due to the fact that it includes the work of both established black poets and writers who were younger, up-and-coming black poets in 1969. The poems of Cities Burning focus on three main areas: the role of the individual in the civil rights movement, Randall's theory of art, and the generation gap between older and younger poets. In the poem “The Profile on the Pillow,” set in the context of the race riots of the 1960s, the narrator, through the image of his lover's silhouette on a pillow, symbolically illustrates the poet's own relationship to the surrounding society. More to Remember is a collection of poems written by Randall from the 1930s to the 1970s, and displays his breadth of form and theme. In After the Killing, Randall's style and voice echo that of a younger generation of poets. The collection, A Litany of Friends, is comprised of both previously published and new poems, demonstrating the skill and extent of Randall's technical abilities.
As a poet and publisher, Randall helped revitalize black poetry in America. The several anthologies of black poetry edited by Randall are critically well received, and brought attention to young black literary talent, as well as honoring the established black poets. Critics also note that Randall maintains literary roots in both European and African-American traditions. He admired the traditional French “ballade,” a poetic form into which he incorporated themes relevant to the African-American experience. R. Baxter Miller writes, “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.” The anthology For Malcolm is noted for underscoring the significance of memorializing cultural heroes in works of art. Reviewers praiseBlack Poetry for bringing attention to the difficulties that black poets had breaking into the mainstream of the publishing industry during the 1960s and 1970s. Critics also recognize Randall's import as a promoter of poets as social commentators and critics, as evidenced in such poems as the “Ballad of Birmingham” and “The Silhouette on the Pillow.” In his review of After the Killing, Frank Marshall Davis declares, “Dudley Randall again offers visual proof of why he should be ranked in the front echelon of Black poets.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208
Reference Quarterly (review date Winter 1971)
SOURCE: A review of More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades, in Reference Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter, 1971, p. 179.
[In the following review of More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades, the critic praises Randall's collection as an accomplished expression of black identity.]
Black poetry is fast becoming itself with the work of poets like Dudley Randall, such as his collection More to Remember. Accomplished and capable, he excels in the art of his blackness. Lines like “Lovers and kisses, cruel, careless, light, / Will you remember down the long, deep night?” evidence a soul for people and poetry that is his own best tribute. This third collection of Randall's works is the most representative, containing poems from the 1930s through the 1960s. Growth, direction, and maturity are all there but so is a sure and steady voice. Some poems are more important than others but none is insignificant. The reader will not feel turmoil but a quiet inner sense which revolutionizes. Whether in “Laughter in the Slums” or the haiku-like “Shape of the Invisible,” a peace pervades. The range is limitless, making effective use of rhyme and meter or writing in the freest form. No contemporary American poetry collection is complete without Randall's verse.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96
Poem Counterpoem [with Margaret Danner] (poetry) 1966
For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X [editor] (poetry) 1967
Cities Burning (poetry) 1968
Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets [editor] (poetry) 1969
Love You (poetry) 1970
The Black Poets [editor] (poetry) 1971
More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades (poetry) 1971
After the Killing (poetry) 1973
Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (nonfiction and poetry) 1975
A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1981
Homage to Hoyt Fuller (poetry) 1984
Golden Song: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology of the Poetry Society of Michigan, 1935–1985 [coeditor with Louis J. Cantoni] (poetry) 1985
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Dudley Randall with Black Books Bulletin (interview date Winter 1972)
SOURCE: “Interviews: Dudley Randall,” in Black Books Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1972, pp. 23-6.
[In the following interview, Randall discusses the influence the Harlem Renaissance poets had on his own work, explains his goals and philosophy as a publisher of black poetry, and talks of his aim to promote black literature and black consciousness.]
Dudley Randall was born January 14, 1914 in Washington, D.C. He studied in the public schools of Washington, D.C., East St. Louis, and Detroit. In 1949, he received a B.A. degree from Wayne State University and in 1951 an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Michigan. Currently Brother Randall is serving as librarian and poet-in-residence at the University of Detroit. He is the author of four books of poetry including Poem Counterpoem, written along with Margaret Danner, Cities Burning (1968), Love You (1970) and More to Remember (1971). The last volume is a selection of all of Brother Randall's writing covering a span of forty years. He has edited three volumes of poetry, two of which are of special interest. The first, For Malcolm, co-edited with Margaret Burroughs, was the first and only volume of poetry dedicated totally to the memory of El Hajj Malik Shabazz, and the second, Black Poetry, was the first anthology of black poetry to be published by a black publishing company. Brother Randall has traveled extensively in the Soviet Union in 1966 as a member of a delegation of black artists and in 1970 to Ghana, Togo and Dahomey. In West Africa, Brother Randall studied African arts and literature at the University of Ghana. The brother has always been at the forefront of the movement and has expressed in his concrete actions our need for independent institutions. In 1965, Brother Randall founded Broadside Press in Detroit, Michigan. Broadside Press is the first major, successful black publishing venture to deal in depth and quality with the poetry of contemporary black poets. Just about every major black poet to emerge out of the Sixties sprouted with Broadside Press.
[Black Books Bulletin:] I notice the title of your latest collection of poetry is More to Remember. What was it like coming up black and a poet when blackness was not in vogue? How would you assess your growth as a poet?
[Randall:] That title More to Remember, incidentally, comes from my poem “Souvenirs” which itself means “memories” or “to remember.” If nobody else thinks my lines are epigrammatic enough to use as titles, at least I can make an effort in that direction. About growing up black, I don't think we should confuse “words” with substantive things. We said Negro then instead of black, but it meant the same thing. Instead of “black pride,” we had “race pride.” A roomer in my home was the janitor at Marcus Garvey's U.N.I.A. Hall down Russell Street, and he had me help him clean the hall after the meetings, and I heard the men talk and saw the parades. My father took me and my brothers to hear W. E. B. DuBois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson and others. He always called them “great men.” Of course, we kids would have preferred to play baseball or see a movie, but as I grew older I was glad my father had taken me to see our giants. My father also managed the campaigns or was active in the campaigns of black office-seekers. None of them were elected, and people said he was butting his head against a stone wall. It wasn't until after his death that Detroit elected its first black official. I've composed poetry since I was four. I was thirteen when I started writing seriously and studying other poets. In my neighborhood, prizefighters, not poets, were respected. I wrote my poetry secretly and hid it under a loose plank in the attic.
How much did the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” influence your growth?
Although my first book of poetry was not published until 1966, I'm the same age as poets of the Post Renaissance period, like Brooks, Hayden, and Walker. There was no group of black poets prior to the Renaissance, so we had to study the Renaissance poets. When I was thirteen, my father gave us a copy of Copper Sun. When I was sixteen I bought Cane and was moved by Toomer. I also read Cullen's anthology Caroling Dusk and Kerlin's anthology. Of course I read other poets too, the ones we studied in school, but my reading wasn't confined to school assignments. I heard Countee Cullen read at old Detroit City College, and heard Langston Hughes read. Bob Hayden was bold enough to invite him to lunch and to show him his poetry, but I was too much in awe of the great man even to shake his hand.
As publisher of Broadside Press, you have published scores of promising writers who have matured. Did the absence of a Broadside Press or Third World Press in your day dilute the literary talent?
There were no markets. Opportunity folded and Crisis ceased publishing poetry. However, I wasn't much concerned with publishing. I wrote because I enjoyed writing, and was learning how to write. When I would show Robert Hayden a new poem and he would ask where I was going to publish it, I'd be amazed. Why was he so eager to be published? As a result of our varying attitudes, his first book was published in 1940, mine in 1966. But Bob doesn't allow his early poems to be reprinted now.
Often we get the initial artistic efforts from young Blacks. Would you have any advice for them as artist and publisher?
I think young writers shouldn't rush into print with things they'll want to suppress ten years later. If it's good now, it'll be good twenty years from now. They can hold it and work on it a while. I think they should study their markets. Broadside receives plays and fiction, although we specialize in poetry. Obviously the authors haven't bothered to find out about Broadside. Writers should present their work in a professional manner. Misspelled words and bad grammar indicate the writer hasn't learned the mechanics of writing, and is a slovenly, careless writer. Of course, I lean over backwards to make sure I don't overlook some illiterate genius, but most of the time such a writer is just not serious about his craft. Some writers purposely misspell to convey the sound of black talk. Sonia Sanchez went through all the galleys of It's a New Day changing the present participles from “ing” to “en”.
What are you trying to do, as a publisher, in publishing what you do?
Several things. I'm trying to encourage poetry, because I like poetry. I'm trying to give people joy, because poetry gives joy. I'm helping to create black literature, and pride in black literature, therefore, pride in ourselves. I'm helping to create black consciousness, and values for black people to live by.
The Broadside Critics Series with James A. Emanuel as General Editor has recently made its appearance with Don L. Lee's Dynamite Voices, Volume I. What is the purpose of the series, and who are the other authors and what topics will they be dealing with?
The purpose of the series is to have black critics study black poets. White critics have ignored and overlooked black poets, or have treated them with arrogance, condescension, and lack of understanding. So, we'll criticize ourselves ourselves. Similar background and experiences should make for empathy and understanding. Don Lee is writing Part 2 of Dynamite Voices. Addison Gayle, Jr.'s Claude McKay is at the printer's. Sarah Webster Fabio is writing on Margaret Walker. Lance Jeffers is writing on Countee Cullen. We'll have other critics do other poets, when we find the right critics for the poets.
We heard that Gwendolyn Brooks is exclusively with Broadside now? Is that true? And when can the public expect her autobiography?
Not exclusively, since she's given a children's book to Third World Press. But she offered her work to us, because she believes in what we're doing. She's working on her autobiography, and when she finishes we'll be proud to publish it. In the meantime, the first chapter will be published in McCall's December issue, and another chapter in the Chicago Sun-Times.
What is the purpose of the Broadside Series?
The purpose has changed. First, it was to present well-known poems by black poets in an attractive format. Then we started publishing new poems, to help new poets. This year we've started publishing more than one poet in a Broadside. We'll change as we go along. But it's a convenient format in which to present a classic, a timely poem, a new poem, a new poet, or a group of poems or poets.
Recently we read where Gwendolyn Brooks is doing a Broadside Treasury. But does Broadside Press plan to do a major anthology of Black Literature which is historical?
No, because historical anthologies are boring. I publish poems because they're good, not because they're historical. Besides, we couldn't afford to pay the permissions. I've done The Black Poets for Bantam Books, Inc., which is more or less historical, since it ranges from the spirituals to Stephany, but most of the purely historical poems I've left out, and tried to include good poems.
How much progress do you see in Black Writing since the crusade of blackness pumped energy into a whole generation of young writers around 1966? Are the young writers seriously dealing with their craft?
As always, you have some original poets and many imitators who are getting on the bandwagon. The best poets are seriously concerned with their craft. Carolyn Rodgers has tackled the problem of language. Much of the new poetry is oral. I think one problem is getting down on paper what sounds good when read aloud. Often it is flat and banal on the page. One word or phrase chanted over and over with different voices and different intonations may sound exciting when heard, but is it poetry? Is, for instance, “Die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die,” poetry? Does it have any meaning? Isn't it somewhat verbose? Is a locomotive football cheer, which is certainly stirring, poetry? Is beating a drum poetry? Of course, this isn't new. Poe did it ages ago with his “Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.” That's why Emerson called him the “jingle man.” Perhaps you could call it “hypnotic poetry,” where the reiteration of a phrase hypnotizes the reader. I'm not damning it, only raising questions for the poets to answer.
What are the major problems a small Black press faces? Do you see a great future for those Blacks bold enough to venture into the publishing business?
Major problems are: (1) financing, (2) collecting what is owed them. These are interrelated. The books sell, and if the publishers were promptly paid, they could afford to issue larger printings and larger books at lower unit cost and thus publish more books and larger printings. Banks are averse to lend, and anyway independent publishers don't want to borrow or to beg for grants. My own method is to finance out of what comes in. I still haven't solved the problem of collection. If half of what is owed me were paid, I could pay off the printer and still have enough to finance more books. There are great possibilities in publishing, not so much in money as in achievements. Books contain ideas, and ideas move the world.
A neglected area seems to be poetry written for and by young Blacks, particularly those at the incipiency of adolescence. Do you and Broadside Press plan to publish things for and by young Blacks?
Sonia Sanchez's It's a New Day is for young brothers and sisters. Gwendolyn Brooks’ Aloneness is for children, but it's so rich and imaginative that both adolescents and adults will enjoy it, too. Lori Lunceford is an adolescent who appears in one of our broadsides. I would say we publish for young blacks and are willing to publish things by young blacks if they are well written. Generally, in accepting poetry, I go by the excellence of the poem, not by the age of the poet.
We understand that Broadside Press will publish Gwendolyn Brooks’ Black Position. What is it? And what is it trying to do?
It was Miss Brooks’ idea to present position papers by black leaders on matters of concern to the black community. They would present current black thinking and thus suggest alternatives and help solve problems of the black community.
What young writers do you expect to do great things in the future?
Traits that indicate promise are: strong motivation, love of words, (since they are the poet's medium), seriousness, dedication to craftsmanship, willingness to study, learn, grow and change, health, stamina, and staying power. There are many writers I could name: Baraka, Knight, Lee, Giovanni, Sanchez, Rodgers, Charley Cobb, Sam Greenlee, Sterling Plumpp, Arthur Pfister, Ishmael Reed, Lucille Clifton, and many more. We are very proud of poets whose first books we are publishing in 1972, … Lynn Levy, Judy Simmons, Pearl Lomax, and Jill Witherspoon.
What are your views about Broadside Press doing an anthology of unpublished writers yearly?
We plan to do this. In January we'll publish A Broadside Annual 1972, and we'll do this every year, including unpublished or seldom-published poets.
Will Broadside Press ever do novels?
We're planning five and ten years ahead. We plan, eventually, to broaden into non-poetry, including novels. We intend to limit the number of books we publish so we can give more attention to planning, editing, advertising, and distribution of each title. Steps in this direction are Bill Odarty's A Safari of African Cooking, scheduled for December, 1971, and Miss Brooks’ autobiography.
How have Broadside publications been received in the international market?
Our books sell in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.
You've been the first Black publisher to give young writers national exposure. Keeping this in mind, why after the initial aid do some of the better known leave and go to the larger white publishing companies, especially when people like Gwendolyn Brooks are leaving white houses and coming to the Black companies? There seems to be an inherent contradiction here.
I could compose a book on this question. Perhaps they have an inferiority complex that makes them believe that nothing black is good unless whites put the stamp of approval on it. So they run to big publishers at the first opportunity, to show they're accepted by the Establishment. But I'll dwell on the positive, not on the negative. All writers are human, and human beings have a tremendous range of values. Writers like Don Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez are committed to liberation, nation-building, not ego-tripping and getting rich. Other writers agree with Jerry, a character in Chest's The Marrow of Tradition. “I'm gwine ter keep my mouf shet an’ stan’ in wid de Angry-Saxon race, … an’ keep on de right side er my bread an’ meat. W'at nigger ever give me twenty cents in all my bawn days?” Power doesn't always confront you with machine guns and tear gas. Sometimes it seduces with free lunches and dinners, flattery, fat advances, promises of beautifully printed books, fame and fortune. Who said that liberation was easy? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were shot to death. Sékou Touré said, “We'd rather be poor and free than rich and slaves.”
When I pointed out to Gwen Brooks that Broadside Press couldn't give her the advertising and distribution that big publishers could, it only irritated her. Don Lee would brush aside such considerations. When a critic asked Sonia Sanchez why she didn't switch to a big publisher, she said, “She don't know Broadside Press is the baddest. …. …. … . … press today.” With stalwarts like these, I can let the others go. They'll just leave more room for the truly committed.
The committed writers don't have to give us all their books. John Killens is doing a biography of Alexander Pushkin, which I can't afford to publish, but he promised me a children's book on Pushkin, which I can afford. In this way, writers can help us build publishing institutions for the black community.
Still, I don't think writers should come to us just because we're black. I think we should develop such expertise and efficiency that we can speak to the others in terms they can relate to, … that is, fame and money.
To look over your list of authors, one would say that you have most of the known Black poets in America writing today. How do you account for such a list? Also, do you feel yourself threatened by the newer Black publishers such as Third World Press of Chicago, Drum and Spear of Washington, D.C., Jihad of Newark, etc.?
The same way black minor league managers got such great players as Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige. The whites wouldn't have ‘em. So they came to Broadside. I am glad for every good book the other publishers put out. Every publishing company has its own personality, and attracts writers congenial to it. Drum and Spear favors children's books, Jihad is concerned with nation-building, Third World is interested in education, Broadside specializes in poetry. Perhaps, and I may be wrong, we're the most literary of the publishers, and writers interested in creating good literature will gravitate to us. But I feel there's room for us all. After all, I receive at least 200 manuscripts a year, and can publish only ten or twenty. That leaves 180 or 190 for the other publishers.
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Amini, Johari. Review of Black Poetry.Negro Digest XIX, No. 1 (November, 1969): 87-89.
Praises Black Poetry for including new as well as already published poems.
Barbour, Floyd B., ed. The Black Seventies. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1970.
Collection of essays by leading black authors.
Blum, Howard. “In Detroit, A Poet's Work Is Never Done.” New York Times, (January 30, 1984): A8.
Randall discusses his appointment as Poet Laureate of Detroit.
Davis, Frank Marshall. Review of After the Killing.Black World 23, No. 11 (September, 1974): 85.
A very brief review of the collection of poems in After the Killing, which Davis calls both militant and memorable.
Fields, Julia. Review of Poem Counterpoem.Negro Digest 16, No. 11 (September, 1967): 51.
Brief review of Poem Counterpoem.
Gayle, Jr., Addison, ed. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Collection of essays on black music, poetry, drama, and fiction.
Giovanni, Nikki. Review of Cities Burning.Negro Digest XVIII, No. 11 (September, 1969): 96.
Praises Cities Burning as a “total poem” in the long line of black poetry which echoes the sentiment “get off my back.”
King, Jr., Woodie, ed. The Forerunners: Black Poets in America. Washington, D. C.: Howard University Press, 1981.
Collection of poems by black writers, with an introduction by King.
Rivers, Conrad Kent. Review of For Malcolm.Negro Digest 16, No. 8 (June 1967): 68-70.
Describes For Malcolm as a positive expression of African-American identity.
Additional coverage of Randall's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 82; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers,Vol. 1, 3; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41.
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SOURCE: “Anthology in Tribute to Malcolm,” in Freedomways, Vol. 13, No. 2, Second Quarter, 1973, pp. 167-168.
[In the following review of For Malcolm X, Gow praises anthologies of its type for paying tribute to important figures in black history.]
He fell upon his face before Allah the raceless in whose blazing Oneness all
Were one. He rose, renewed, renamed, became much more than there was time for him to be.
“Labbayk! Labbayk!,” Robert Hayden
The prose additions to this collection [For Malcolm X] are almost as interesting as the poems themselves. The book begins with a six-page biography of Malcolm X and a brief introduction explaining the contents. In the latter the editors claim: “There is no black, regardless of his agreement or disagreement with Malcolm's politics, goals, or racial theories, whether he's a serf in Mississippi, a cat on the corner in Chicago, or a black bourgeois in Westchester, who didn't feel a stiffening of his spine and pride in his blackness when he saw or heard Malcolm take on all comers, and rout them.”
A preface, “Why I Eulogized Malcolm X” follows. It is written by actor-playwright Ossie Davis—one of the first persons to express shock, horror and sorrow over the fatal shooting. The entire text of the eulogy appears in the appendix. One reason for paying tribute to the dead hero was explained in these words: “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.”
Near the back of the book are photographs and biographical notes about each author. A bibliography of books, pamphlets, periodicals and unpublished manuscripts is also available to students seeking reference material concerning Malcolm X.
The poetry is divided into four sections: The Life, The Death, The Rage, The Aftermath. There is a wide array of well-known authors in each part. Familiar names such as Gwendolyn Brooks, LeRoi Jones, Mari Evans and Ted Joans are scattered throughout. “Jungle Flower” by Marcella Caine—reprinted from Negro Digest—is a warm, lyrical study of this outstanding leader.
Jungle colors, Fluted and starred Blossom at night Without regard For the dying blight Long overgrown Of rotting log And crumbling stone.
As a ghetto child He blossomed and grew Without regard For the blight he knew That hatred is black And fear is white, But death flowered redly One awful night.
Edward S. Spriggs begins his poem “For Brother Malcolm” with these lines: “there is no memorial site / in harlem / save the one we are building / in the street of / our young minds.” Anthologies of this type help keep alive the memories of those who made significant contributions to the history of black people in the world today. Poems are memorials of a kind—as illustrated in this poignant expression of loss by Julia Fields:
His eyes were mirrors of our agony. They are closed. His lips were testaments of our hunger. They are closed. His ears were circuits for our cries. They are closed. His hands were petitioners against our bondage. They are closed. When shall such another Pierce and sting this land?
“For Malcolm X”
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SOURCE: “Black Emotion and Experience: The Literature of Understanding,” in American Libraries, Vol. 4, No. 2, February, 1973, pp. 86-90.
[In the following essay, Randall sketches the history of African-American poetry and literature, highlighting key authors, important works, and literary movements such as the Harlem Renaissance and the wellspring of black literature in the 1960s, which is often called a “new” Harlem Renaissance.]
In 1970 I took movies of black American students coming out of the dungeons of the former slave castle in Elmina, Ghana. The tour of the castle was a profoundly moving experience for us. Probably all of us thought, “Long ago our mothers and fathers passed through just such a place as this. People like us suffered and died here.” Our emotional upheaval was evident in facial expressions, gestures, words, tears.
Some were crying and some were cursing
Some were dry-eyed and some said never a mumbalin word
There were also white American students in the group, but perhaps they were not so deeply affected. Perhaps they reflected on man's inhumanity to man, but doubtless none of them thought, “I was a slave here, long ago.” As all of us looked over the parapets at the cold gray Atlantic and thought of America far away, our thoughts of our ancestors who crossed those waters had to be different. The ancestors of the white students probably had some foreboding of a strange land, of physical hardships, of natives who might resent having their land taken from them, but mostly they had a sense of freedom—freedom from religious and political persecution, freedom from famine, from debt, from jail, freedom to achieve a new and prosperous life. On the other hand, the ancestors of the black students were kidnapped from their traditional culture to a land which they could consider only with horror and fright.
This qualitative difference of emotion and experience is what strikes one in black American literature. Not only was there a difference in the way blacks came here; there is also a difference in the way blacks regard American myths and heroes. Whites revere George Washington of the cherry tree incident. Black poet June Jordan says,
George Washington he think he big he trade my father for a pig
Some people are shocked and disturbed, especially by the younger writers of today. “Why the propaganda, the obscenity, the violence, the hate, the rage?”
One white critic, David Littlejohn, in his book Black on White, describes black literature as a race war. Hoyt W. Fuller, editor of Black World, advised readers not to touch the book, although Littlejohn's evaluations of many of the writers are similar to Fuller's own judgments of their work. What Fuller objects to is Littlejohn's characterization of black writers as mean-spirited if they show anger and resentment instead of philosophical benignity. Fuller maintains that the anger is justified, and that Littlejohn's objections only show the critic's guilt and his inability to handle it.
Nevertheless, in order to understand the black experience, one must read such works. For, works of literature such as poems, plays, stories, essays, and biographies force one to feel intense emotions and thus get inside the experience, whereas factual books of history, sociology, and economics afford a merely intellectual approach.
I won't attempt to cram the history of black American literature into a few pages, or to chronicle the first, or even the best, work or works in different genres. I'll select a few works in which one can relive portions of the black experience in America, and will list anthologies and bibliographies that one can explore for further reading.
Only a minority of the works are of the type that disturb some readers. Early black writers had to please white editors and readers or remain unpublished and unread. Besides, the black experience is not one, but many. There is W. E. B. Du Bois, born in Massachusetts and educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin. There is Richard Wright, born in Mississippi, who started drinking as a child, with little formal education, but dying, like Du Bois, in exile. There is the sharecropper in Georgia, there is the porter in Harlem, there is the factory worker in Detroit. But through all these varied experiences, violence, suffering, and injustice, mammoth to petty, run like a red thread.
It is evident in the earliest compositions, the folk poetry. Du Bois called the spirituals the “Sorrow Songs” and praised their music while calling much of their verse doggerel. But the poetry was refined as well as debased by passing through the oral tradition. Even the titles are poetry—“Deep River,” “I Got a Home in Dat Rock,” “Gamblin Man, Get Off Yo Knees,” and there are many startlingly fine lines—“Dark midnight was my cry;” stanzas of monumental dignity in “Crucifixion” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”; and almost perfect Lyrics in “I Know de Moonlight” and “No More Auction Block.” James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson's The Books of American Negro Spirituals contain both texts and music of many spirituals, with an introduction on their dialect, music, and origins. Both religious and secular folk poetry can be found in Sterling Brown's Negro Caravan and Dudley Randall's The Black Poets.
A good collection of secular folk poetry containing blues, ballads, work songs, and humorous lyrics is Thomas Washington Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes. A. Xavier Nicholas has collected the songs of some of the singers of our own day—Chuck Berry, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, and others, in The Poetry of Soul.
A poet whose Collected Poems has never been out of print is Paul Laurence Dunbar. He is best known for his dialect verse which presents a rose-tinted picture of plantation life with pathos and humor. His standard English verse, which he himself preferred, is by no means negligible. His rondeau “We Wear the Mask” sounds a theme which often recurs in black poetry. His largely white audience preferred his dialect verse, however. James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse suggests the eloquence of the old-time black preachers, not with misspelled words, but through syntax, diction, and rural images.
The predicament of Dunbar is one in which most black authors have found themselves. Until the 1960s, with the emergence of black publishers, black magazines, black bookstores, and a black audience, black writers have had to address themselves to a largely white audience, through white magazines and white editors and publishers. If white editors thought a book was too militant, or would not interest white readers, the author was told to tone down his message, or the book was rejected. Also, black books were regarded as a special category, like detective stories. If the publisher had his quota of black books, he would accept no more.
The decade of the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, saw a group of talented writers with a heightened race pride and awareness of their African heritage. Claude McKay was the forerunner with his famous sonnet “If We Must Die,” which was widely read and declaimed during the post-World War I riots, quoted by Winston Churchill to the United States Congress in World War II, and in 1971 passed around among the prisoners before the Attica prison riot. A Time magazine correspondent called it “a poem written by an unknown prisoner, crude but touching in its would-be heroic style.” This put-down of the famous, classic sonnet provoked an avalanche of letters to Time magazine. Langston Hughes, called the poet laureate of Harlem, presented the night clubs, the streets, the men and women of Harlem with humor and sympathy in many verses which can be found in his Selected Poems. Jean Toomer's Cane was one of the most important books to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. It is a collection of sketches, short stories, poems, and a play, in language whose images and symbols are richly evocative. Countee Cullen's verse was traditional but polished. Sterling Brown's dramatic and humorous ballads and blues are a rural counterpart to Hughes's urban poetry.
Like Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks writes about the blacks of the city. She presents the people of Chicago's South Side in richly textured verse. She is a pleasure to read not only for the humanity of her poems but for their skilled craftsmanship. Her books of poetry and her novel Maud Martha have been collected in The World of Gwendolyn Brooks. Another skilled and sensitive poet is Robert Hayden whose Selected Poems was published in 1966.
One of the most influential poets today is Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Originally a poet of the Greenwich Village school, he left New York and settled in his birthplace, Newark, established Spirit House and a black theatre, and engaged in local politics and recently helped to form the National Black Political Convention. He is one of the founders of the Black Arts movement and his famous poem, “Black Art,” is a manifesto of the ideology that art should be functional and should effect social change. It appears in his Black Magic Poems.
During the sixties small black publishing firms sprang up, joining the older Associated Publishers and Johnson Publishing Company. They found a wide black audience, stimulated by the civil rights struggle intensified in the fifties. Many of the readers were young—college students or even high school students. Most of the publishers were writers themselves. Poet Amiri Baraka founded Jihad Productions in Newark. Poet Dudley Randall founded Broadside Press in Detroit. Poet Don L. Lee established Third World Press in Chicago. Nigerian writer Joseph Okpaku founded the Third Press in New York. Drum and Spear Press was established in Washington, D.C. Editor Alfred Prettyman founded Emerson Hall Press in New York. Far from censoring black authors, the new publishers encouraged them to speak to and for black people, to express their fury and frustration, their love and longing.
A remarkable group of poets was published by Broadside Press. Most of them can be found in Gwendolyn Brooks's A Broadside Treasury 1965-1970. Don L. Lee in Think Black asserted, “I was born into slavery in February of 1942. In the spring of that same year 110,000 persons of Japanese descent were placed in protective custody by the white people of the United States. … World War II, the war against racism; yet no Germans or other enemy aliens were placed in protective custody. There should have been Japanese writers directing their writings toward Japanese audiences. Black. Poet. Black poet am I. This should leave little doubt in the minds of anyone as to which is first.” Lee exhorted his audiences to “change,” and to “know your enemy, the real enemy.” Nikki Giovanni asked, in Black Feeling Black Talk,
Nigger Can you kill … Can you piss on a blond head Can you cut it off … Can you lure them to bed to kill them
Sonia Sanchez wrote in “Malcolm”
yet this man this dreamer, thick-lipped with words will never speak again and in each winter when the cold air cracks with frost, I'll breathe his breath and mourn my gun-filled nights.
Etheridge Knight wrote Poems from Prison while an inmate in Indiana State Prison. He does not pose as self-righteous, but admits his vulnerability like ours, and his poems about black prisoners and himself are powerful and moving. He has edited a book of prison writings, Black Voices from Prison, which is one of the earliest of the prison anthologies.
There were so many poets in the 1960s that they have been said to constitute another Harlem Renaissance. It would be tedious to list them all, but they and earlier poets can be found in the anthologies which proliferated in the sixties, some of which are listed, with previous anthologies, in roughly chronological order: Robert Thomas Kerlin's Negro Poets and Their Poems, Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk, James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes's Poetry of the Negro, Paul Breman's Sixes and Sevens, Rosey E. Pool's Beyond the Blues and Ik Ben die Nieuwe Neger, Arna Bontemps's American Negro Poetry, Langston Hughes's New Negro Poets: U.S.A., Dudley Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs's For Malcolm, Robert Hayden's Kaleidoscope, Clarence Major's The New Black Poetry, Adam Miller's Dice or Black Bones, Dudley Randall's Black Poetry and The Black Poets, Orde Coombs's We Speak as Liberators, June Jordan's Soul Script, Ted Wilentz and Tom Weatherly's Natural Process, Jill Witherspoon's A Broadside Annual 1972, Bernard Bell's Modern and Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.
The anthology Black Fire, edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, is a collection similar in its importance for the sixties to Brown, Davis, and Lee's Negro Caravan, for its importance to the period up to 1940. It presents poems, stories, essays, and plays of the revolutionary young black writers of the sixties. Ahmed Alhamisi and Harun Kofi Wangara's Black Arts: An Anthology of Black Creations, is a collection of similar intent to that of Black Fire, but in addition to writings it also contains graphics.
Poetry, because of its brevity and expressiveness, and the speed and inexpensiveness with which it can be composed and published in contrast to the slowness and cost of novels and plays, has been the most popular literary art among black Americans. I'll name a few works in the other forms, however, by which one can feel his way into the black experience.
Similar to poetry in their brevity, immediacy, and impact are essays, of which there have been many fine writers. W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk is influential for its insights and prophecies, dissecting the Booker Washington fallacy, expressing the double consciousness of the Negro, pinpointing the colorline as the problem of the twentieth century, recommending federal aid for education. James Baldwin's sensitive essays trace the growth of his black consciousness from Notes of a Native Son,Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time to No Name in the Street. The same kind of growth is seen in Amiri Baraka's Home, culminating in Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays since 1965. Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice has eloquent essays on his prison experiences and introspections. George Jackson's letters in Soledad Brother reveal prison conditions and his indomitable reaction to them. Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act contains his reflections on music and literature. Poet Don L. Lee's first book of essays, From Plan to Planet, is concerned with Pan-Africanism and black literature.
A special Negro form of biography is the slave narrative, often written as Abolitionist propaganda. Outstanding among these for its clear, direct style and its insight into the effects of slavery on slave and slaveholder alike is Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In sharp contrast is Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, which is an Horatio Alger type of biography with homilies and many reports of compliments paid him by prominent whites. Richard Wright's Black Boy also concerns growing up in the South, but it presents a much harsher picture.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, has profoundly influenced the attitudes of blacks. It is epic, as it describes Malcolm's transformation from small-town boy, big-city hustler, and prisoner to minister, leader, and martyr. Chester Himes's The Quality of Hurt is valuable for its account of the black expatriate writer's life in Europe and his relations with Richard Wright and other expatriates. It does not satisfy our curiosity about his craft of writing, but it intrigues us with his intensity of living. Many blacks have been angered by refusal of service in a restaurant, but it was Chester Himes who jumped on the counter and pistol whipped the proprietor on the head. Gwendolyn Brooks's Report from Part One is a writer's autobiography which tells us much about her art. There are explications of her novel and of some of her poems, and two interviews about writing.
I've just noticed that most of these books are autobiographies, except perhaps the “as-told-to” Malcolm X book. It's curious that those biographies which convey a special flavor of the black experience are mostly autobiographies. As I think of additional books, it is still autobiographies that come to mind, like The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, or Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets. Perhaps black poets and novelists should write biographies also, to impart to them their special insight and skill which would make the story of a life memorable.
The outstanding works of fiction are easy to identify. The two that tower over all the rest are Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.Native Son liberated succeeding writers by portraying Bigger Thomas who hated and feared whites and who gained a sense of self only when he took responsibility for an act of violence. After Wright, black novelists no longer hesitated to portray violent emotions. Invisible Man is rich in language, incident, irony, humor, symbols, levels of meaning. It adumbrates the black experience in education, industry, labor unions, the Communist Party, black nationalism. William Demby in Beetlecreek, the story of a white recluse and black adolescents in a Southern town, has used images and symbols to suggest added emotional dimensions. Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo makes a surrealist mixture of fantasy, history, satire, and voodoo. But most of the successors of Wright and Ellison have followed Wright in the path of realism. John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am is a panoramic novel which follows a writer from America to Europe and involves characters in the black expatriate scene and in American and European plans of concentration camps and genocide for blacks. Williams's most recent book, Captain Black-man, follows the memories of a wounded soldier in Vietnam through all the wars since the Revolutionary War in which black soldiers have been involved, with all the irony and disillusionment of fighting for others’ freedom but not for their own. Another historical novel, a black counterpart to Gone with the Wind, is Margaret Walker's Jubilee, based on the life of her grandmother during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Cyrus Colter's short stories in The Beach Umbrella probe the lives of a wide range of characters in Chicago's black South Side. James Alan MacPherson in Hue and Cry has also shown mastery of the short story. His story “A Solo Song: for Doc” brings to vivid life again the almost forgotten ambience of the railroad dining car and the working conditions of the black dining car waiter.
There have been many good black actors, but black playwrights have been scarce. In the sixties, however, there appeared a profusion of playwrights like that of poets. Joining the older dramatists like Langston Hughes, Alice Childress, Loften Mitchell, William Branch, there appeared Lorraine Hansberry, Ossie Davis, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Ed Bullins, Charles Gordone, Marvin X, Jimmy Garrett, Sonia Sanchez, Lonne Elder III, Ronald Milner, Melvin Van Peebles, Ben Caldwell.
Promoting the rise of theatre was the Black Arts movement fostered by Amiri Baraka and others, which stimulated the growth of local theatres throughout the country.
Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun was a well-made play of black family life. Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious was a farce satirizing obvious racial stereotypes in the South. Amiri Baraka's The Dutchman was a tense one-act play showing a confrontation between a white woman and a young middle-class black man in a subway car. These and other plays can be found in single volumes or in the collections Black Theater, by Lindsay Patterson, Black Drama Anthology, by Woodie King and Ronald Milner, New Black Playwrights, by William Couch, or Ed Bullins's New Plays from the Black Theatre.
Much of the literature of the 1960s was first published in black magazines, and they are useful for discerning trends. The Journal of Black Poetry is a leading poetry magazine. Freedomways is distinguished by its long annotated booklists prepared by librarian Ernest Kaiser. Dasein,Liberator,Soulbook,Black Dialogue, and Umbra were literary magazines that flourished in the sixties, but they seem to be dormant now. Recent magazines of quality are Black Scholar;Black Creation, which carries articles and interviews on new trends and persons in the arts; Essence, a woman's magazine which features good poetry; and Encore, a monthly of worldwide news of interest to blacks, which recently featured a story on black soldiers in the Ulster troubles and a conversation between poets Nikki Giovanni and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Black World has published many young writers whose contributions appeared later in books. The magazine has annual poetry, drama, and fiction numbers, and has had special issues on the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Wright, and the Black Aesthetic.
There has been much discussion of the Black Aesthetic. In Black World's symposium on the Black Aesthetic in 1968, some writers had never heard of it. On the other hand, Margaret Walker said, “The ‘black aesthetic’ has a rich if undiscovered past. This goes back in time to the beginnings of civilization in Egypt, Babylonia, India, China, Persia, and all the Islamic world that precedes the Renaissance of the Europeans.” The following points may give some idea of what is generally agreed on by its proponents:
1. It is not wise to try to define the Black Aesthetic too narrowly at this time, as too rigid definition may restrict its development. After further development of black literature, it may be described, not prescribed, by observing the literature created under its influence.
2. Black art should be functional, not decorative.
3. The function of black art is to unify and liberate black people all over the world.
4. Black art should create positive concepts, images, and symbols for black folk, and destroy negative ones, i. e., black is beautiful, not ugly or filthy.
5. In creating new images and concepts, writers may change or reverse the language of the oppressor, using black idioms. When Sonia Sanchez says, “We a baddDDD people,” she means, “We a great people.”
6. Black art should be directed to black people for black people. The reactions of white critics and readers are irrelevant.
Addison Gayle's The Black Aesthetic is an anthology of critical essays on the Black Aesthetic in the various arts. His earlier anthology, Black Expression, is a collection of essays on black literature, written from the 1920s to the 1960s. Alain Locke's The New Negro is an anthology which helped to launch the Harlem Renaissance. Nathan Irving Huggins's Harlem Renaissance is a recent in-depth study of the period. Sterling Brown's The Negro in American Fiction: Negro Poetry and Drama and Jay Saunders Redding's To Make a Poet Black are two works of criticism of both prose and poetry. Widening its scope from poetry to prose, Broadside Press has started a Broadside Critics Series, featuring black critics on black poets. The first volume is Dynamite Voices: Black Poets of the 1960s, by Don L. Lee. The second is Claude McKay: The Black Poet At War, by Addison Gayle. The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, by Mercer Book and Stephen E. Henderson, discusses the younger African and Afro-American writers. Ezekiel Mphalele's Voices in the Whirlwind examines both Afro-American and African poets, and analyzes the Black Aesthetic to see what is in it which is not covered by other aesthetic canons. Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual blames Negro artists for not building a solid foundation for their art by creating black institutions. A book which is not criticism, but which may help readers to understand some of the language which they will encounter, especially in the new black poetry, is J. L. Dillard's Black English. Dillard shows that black English is not incorrect English, but a dialect of English, with its roots in West African languages and with its own syntax and grammar.
Poetry has been perhaps the most popular literary form, not only because it is the fastest and least expensive to create and to reproduce, but also because it is in the black oral tradition. The jazz musician, for instance, is a contemporary culture hero of black poets. Perhaps more poems have been written about John Coltrane than about any other black figure except Malcolm X. Collaboration between the poet and the musician has been abrogated. Imagine James Brown performing a lyric of Don Lee. Nina Simone has already set to music and recorded Langston Hughes's “Backlash Blues.”
Because of the prevalence of the oral tradition, Amiri Baraka in the April 1972 Black World advised young poets to write plays and skits, and to perform them in theatres, churches, and schools. Most black people, however, have not formed the habit of going to the theatre at 8:30 p.m. Blacks do attend movies, however, and their interest in the new black films has revivified a dying movie industry. But most of the new films, except for a few like Buck and the Preacher, have exploited sex and dope, and have been vehemently criticized by segments of the black community. If the many good poets and playwrights now working, instead of commercial hacks, were to write movie scripts, perhaps fine work might be produced. Financing is the greatest obstacle. But just imagine a movie produced by Motown, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, directed by Gordon Parks, with a script by Amiri Baraka, out of a story by Ralph Ellison. It might even be rerun on television!
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SOURCE: A review of The Black Poets, in College English, Vol. 34, No. 7, April, 1973, p. 1006.
[In the following excerpt, Ford praises The Black Poets for including in depth the work of forty–five poets, and describes Randall's introduction to the anthology as “illuminating.”]
Dudley Randall, outstanding black poet, visiting professor of Black Poetry at the University of Michigan, and director of the Broadside Press, is the editor of The Black Poets (1971). This anthology “presents the full range of black American poetry, from the slave songs to the present day.” Furthermore, the editor's claim that it presents most of the forty-five poets in depth is substantiated by the facts. Thirty-two pages of Folk Poetry under the headings of Folk Seculars (non-religious) and Spirituals are followed by three hundred pages of Literary Poetry organized under the following subtitles: The Forerunners, Harlem Renaissance, Post-Renaissance, and The Nineteen Sixties. All of the most significant traditional black poets, as well as the most talented revolutionists, are represented by their characteristic creations. In addition to the illuminating introduction, the appended adenda include a list of publishers of black poetry, a list of periodicals that publish black poetry, and lists of phonographic records, tapes, videotapes, and films concerning black poets and their poetry.
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SOURCE: “An Interview with Dudley Randall,” in The Black Scholar, Vol. 6, No. 9, June, 1975, pp. 87-90.
[In the following interview, Randall and Fowlkes discuss the process of creating poems such as “The Southern Road,”“The Profile on the Pillow,” and “Frederick Douglas and the Slavemaker.”]
On December 10, 1974 I interviewed Mr. Dudley Randall. Mr. Randall had been with us at our school for a week. I felt this was a good opportunity to get to know a famous person. Mr. Randall has edited three anthologies: For Malcolm, Black Poetry, and The Black Poets. He has published five books of poetry. His latest book is After the Killing. In 1965 he founded Broadside Press, which has published such poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, Don L. Lee, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight. He has taught library science at Lincoln University of Missouri and English at University of Michigan and University of Detroit. He was poet-in-residence at University of Detroit from 1969 to 1974. At present he is a librarian and an instructor in Black Studies at University of Detroit.
[Fowlkes:] Mr. Randall, did your childhood in Washington, D.C. inspire you to write?
[Randall:] We left Washington when I was four years old, before I could read or write. However, I remember that my mother took us to a band concert in Towson, Maryland, where the band played “Maryland, My Maryland.” I was so impressed by the big bass drums and the big bass horns that I composed words about them to the melody of “Maryland, My Maryland.” This is the earliest instance I can remember of my composing a poem.
You did post-graduate work in Humanities. How was your poetry influenced by this?
Humanities taught me to appreciate all the arts, especially architecture. It enabled me to enjoy the onion-spired churches in Russia, the cathedrals in Paris, and the monasteries in Prague. In Detroit I enjoy that red stone Romanesque church on Woodward and Forest, the lobby of the Fisher Building, and the Baldwin Piano Company building on Woodward, which is a replica of a chateau on the Loire. Speaking of poetry, my humanities thesis, if I ever get it done, will be to set words to the music of Chopin. Some of the piano pieces of Chopin are so emotional that they seem to speak. Therefore, I'll try to make my lyrics sing. I'll call them “Songs Without Words.”
Are the young poets here at our school different from others you have encountered?
The students here have potential. They use the same themes as some of the poems published by my publishing company. Some of these themes are love, dope, and poverty. These are legitimate themes, but because they are used so often they should be presented in new and original ways, not by repeating the cliche, “rats and roaches.” For instance, John Raven, the Bronx poet, wrote about a roach so big it would have “come right up / and gave me / five.” This is different, with the addition of humor. The students here do not experiment in form. They write mostly in rhymed couplets. They should try many forms: ballad stanzas, sonnets, haiku, cinquains, free verse. The young black poets today are experimenting. Free verse is being used widely. Poets are writing in the blues form, and are learning from music. Free verse, without regular rhythm or rhyme, allows the poet to express himself in his own style.
If every poet expresses himself in his own style, how can a poem be judged?
By the reader's reaction to the poem. Does the poem leave the reader cold? Or does it stir his emotions, give him new insights, make him think? How does the poet use images, rhythms, words? Are they original and new, or are they stolen from Don Lee or Nikki Giovanni? Is the poem economical? Does every word, every punctuation mark do its work in the poem, or are they superfluous?
Why was Broadside Press founded?
Because I was ignorant.
Because you were ignorant?
Yes. If I had known all the toil and problems that running a business entails, perhaps I wouldn't have started a business. But folksinger Jerry Moore wanted to set my “Ballad of Birmingham” to music, and in order to get it copyrighted I published it as a broadside. That's how Broadside Press began. Now we have eighty-nine broadsides, forty books, and eight anthologies. We have also published posters, tapes, books of criticism, and the autobiography of Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One.
Did your working as a librarian enhance your poetry?
Some of my poems come out of my library experience. I was hospital librarian to the patients at Eloise, the Wayne County General Hospital. Out of that experience I wrote “To the Mercy Killers” and “George.” “George” also reflects my experience as a teen-aged laborer in the foundry of the Ford Motor Company. I have also written about my experience in World War II. A couple of those poems are “Helmeted Boy” and “Pacific Epitaphs.” “Helmeted Boy” (about Pee-Wee, a baby-faced high-school boy in basic training) is only four lines long, but it takes up four pages in my notebook, as I tried to concentrate all my thoughts and feelings about war into four lines.
What type of poems do you prefer to write, and why do you write?
I usually write serious poems related to my experiences in life. However, the popular “Booker T. and W. E. B.,” although basically serious, makes its point through wit and humor. I write because I have an urge to write and because I enjoy writing. Some of my happiest hours have been spent in writing. I wrote for years before I was published.
What is your method of composition?
I have good powers of concentration, and can write anywhere or any time. My wife says the house could be on fire and I wouldn't notice it, if I were reading or writing. I carry a notebook in my pocket so I can jot down ideas or transcribe a poem. I like to let a poem grow in my mind before I set it down on paper. I want every line, every word to be inevitable, so I let the poem grow and shape itself in my unconscious mind inevitably. I conceived “The Southern Road” while traveling to a basic training center in the South in 1943, but I didn't write the poem until after the war, in 1948. I conceived “The Old Women of Paris” and composed one line—“their backs curved like bridges across the Seine”—in 1966, when I was down and out in Paris and walked down the Boulevard Raspail morning and evening because I couldn't afford bus or taxi fare. But I didn't write the poem until 1974, one night when I couldn't sleep. I have my own method of composition, and every writer has to find the method which best suits him.
Which poems did you most enjoy composing?
I enjoy composing every poem. But if I had to choose, I might guess “The Southern Road,” “Frederick Douglass and the Slavebreaker,” and “The Profile on the Pillow.” I enjoyed writing “The Southern Road” because of problems of craftsmanship. I admired the poems of Francois Villon. Villon was a fourteenth century Frenchman who was a vagabond, a thief, and a murderer. But his “Ballade of the Dead Queens,” his “Ballade of His Mother to the Virgin Mary,” and his “Ballade Written the Night Before He Was To Be Hanged” are some of the most powerful poems ever written. His ballade form has been adapted into English poetry, but poets have diminished it into a trivial thing—light verse, vers de societe. I wanted to restore its gravity, its power. At the same I had read a book called Hypnotic Poetry. The author said that some poetry, like that of Edgar Allen Poe, by its melody and repetition induced in the reader a hypnotic, dream-like state. I wanted to use the ballade form with its repeated rhyme sounds and refrain, to induce in the reader a hypnotic state, but more like one of nightmare than of dream, as I told of the bestial South. I also wanted to introduce tension and complexity into the poem by mingling love and repulsion, and by extending the bestiality into other times and places, like the Middle Ages, when people were burned at the stake for slight differences of doctrine. These technical problems made the poem fascinating to write.
What about the other poems?
I enjoyed writing “Frederick Douglass and the Slavebreaker” because it was a commissioned poem and because it took its place in the poetic tradition. I was asked to write a poem for the dedication of the murals in the Frederick Douglass Branch library in Detroit. I knew that two other poets, Robert Hayden and Langston Hughes, had already written two famous poems about Douglass, so I was treading on hallowed ground. One day I was in the studio of the painter, LeRoy Foster, and saw his painting for the mural. It was not the familiar Frederick Douglass, with a long beard. It was a bare torso of a beardless boy. At once I said, “That's the teen-age Douglass when he fought old Cosey, the slave-breaker.” I knew I had found my subject. It was enjoyable to join the company of two fine poets like Hughes and Hayden.
What about the other poem?
“The Profile on the Pillow” was written in the late 1960s, in a time when cities were burning and there were rumors that the government was preparing concentration camps for black Americans, like the camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II. I tried to make it powerful by enclosing conflicting emotions in the same poem—love and fear, tenderness and terror. The tension of the times made writing that poem a powerful experience.
Which poems were highly praised by critics?
All of these. Both James Emanuel and Robert Hayden, who are poets and critics, have included “The Southern Road” in their anthologies. Sterling Brown, who is a grand old poet of the Negro Renaissance and a fine critic, told me he wants to include “Frederick Douglass and the Slavebreaker” in the new edition of his The Negro Caravan. Charles Rowell, a critic at Southern University, says he considers “The Profile on the Pillow” one of the most beautiful of love poems.
What do you think of my favorite poets, Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks?
I know and publish both Nikki and Gwen. Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the best poets writing today. Her blank verse in the poem “Riot” is some of the best blank verse in the language. Her expressive modulation of vowels and consonants is superb in the line “Not like two dainty Negroes from Winettka.” Her catalogue of luxuries, her nuances, and her irony in this poem show that she is a master of language. Nikki writes rapidly, and sometimes carelessly. If you point out bad spelling and grammar to her, she'll say defensively, “Let it stay.” Once she wrote a poem titled “To Dudley Randle,” and I didn't let that stay. On the other hand, she can write with originality and freshness. She wrote a poem about her first visit to Africa where she looked down from the plane and saw her grandmother sitting in a rocking chair with a lion cub by her side. What other poet would have written of her return to the Motherland like that?
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SOURCE: “‘Endowing the World and Time’: The Life and Work of Dudley Randall,” in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 30, 1986, pp. 77-92.
[In the following excerpt, Miller profiles Randall's poetry and comments on Randall's contributions towards the promotion of black writing.]
Dudley Randall, poet, librarian, and publisher, is one of the most important Black men of letters in the twentieth century. A child during the Harlem Renaissance, he was himself a leading poet of the subsequent generation of Black writers, and he later became a pioneer of the Black literary movement of the 1960s. His own work, so accomplished technically and profoundly concerned with the history and racial identity of Blacks, benefits from the ideas and literary forms of the Harlem Renaissance as well as from the critical awareness of the earlier Western Renaissance. Although he borrows eruditely from the sources, he culturally transforms them. Through the founding of the Broadside Press and his brilliant editorial work there, he made available to a wise audience the work of fellow poets such as Hayden, Danner, Brooks, and Walker. The variety of such writers indicates that Randall's publishing was in no sense programmatic or intent upon a particular kind of poetry. Indeed, his own skill, so firmly rooted in history, is as different in its assumptions from the more formalistic verse of a Brooks or a Danner as it is from the folk and religious poems of Walker. But Randall combines his own poetic credo with that of other poets to create a broad tolerance in what he publishes. In other words, he makes an active commitment to Black literature in general.
[Randall] has helped to deepen the technical breadth and authenticity of Black poetry. Collaborator and mentor during the Black Arts Movement (1960-75), Randall infused his own ballads with racial history. … Boone House, a cultural center founded by Margaret Danner in Detroit, was “home” to Randall from 1962 through 1964. There Randall and Danner read their own work each Sunday, and over the years the two of them collected a group of their poems. When Randall edited the Broadside anthology For Malcolm X, the prospects for publication encouraged him to bring out the collaborative book as well. Entitled Poem-Counterpoem (1966), it became the first major publication of Broadside Press.
Perhaps the first of its kind, the volume contains ten poems, alternately each by Danner and Randall. Replete with social and intellectual history, the verses stress nurture and growth. In “The Ballad of Birmingham” Randall compares racial progress to blossoming. Through octosyllabic couplets and incremental repetition, including a dialogue between a mother and her daughter, he achieves “dramatic reversal,” as Aristotle would call it, as well as epiphany. Based on historical incident, the bombing in 1963 of Martin Luther King Jr.'s church by white terrorists, eight quatrains portray one girl's life and death. (Four girls actually died in the bombing.) When the daughter in the poem asks to attend a Civil Rights rally, the loving and fearful mother forbids her to go to the rally. Allowed to go to church instead, the daughter dies anyway. Thus, the mother's concern was to no avail, for an evil world has no sanctuary, either in the street or in the church. After folk singer Jerry Moore read the poem in a newspaper, he set it to music, and Randall granted him permission to publish the lyrics with the tune.
“Memorial Wreath,” a Randall lyric of celebration, profits from well-structured analogues. Some imply the processes of resurrection, love, and blossoming. Others draw parallels between ancestry, suffering, and sacrifice; still others liken blues to racial continuity, to the inseparability of pain and beauty, and to the irony of racial experience, including art itself. Finally, when the speaker ultimately addresses his spiritual ancestors, the images come from the American nineteenth century. The more dramatically conceived and frequently anthologized ballad “Booker T. and W. E. B.” presents one voice's call and another's response. In alternating stanzas in the poem the two Black leaders (1856-1915; 1868-1963) express opposite views. While Booker T. Washington favors agriculture and domestic service, Du Bois emphasizes the human quest to learn liberally. Despite Washington's focus upon property, Du Bois proposes dignity and justice. Randall, who tries to present each man realistically, favors Du Bois, to whom the narrator gives the last line intentionally. A free verse, “For Margaret Danner / In Establishing Boone House” (December 1962), fuses quest and rebirth into benediction: “May your crocuses rise up through winter snow.” And the speaker in “Belle Isle,” the last lyric, addresses the poet's calling, “the inner principle … endowing / the world and time … joy and delight, for ever.”
During the first Black Writer's Conference at Fisk University in the 1960s, Randall met Margaret Burroughs, founder and director of the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago. When he called her regarding the anthology For Malcolm X, his previous study had prepared him well. He was aware, as most Americans were not, that the father of Russian literature, Aleksander Pushkin, had African origins through a maternal grandfather. Randall, who had learned the Russian language after the Second World War, was able to read the literature in the original, which not only impressed him as much as had the work of Latin and French poets, but had moved him to undertake some translations, notably “Wait for Me” and “My Native Land” by K. M. Siminov.
On his return from Russia and once again at home in Boone House, Randall plunged into cultural activities and met some emerging and important Black writers. He attended art exhibits, jazz sessions, and monthly readings of poetry. Authors read from a new anthology, Beyond the Blues (1962), and from a special issue of Negro History Bulletin (October 1962). Randall befriended fellow poets Betty Ford, Harold Lawrence, and Naomi Long Madgett as well as Edward Simpkins and James Thompson.
In 1966 Randall met the celebrated poet Gwendolyn Brooks. When a reading club in Detroit invited her to read at Oakland University, he requested that several English teachers meet her at the train station. When he himself finally greeted her after the reading, she was surprised. From book reviews in Negro Digest, she had thought him fierce, but he had proved pleasantly mild: “I thought you were terrible, but you're all right.” While the two poets took snapshots together, she threw her arms happily around her new friend's shoulders, and, asked later to submit a poem for the new Broadside series, she granted him permission to republish “We Real Cool.” He would bring out her pamphlets Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1971), and Aloneness (1971). At first he declined to issue her autobiography, Report from Part One (1972), because he believed that Harper and Row could better promote the volume. When Brooks disagreed, he finally conceded the argument, and, upon the publication, Toni Cade Bambara responded enthusiastically on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
With a favorable evaluation of Audre Lorde's first book, The First Cities (1966), in Negro Digest, Randall followed her progress in Cables or Rage (London: Paul Breman, 1970), but, when asked to publish her third book, From A Land Where Other People Live, he found himself overbooked. Brooks intervened on Lorde's behalf, however, and he finally relented. The volume, which came out under his imprint in 1973, was nominated for a National Book Award. After the ceremonies in New York he and Lorde went backstage to meet the poet Adrienne Rich. As he paused at the breast-high platform and wondered how to mount it, Lorde gave him a hand, “How's that,” she asked, “for a fat old lady?” A representative for Rich's publisher drove the two in a limousine to a cocktail party at the Biltmore Hotel, and Randall wondered secretly when Broadside might afford the luxury of a limousine. Although Lorde had promised to take him on the Staten Island ferry and show him her house in the area, they had celebrated too late; no time would be left during the next morning.
At the writer's conference at Fisk, Randall had strengthened the professional associations that would assure the publication of verses by established poets such as Hayden, Tolson, and Walker in the Broadside series. Securing from Brooks the permission to use the colloquial verse, “We Real Cool,” he published the first group—Poems of the Negro Revolt, a distinguished collection. Although he had the tendency at first to issue famous poems for popular dissemination, a reviewer in Small Press suggested that he might serve contemporary writing better by printing previously unpublished verse.
Randall, while at the conference at Fisk, had seen Margaret Burroughs’ sketches and heard Margaret Walker rehearse her afternoon reading; as he listened to Walker read about Malcolm X, he observed that most Black poets were writing about Malcolm, and Burroughs proposed that Randall edit a collection on the subject. When Randall invited her to co-edit the volume, she accepted, and David Llorens promised to announce the anthology in Negro Digest (later Black World). Randall received the first submission a few days later.
For Malcolm X brought Hayden, Walker, and Brooks together with the younger writers LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka), Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, and Etheridge Knight. Randall, through collaboration with them, learned about the magazines, Soulbook and Black Dialogue, but problems with the printer delayed publication until June 1967. At Fisk, Randall had seen a slim girl with David Llorens, and, when he returned to Detroit, he received a letter from Nikki Giovanni, who requested a copy of For Malcolm X to review in the college publication edited by her. Although For Malcolm X did not appear until 1967, after her graduation from Fisk, she reviewed the book for a Cincinnati newspaper. During the book signing by contributors at Margaret Burroughs’ museum, he met Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) and later received a copy of Madhubuti's Think Black. The younger poet had himself published 700 copies and sold them all in a week. When he and Randall read for a memorial program at a Chicago high school, Randall advised the new friend, “Now Don, read slowly, and pronounce each word distinctly.” Because Madhubuti read first and earned a standing ovation, Randall humorously promised himself to read thereafter “before, not after Don.” When visiting Detroit, Madhubuti usually went by Randall's home. Although all business agreements between the two poets were oral, Madhubuti clearly regarded them as binding, for he refused to sign with Random House, and when his second book, Black Pride (1968), was completed he asked Randall to provide an introduction. In 1969 Randall brought out Madhubuti's Don't Cry, Scream in both paperback and cloth editions, the latter then a first for Broadside, though he himself would later publish a similar edition of For Malcolm X.
Over the years Randall won professional warmth from Sonia Sanchez, one of the contributors to For Malcolm X. In his poetry class at the University of Detroit she had wondered whether to publish with Third World Press, Madhubuti's firm, or with Broadside, which she finally chose. When Randall had a heart murmur, Sanchez sent him various teas, and, chiding him for smoking, she drove him to bookstores in New York. When he flew to Africa in 1970, she and Nikki Giovanni went to the motel to see him off. For consistent dedication to Black American poetry, Randall won personal and communal loyalty.
Yet Dudley Randall remains a poet in his own right. Cities Burning (1968) captures his zeitgeist. Here the visionary lyrics and apocalyptic revelations concern urban riot, generational opposition, and Black imagemaking. “Roses and Revolutions,” a prophetic lyric in free verse written in 1948, addresses both the Civil Rights Movement and personal conscience. Two other poems, “The Rite” and “Black Poet, White Critic,” clarify in two brief quatrains Randall's theory of art. “The Rite” presents initially a dramatic dialogue and a narrative reflection which in turn give way to the conflict between the old and the young. Symbolically, the drama reenacts the Oedipal struggle between fathers and sons, for to some degree even rebels must cannibalize themselves off the very traditions they seek to overthrow. And insofar as revolutionaries or pseudo-revolutionaries themselves (Randall published many of their works) must emerge at least in part from precisely such tradition, destroying it completely would mean self-effacement. While the writer or any artist wants personal innovation, the younger author internalizes the older one, just as youth seeks to supersede and displace old age. Where such rebellious youth relives the inescapable lessons of the past, for the type of human existence itself never changes, so change itself, even revolution as espoused by militant Blacks in the sixties and early seventies, is necessarily incomplete. In “Black Poet, White Critic” the poet's drama becomes more racially focused as the detached narrator works through humorously to an interrogative punch line. Advising the poet to write “safely,” the critic cautions against the subjects of freedom and murder. Moved by “universal themes and timeless symbols,” the arbiter proposes a verbal portrait of the “white unicorn,” and in quipping back (“a white unicorn?”), the narrator underscores the subjectivity of beauty.
Two other poems, “The Idiot” and “The Melting Pot,” reveal Randall's technical range. The first, a humorous monologue, blends psychological depth with colloquial tone in order to portray police brutality. The police officer, who has called the speaker a Black “boy,” punches him in the face and drags him to the wall. Here the officer searches and cuffs him. Sufficiently angry to chastise the police, the narrator relents because, “I didn't want to hurt his feelings, / and lose the good will / of the good white folks downtown, / who hired him.” The irony is complex. The speaker feigns courage, but the rationalization signifies true cowardice. Why did the “good” people downtown hire the demonstrably bad policeman? The speaker's reasoning, ill-suited to an answer, breaks down. Rather than see others in true fashion, the idiot chooses doubly to blind himself. Almost hopelessly naive to white hypocrisy, he misreads direct racism as well. In eight rhymed quatrains “The Melting Pot” illustrates the ironic myth of the American mainstream to the protagonist, Sam. From the presented fable, including the wordplay and rhyme, the comic ballad leads to an ultimate epiphany, for thrown out of the American crucible a thousand times, Sam reconfirms, “I don't give a da … / Shove your old pot. You can like it or not, / but I'll be just what I am.”
Through poems such as “A Different Image,” Randall acknowledges the influence of African and Caribbean poets. Schooled well in Négritude, a philosophy espoused by French-speaking Blacks since 1945, he deepens Black experience into universal meaning. In 1968 he brought out James Emanuel's first book of poetry, The Treehouse and Other Poems and issued Nikki Giovanni's second book, Black Judgment. In the reprinting of Margaret Danner's Impressions of African Art Forms, a facsimile of the 1960 original, he redistributed the only known volume devoted entirely to the subject of African aesthetics. During 1969 he published books by poets Jon Eckels, Beatrice Murphy, Nancy Arnez, and Sonia Sanchez, as well as those by Marvin X, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Stephany. Randall served as instructor of English at the University of Michigan in 1969 and from then until 1974 served as poet in residence at the University of Detroit. For a while at the University of Ghana, he studied African arts. Then he visited Togo and Dohemy. From 1970 through 1976 he completed an appointment to the advisory panel of the Michigan Council for the Arts.
His literary career has prospered; the fourteen poems in Love You (1970) achieve more thematic and formal focus than in his previous poetry. With scholarly range, he writes the poem of celebration, the monologue, and the short visionary lyric. Attentive to transitory love-making, as well as to the discrepancy between appearance and reality, he observes well the tension between the tangible and the intangible. Sometimes he uses skillful similes to verbalize a speaker's personal joy; he employs Steinesque wordplay. Through structured dramatic situations, he projects personal advice and consolation for fellows. “The Profile on the Pillow,” a well crafted verse, compares the narrator's trace of the lover's silhouette to the mature poet's commitment to humanity. Set against the race riots of the late sixties, the narrator-lover echoes clearly Brooks's speaker (“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”): “We may be consumed in the holocaust, / but I keep, against the ice and the fire, / the memory of your profile on the pillow.” Although love is intangible, the reader recognizes it through the writer's use of tangible light. Retreating from chaotic history, one person asks the other to “step into the circle of my arms,” withdrawing from the metaphorical whirlwind and fire, from physical and emotional exhaustion.
For Dudley Randall the early 1970s meant a balanced and personal retreat. Written from the thirties through the sixties, the poems in More to Remember (1971) comprise his first comprehensive collection. Although the individual verses are not arranged chronologically, each group represents a particular decade of his work. While times changed, the biting irony and humor developed. Poem, Counterpoem (1966) contains only the verses appropriately paired with Danner's, and Cities Burning (1968) has only those which reveal a disintegrating era. Then the most indispensable of his volumes, the latter includes the subjects of kindness and cruelty, incredible harvests, diversely classical forms, and natural beauty. Here Randall explores some contradictions in human psychology and in the Black Arts Movement, and, still a thinking poet, in doing so he displays artistic breadth. Adding to the literary strategies from earlier volumes, he draws upon personification, and though despite some occasional and prosaic overstatement he keeps a sharp ear. In deftly manipulating his point of view, Randall writes the lyric or the parable equally well. In “The Line Up,” a poem in four quatrains, a police inquiry is written as an extended metaphor. Here one views the worth of various literary periods while the verse employs a double voice. There is, on the one hand, the common speech of accused criminals, including the murderer, the young pimp, and the dirty old man, yet on the other hand, the speaker maintains an ironic detachment; he believes that the investigators ask the wrong questions. Although the police indict many people and record their crimes, the officers themselves hardly understand, nor can they explain their motives.
“Interview,” possibly the most sustained and brilliant of the generational poems, portrays an entrepreneur turned philanthropist. As the old man explains his principles to an intruding young reporter, an ambivalence is clearly apparent. The newsman, who has crossed protective moat and scaled a barbed wire fence, suggests boldly the mirror-image of the philanthropist himself at an earlier age. And in provoking the speaker's own credo, the youngster hears the man repudiate cynicism. The benefactor, self-trained in industry and discipline, avows to “Not snivel … prove to those / Who could not take the world just as they found it / And therefore lack the power to change it at all / That one old, greedy and predacious villain / Can do more good … than … their years of whining and complaining.”
“On a Name for Black Americans,” a politically angry sermon, stresses self-reliance as well. “The spirit informs the name, / not the name the spirit.” While Randall suggests the name Du Bois temperamentally as well as ideally, he pragmatically implies Benjamin Franklin and Booker T. Washington. From childhood he remembers that Blacks worked hard once to have Negro capitalized, and he never considered the word derogatory. Although some Blacks have attempted to demean the term by using lower case or by applying it only to the submissive fellows, he still asserts that “what you are is more important than what you are called … that if you yourself, by your life and actions, are great … something of your greatness will rub off … dignify … actions affect words … In a more limited sense … words affect actions.”
The distinction between appearance and reality pervades More to Remember. “Put Your Muzzle Where Your Mouth Is (or shut up)” addresses sarcastically a theoretical Black revolutionary. Loudly telling others to kill, he has murdered none himself, and the protagonist who shouts “Black Power” in the poem “Informer” similarly deludes the listeners who overlook his whispers to the FBI. “Abu” reveals the contradictions through low burlesque, for the activist who has apparently decided to blow up City Hall advertises in the New York Times. Right in front of the FBI infiltrators, he promises to assassinate a white liberal who gave “only” half a million dollars to the NAACP, but, asked to comment later, “Says nothing ‘bout that Southern sheriff / killed three black prisoner / 'cept, he admired him / for his sin / cerity.” So consumed with self-hatred, Abu is a self-acknowledged coward, for his posture and rhetoric are less dangerous than foolishly deceptive. He criticizes readily some white liberals who pose no obvious threat, but he rationalizes away the need to confront the racist who does so. He is as hypocritical as is the protagonist in “militant Black, Poet,” who hangs himself after a white suburbanite downplays the “militant's” bitterness. Finally, the poem “Ancestors” exposes the revolutionary's own elitist tendencies. While such people fantasize about royal heritage, they demean humble origins. In “On Getting a Natural (For Gwendolyn Brooks),” the volume's final poem written in December 1969, Randall's speaker celebrates the humanist. At first too humble to admit her own charisma (“beauty is as beauty does”), Brooks blossoms into racial awareness, and her epiphany rings true.
In More to Remember the description concludes with Randall's aesthetic theory. In “The Ascent” he has represented the poet as visionary, and in “The Dilemma (My poems are not sufficiently obscure? To please the critics—Ray Durem),” he has revealed once more the tension in the artist, the modifier of both literary tradition and classical form. Whether from traditionalists or revolutionaries, the artist asserts intellectual independence. The appropriately titled “The Poet” illuminates the type. Sloppily dressed and bearded, the writer reads when he should work. Imagining a poem, he would rather turn a profit and convert to “outlandish religions”; he consorts with Blacks and Jews. Often disturbing the peace, a “foe of the established order,” he mingles with revolutionaries. In a satirical ploy the narrator plays temporarily the bigot's part: “When will you [the poet] slough off / This preposterous posture / And behave like a normal / Solid responsible / White Anglo Saxon Protestant.” Randall's artist philosophizes more than he lives (“The Trouble with Intellectuals”), but he feels deeply (“Mainly By the Music”).
Especially from 1972 through 1974, Randall contributed much to Black American culture. He participated in a poetry festival, “The Forerunners,” codirected by Woodie King at Howard University in 1972. He bolstered indirectly the early success of the Howard University Press, which would issue the proceedings, and in Washington he heard Owen Dodson read from a wheelchair. He listened to Sterling Brown present “Strong Men.” A recipient of the Kuumba Liberation Award in 1973, Randall participated in the seminar for socio-literature in the East West Culture Learning Institute at the University of Hawaii. He had established himself, says Addison Gayle, as one “who came to prominence, mainly, after the Renaissance years, who bridged the gap between poets of the twenties and those of the sixties and seventies … began the intensive questioning of the impossible dream, the final assault upon illusion that produces the confrontation with reality, the search for paradigms, images, metaphors, and symbols from the varied experiences of a people whose history stretches back beyond the Nile.”
Dudley Randall marks well the transition over six decades. His next pamphlet, After the Killing (1973), often assumes the style and voice of the younger poets. Although most of the verses included are recent, some are older ones. “To the Mercy Killers” appears with some poems completed during the sixties and seventies. Here Randall experiments with typographical lyrics and sharpens Juvenalian satire. Despite others’ inclinations toward modern compression, he avoids the direction of Wallace Stevens and Gwendolyn Brooks as well as the visionary sweep of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. Pausing occasionally for sexual deliberations, he lays bare intraracial prejudice and semantic deceptions. “Words Words Words” criticizes Black activists who constantly favor white and light-skinned women. When the expressions belie the deeds, Randall's speakers toy with ambiguities. While one Black says “fag—” means something else, another adds that “mother” does as well. The narrator concludes that “maybe black / doesn't mean black, / [two line space] but white.” The double space underscores the pause and insight.
The title poem, a parable, infuses murder with the solemnity of biblical myth. The literary world transmutes the poet's life into fable, for the historical Randall lived through World War II and Viet Nam. As in Robert Hayden's “In the Mourning Time,” the speaker distills Black anger into ritual. Supposedly dedicated to ultimate peace, the bloodthirsty man kills other people, whose children in turn kill his own. Another bloodthirsty one, three generations later, repeats the original's words: “And after the killing / there will be [triple or quadruple space] peace.” The blank space implies human extinction or an undesired solution. “To The Mercy Killers” translates the ritual more clearly into social portraits of totalitarianism and abortion, though neither subject may be fully intended. One man reclaims sarcastically the glowing life from others, the self-appointed gods who would destroy him. Elsewhere Randall's narrator states aphoristically: “There are degrees of courage. / One man is not afraid to die. / A second is not afraid to kill. / A third is not afraid to be merciful.”
With energy and commitment, Randall demonstrates Black self-determination now. Influenced more by modernist techniques, he discusses the love of writing and the joy of publishing. Despite the fun of teaching, he expects his professional and literary career to take new turns. While not tearing up his work, he writes only in the days he has time. He composes the poems in his head and then writes them later—sometimes while lying down or driving along the freeway.
Randall believed that young Black poets should be free from publishers like Random House and Morrow and, despite the emergence of new talents, that older poets should continue to be active. While abandoning sonorousness in his own art, he attempted looser forms and more colloquial diction. Wanting a widely diverse audience, Randall worked for richness and philosophical depth. To achieve freedom and flexibility he declined partnerships as well as incorporations, for he feared that stockholders would demand profits, would lower quality, or would publish prose. While his income from the press went into publishing new poetry volumes, Randall 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. Writers who send me manuscripts and speak of ‘making a buck’ turn me off.” Although dedicated to ideals, Randall remembered well the pragmatic lessons from the Black Renaissance. When the Depression came in the thirties, white publishers had dropped Blacks who earlier had been popular, so Randall recommended that Afro-Americans “build a stable base in their own communities.”
In “Coleman A. Young: Detroit Renaissance” the speaker advocates communal rebirth. Aware of contemporary mechanization, he still acknowledges the value of wisdom. The historical sweep, suggesting both racial and human consciousness, spans 3,000 years. The final lines allude at once to Langston Hughes’ Montage and Shakespeare's Tempest:
Together we [human community] will build a city that will yield to all their hopes and dreams so long deferred. New faces will appear too long neglected here; new minds, new means will build a brave new world.
The rhythmically intoned “long” and the repetitive “new” achieve sound inflections, ones rare indeed in more formal Black poetry. Even the words of Shakespeare's Miranda (“brave new world”) assume a bluesesque depth and a suspended sharpness in half-stepped musical climbs.
Randall's recent book, A Litany of Friends (1981), demonstrates an intellectual depth of themes used and technical mastery of the poetic form. Of the eighty-two poems collected, twenty-four are reprints, and forty-eight are new. Six poems appeared first in Poem, Counterpoem (1966), four in Cities Burning (1968), one in Love You (1970), fourteen in More to Remember (1971), and nine in After the Killing (1973). Grouped topically, the verses demonstrate Randall's technical skill.
Randall enlarges the humanness of poetry written in English. Sensitive to Robert Hayden's historical allusions, he employs the sea-death imagery of Alfred Lord Tennyson, and he alludes equally well to Thomas Gray's graveyard school or to the blues tradition of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. Responsive to both romance and tragedy, Randall achieves the lyrical as well as the dramatically stoic poem. Creating both inner and outer voices, the private persona and the detached narrator, he reveals human consciousness.
In the sustained title poem of forty lines, Randall celebrates other people. Here are family members and fellow artists who helped him through a severe personal depression in the mid-seventies. While metaphors and similes emphasize kinship as well as journey, familial embrace signifies communal ritual. The ceremonial tone leads back through Black America to Africa. Without the mention of last names, the speaker thanks Gwendolyn Brooks for remembering him and sending gifts. He praises the late Hoyt Fuller for respecting him as a man rather than as a hero. In his mind he hears Etheridge Knight tell him to confront the pain and to transcend it. While the speaker thanks Audre Lorde for writing and sending donations, the narrator praises Sonia Sanchez, who phones him and sends herbs. So, friendship inspires personal restoration.
Two other poems, “My Muse” and “Maiden, Open,” suggest Randall's erudition. Well-versed in the poetic themes and forms of antiquity as well as in the English Renaissance, he shows the ambivalence of art and eternal love. In the seven stanzas of “My Muse” (October 1, 1980), he blends Greek sources with African sound. While the muse (“Zasha”) inspires the poet, his verses come either in tenderness or wrath. The speaker observes classical analogues between the African muse, Catullus’ Lesbia, and Shakespeare's dark lady as well as Dante's Beatrice and Poe's Annabel Lee. Restored to her rightful place in human mythology, the African muse appears as, “My Zasha / Who will live for ever in my poems / Who in my poems will be forever beautiful.” The blackness is sublime. Through the analogue between the poem and the damsel, “Maiden, Open” places eternalness equally against the enchanted landscape: “who ever tastes the poet's lips / Will never grow old, will never die. …”
More political poems such as “A Leader of the People (for Roy Wilkins),” written April 18, 1980, and “A Poet Is Not a Jukebox” distill racial history into literary type. Although Wilkins, an NAACP leader, was still alive then, today the verse marks an appropriate threnody. Dramatized in two voices, the optimistic one written in roman type and the pessimistic one expressed in italics, the poem contrasts Wilkins with the skeptical narrator. And, on a second level, it sets up Wilkins’ two selves, one visionary and the other pragmatic. Wilkins acknowledges a commitment to self-respect and independence, but the negative voice assures him that sacrifice earns the enduring hatred of men and women. When Wilkins answers he will risk hatred for love, the counterpart argues that others will rebuke him. Whereas Wilkins agrees to bear scorn and pride for the sake of Blacks, the other responds demonically so. Although Wilkins reaffirms the mission to withstand the enemies and save the people, the pessimist finished introspectively: “It is not your enemies who will do these things to you, / but your people.”
When the emphasis falls less upon betrayal than endurance, “A Poet Is Not a Jukebox” reaffirms an artistic independence. After writing a love poem, the speaker must defend the choice to a militant inquirer. Why, she asks, doesn't he portray the Miami riot? Now self-removed from social upheaval, he has worked lately for the Census and listened to music. In ignoring television, he has avoided the news as well. As a statement about artistic freedom, the poem leads through totalitarianism to a complexly human statement. The writer must achieve personal and emotional range, for out of love and the commitment to happiness and joy, he “writes about what he feels, what agitates his heart. …”
Apparently Randall edits in the same manner. While some scholars would view Randall today primarily as a publisher, others think of him as a man of letters. While he fails to shape his talent into polished rhythms and compressed images, he writes keenly in the ballad and sonnet forms, and in prophetic verse, he experiments in the parable and fable. Although attracted to the poetry of antiquity, including classical conventions, he also gives his energetic support to modern originality. While enabling him to perceive the love often overlooked in the poetry and life of Sonia Sanchez, his sensitive ear also helps him to appreciate the epic tone and Christian analogue in verses by Etheridge Knight, Sonia's former husband. Whether or not Dudley Randall is a great poet in his own right, Black American literary art has benefited from his great talent and love for fifty years.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6943
SOURCE: “Dudley Randall: The Poet as Humanist,” in Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews, The University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 41-60.
[In the following essay, Melhem discusses Randall's poetry and involvement with Broadside Press. A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Black American Literature Forum in 1983 under the title “Dudley Randall: A Humanist View.”]
“I never thought of myself as a leader,” says Dudley Randall in his soft, vibrant voice. Yet the historical impact of Broadside Press, begun in Detroit in 1965 “without capital, from the twelve dollars I took out of my paycheck to pay for the first Broadside,” attests to the modesty of his statement. Despite Randall's “silence” between 1976 and 1980, when the Press foundered as a result of overgenerous publishing commitments and subsequent debt; despite his depression during those years (he wrote no poetry until April of 1980), Broadside Press—which now continues in the hands of Hilda and Donald Vest—remains his edifice and achievement. It gave opportunity to dozens of unpublished as well as published Black writers (including all the poets in this study except Jayne Cortez). It produced Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets (1969), the first such anthology to appear under the imprint of a Black publisher. It revived and adapted the concept of the broadside, developed as a polemical device during the Puritan Revolution in seventeenth-century England. Randall's broadsides, many of them printed on oversized paper and decorated as works of art, suitable for framing, often served both aesthetics and rhetoric. But his deep concern was always for the best poetry, “the best words in the best order,” as he has stated, invoking Samuel T. Coleridge. An extension of this interest has been the Broadside Poets Theater, a distinguished series of readings inaugurated by Randall in August 1980. Drawing Black poets from across the country, it has become his chief commitment to the arts.
Randall began his career as a writer in 1927, at age thirteen. That year he published a sonnet on the “Young Poets’ Page” of the Detroit Free Press, winning first prize of a dollar. Music, religion, politics, and poetry were meshed early in his consciousness. Born on January 14, 1914, in Washington, D.C., he is the third (and the sole survivor) of the five children of Arthur George Clyde and Ada Viola (Bradley) Randall. The poet recalls going with his mother to a band concert in Towson, Maryland, when he was a child: “I was so impressed by the big bass drums and the big bass horns that I composed words about them to the melody of ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ which the band had played. This is the earliest instance I can remember of my composing a poem.” Randall's father, a politically oriented preacher who managed the campaigns of several Black office seekers after the family moved to Detroit, took him and his brothers to hear W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, and others.
In high school Randall developed skill in prosody, which he advises poets to study. Although he writes often in free verse, he does so by choice, not necessity.
I believe there's an ideal, Platonic line for every thought. The job of the poet is to find it. In traditional verse, it's easier, as there's already a pattern given. Free verse is harder, as there's no given pattern for the line, and the poet has to find the one perfect line out of billions of possibilities. Therefore, the poet who hasn't mastered traditional verse and doesn't know a trochee from a hole in the ground, won't know what to look for or how to select when lines come into his mind. The line I like best in “Ballad of Birmingham” is the line in sprung rhythm, “but that smile / / was the last smile,” where the 2 spondees balance each other. Most free verse is bad, as is most traditional verse, but there's more bad free verse than traditional verse. I always scan my free verse, and I know what rhythms I'm using, and why.
The spareness of my ballads comes from Black folk poetry—spirituals & seculars—as well as from English folk poetry.
Randall also noted that Henry Well's Poetic Imagery Illustrated from Elizabethan Literature (1924), which classifies images, was an important stylistic influence, as were classical meters and French forms. He has translated some of Catullus into the hendecasyllabics and Sapphic strophes of the original. In translating, whether from Aleksandr Pushkin or Konstantin M. Simonov or Paul Verlaine, Randall tries to render the form as well as the content. His most ambitious project, the “translation” of Chopin preludes and waltzes into “songs without words”—lyrics so totally expressive of the music that they would merge with it—lies ahead. In addition to earning a bachelor's degree at Wayne University (now Wayne State) in 1949 and a master's in library science at the University of Michigan in 1951, Randall has gone on to complete course requirements for a master's degree in the humanities at Wayne State. The Chopin translations may become the thesis for that second master's.
Listening to classical music helps Randall to write. Although he recommends that the poet read widely, “in any language you know,” he agrees with Dorothea Brande's suggestion in Becoming a Writer (1937) that a wordless occupation, one that is rhythmical and monotonous, helps the creative process. He is not prescriptive about subject matter: “You write what you can,” he says.
Randall's feeling for working-class people was deepened by his years at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan (1932-37). “George” commemorates the experience. In 1935 he married Ruby Hands, and soon a daughter, Phyllis Ada, was born. He was employed at the U.S. Post Office in 1938 and worked there—with time out during World War II—until 1951, when he took his first library position. A second marriage took place in 1942. Inducted into the army in July 1943 and trained in North Carolina and Missouri, Randall was sent overseas in February 1944. As a supply sergeant in the headquarters detachment of the Signal Corps, he served in the Philippines and in various islands of the South Pacific. Although he saw no active combat, he was close to those who did. His “Pacific Epitaphs,” from More to Remember, epitomizes that tragic time.
The poet shies away from the label “pacifist,” yet he is strongly antiwar; see especially the title poem of his 1973 collection After the Killing and the “War” section of A Litany of Friends. Sadly, he likens war to an ongoing family feud and states, “I would say that conciliation is better than revenge.” He does accept the designation “humanist.” He tells 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.” Like [Gwendolyn] Brooks, Randall sees people in terms of “family” and remains a family-oriented man. Numerous letters to his daughter, correspondence he prizes, contain his own drawings of his Pacific surroundings during the war, including lizards, sand crabs, and flying fish. His devotion to his third wife, Vivian Spencer, a psychiatric social worker whom he married in 1957, is made manifest in later poetry.
When Randall was discharged in 1946, he returned home to go back to school and his post office job. After receiving his master's degree from Michigan, he worked continuously as a librarian: at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, from 1951 to 1954; at Morgan State College in Baltimore to 1956; in Wayne County Federated Library System in Detroit to 1969, and at the University of Detroit, where he was also Poet-in-Residence, to 1976. During those years he received many honors, among them the Wayne State Tompkins Award, for poetry in 1962 and for poetry and fiction in 1966, and the Kuumba Liberation Award in 1973. Both the University of Michigan and Wayne State have named him a Distinguished Alumnus, and in 1977 he received awards from the International Black Writers’ Conference and the Howard University Institute of Afro-American Studies. The following year the University of Detroit conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature. He is modestly but deeply proud of becoming, in 1981, the first Poet Laureate of Detroit.
The 1960s were critically formative years for Randall, as they were for all the poets in this study. Two stunning events in late 1963, the racist bombing of a church that resulted in the death of Black Sunday school children, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, inspired the poems that were to become Randall's first broadsides. The “Ballad of Birmingham” and “Dressed All in Pink” began the Broadside Series and Broadside Press in 1965. Both poems were set to music by Jerry Moore; they were later included in Cities Burning. Another step in the history of the Press was marked by Randall's meeting with Margaret Danner at a party for the late Hoyt Fuller, editor of the journal Black World and then of First World. Danner had founded Boone House, the important Black arts center which, from 1962 to 1964, existed as a forerunner of similar projects later launched with government assistance. The two poets conceived Poem Counterpoem, a unique series of their paired poems that was released in 1966. In May 1966 Randall attended the first Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in Nashville. There he met Margaret Burroughs, with whom he developed the idea of the For Malcolm anthology (1967). As Randall observes, the press grew “by hunches, intuitions, trial, and error.” At the Conference, he obtained permission from Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson, and Margaret Walker to use their poems in the Broadside Series. He wrote to Gwendolyn Brooks and obtained her consent to publish “We Real Cool.” Of this first group of six broadsides, Randall observes, “‘Poems of the Negro Revolt’ is, I think, one of the most distinguished groups in the Broadside Series, containing outstanding poems by some of our finest poets.”
The most significant act of confidence accorded Randall and Broadside Press was made by Gwendolyn Brooks when, in 1969, she turned to it for the publication of Riot. Randall acted as Brooks's editor and was especially helpful in organizing her autobiography, Report from Part One. Brooks, in turn, assisted in the selection of poems for Randall's More to Remember (1971), rewriting the preface and eliminating a number of pieces he had planned to include (he now wishes he had excluded even more). The warm friendship inspired both poets. In 1970, Randall dedicated his book Love You “to Gwendolyn, an inspiration to us all.”
Randall's democratic instincts are offended by what he calls “poet snobs.” In a forthright, unpublished poem about the period of his depression, he caustically contrasts 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 present choice to dress well for public appearances. He feels strongly that poets should be interested in other people. “Shy and self-centered” in his early years, he gradually gained what he refers to as “negative capability” (adapting John Keats's phrase) by thinking of whatever person he meets instead of himself. Randall admires writers in whom he sees this capacity.
Though his humanism remains unaltered, Randall's thinking has undergone some modification over the years, partly as a result of his travels. He still does not “connect” with organized religion (although in Contemporary Authors, 1977, he listed his affiliation as Congregational), but his political tone seems more circumspect. “No,” he told me in Detroit, as he drew at his pipe and leaned back in a living room chair, “I'm not a socialist. I went to Russia, and I think people are just human beings all the world over.” Randall was referring to his 1966 trip with eight other artists to the Soviet Union, France, and Czechoslovakia. He was disturbed about the censorship and treatment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Osip Mandelstam. In 1970 he visited Togo and Dahomey in Africa and studied African arts at the University of Ghana. That trip enriched his consciousness. Its residue may be seen in his current taste in dress, like his favored orange cap and bright, sometimes African clothing. Yet the impressions revealed contradictions:
Africa is a very big place. It is very hard to try to sum it up. … I think, moreover, that it is very unwise for a person to talk as if he knows a country after visiting it for only a short time and getting only superficial impressions. An instant expert! There were some contradictions. One of them, for example, was being part of an audience that was two-thirds Black, and the African speaker referred to us as “you white folks,” which may give you some idea of how … this person looked upon Black Americans. Yet I wouldn't generalize and say that every African had this attitude. In the villages that we visited, for example, they said: “We know that you are our brothers who were taken away from us, and now you are coming back to see the land where your fathers lived, and we welcome you back.”
Randall agrees with Haki Madhubuti that whites have been responsible for numerous depredations, but he does not put all whites into the same category. Though he notes wryly that poor whites, who face many of the same problems that Blacks encounter, can be just as prejudiced as those who are more affluent, he continues hopeful that people's attitudes can be altered and that “you can raise anybody's consciousness.” Randall maintains his integrationist stance because “we're all human beings.” He thinks it important, however, to promote Black solidarity, “to align yourself with those who are like you and in like condition.”
Before founding Broadside, Randall was published in various magazines; wider recognition came with the appearance of his work in prestigious anthologies: Rosey E. Pool's Beyond the Blues (1962); American Negro Poetry, edited by Arna Bontemps (1963); and Langston Hughes's New Negro Poets: U.S.A. (1964). It was the Hughes anthology (which bears a foreword by Gwendolyn Brooks) that first presented “The Southern Road” (later reprinted in Poem Counterpoem and A Litany of Friends), a brilliant poem in the strict and now rarely employed form of the ballade. An important French innovation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the ballade is identified with the poetry of Francois Villon, whose work was characterized by intelligence, precision, and realism. Randall's own advice to poets (which appears in Contemporary Authors, 1977), begins: “Precision and accuracy are necessary for both white and black writers.” David Littlejohn cites “The Southern Road” as “a sophisticated rendering of the return-to-the-South theme.”
The ballade, usually in three stanzas of eight lines each plus an envoi of four, utilizes three end-rhymes and takes as its refrain the last line of the first stanza. Randall uses a stately iambic pentameter line, and his skill controls the emotionally charged material:
There the black river, boundary to hell, And here the iron bridge, the ancient car, And grim conductor, who with surly yell Forbids white soldiers where the black ones are. And I re-live the enforced avatar Of desperate journey to a dark abode Made by my sires before another war; And I set forth upon the southern road.
Randall connects “the black river” of Black life with ancient myth: the “grim conductor” is Charon who, ironically, enforces segregation. The poet becomes the incarnation and epiphany of his forefathers in a pilgrimage of identity toward life and death.
The second stanza describes the destination, the paradoxical “land where shadowed songs like flowers swell / And where the earth is scarlet as a scar.” Because the poet's blood has been shed here, he will claim the land: “None can bar / My birthright.” The dual vision persists in the third stanza:
This darkness and these mountains loom a spell Of peak-roofed town where yearning steeples soar And the holy chanting of a bell Shakes human incense on the throbbing air When bonfires blaze and quivering bodies char. Whose is the hair that crisped, and fiercely glowed? I know it; and my entrails melt like tar And I set forth upon the southern road.
Darkness and firelight, the sacred and the profane, spiritual immortality and physical death, redemption and murder vie dramatically as the poet, feeling himself ablaze (“I know it”), presses on. The tar simile merges poet with lynch victims, who were often tarred and then set afire. “Human incense” strikes a bitter irony in the religious context. Half-rhyme, used only in this stanza, sharpens the intellectual and visual contrasts among soar, air, char, tar.
In the closing quatrain, Randall invokes the land:
O fertile hillsides where my fathers are, From which my woes like troubled streams have flowed, Love you I must, though they may sweep me far. And I set forth upon the southern road.
Significantly, the earth remains fertile, nourished by the poet's grief and blood, emblems of his people's suffering. The statement passionately affirms Randall's belief in the democratic potential of the United States, his conviction that “conciliation is better than revenge.” The poem's refrain gains a semantic increment subtly from stanza to stanza and so transforms from the first, where it functions narratively, to the second, where it asserts a claim, to the third, where it makes a heroic gesture. In the envoi it becomes a measure of love as Randall moves to the simple declarative of the close. The last line suggests the poet as separate yet strengthened by his experience, like Whitman's “simple, separate person” who can “yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” This poem may be contrasted with the title poem of Sterling A. Brown's Southern Road (1932)—reprinted in Randall's useful anthology The Black Poets (1971)—which is a blues ballad in dialect expressing a chain gang member's hopeless view of his life.
Cities Burning (1968), the first collection of Randall's own poems, whose cover design and stark colors of red, black, and white resemble those of Brooks's Riot, reflects the revolutionary spirit of the sixties. Of its twelve poems, half—including the most polemical—are in free verse; the rest are rhymed. “Roses and Revolutions,” written in 1948, sets the tone:
Musing on roses and revolutions, I saw night close down on the earth like a great dark wing, and the lighted cities were like tapers in the night, and I heard the lamentations of a million hearts regretting life and crying for the grave.
The Whitmanic line and inflection draw the free verse to an affirmative close. There, the poet's prophetic vision of a future in which “all men walk proudly through the earth, / and the bombs and missiles lie at the bottom of the ocean / like the bones of dinosaurs buried under the shale of eras,” is confirmed by its radiance, in which will “burst into terrible and splendid bloom / the blood-red flower of revolution.” The coupling of revolution and blossom invokes the Brooks of the “Second Sermon on the Warpland” and her counsel to youth: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”
Randall's interest in other art forms appears in “Primitives,” which compares the attempt of abstract art (Picasso is suggested) and modern poetry, especially the typographically experimental, to deal with the threat and hideous reality of modern warfare. His lyrical “Augury for an Infant,” addressed to his granddaughter, Venita Sherron, closes the volume hopefully, seeing the infant as “infinite possibility.” But the strongest poems, apart from the first, employ the lyrical understatement of Black folk poetry, the terseness of blues, “ballards,” spirituals, and seculars, and of old English ballads like “Edward, Edward,” “Lord Randal,” and “The Twa Corbies,” where deep feeling compresses into rhythm, rhyme, and the tragic frame. “Dressed All in Pink” begins quietly, with a specific reference to John F. Kennedy's ride though Dallas with his wife, Jacqueline, and Governor John Connally on November 22, 1963, and an allusive one to Camelot, land of the Kennedy dream:
It was a wet and cloudy day when the prince took his last ride. The prince rode with the governor, and his princess rode beside.
Randall's formal mastery gives a spondaic emphasis to “last ride” in the only second line of any stanza thus distinguished in the seven-stanza poem. Having progressed through the shooting, the piece closes: “and her dress of pink so delicate / a deep, deep red is dyed.” The facts, ordered within the music and noble simplicity of the genre, elevate into myth.
The “Ballad of Birmingham,” on the page opposite the Kennedy poem, complements both subject and genre with a similar spare dignity. Like the assassination of the president, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, took place in the year of heightened civil rights protests. This “Negro Revolt” or “Black Rebellion” had culminated in the March on Washington in August by over 200,000 Black and white citizens, who had been stirred by Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The following month, the Birmingham tragedy took the lives of four little girls at Sunday School and injured other children. The attack aroused nationwide grief and indignation, which the events in Dallas would soon intensify.
Randall focuses upon one child, personalizing both the horror and its context. The girl asks her mother's permission to participate in a freedom march. The mother, fearing the police dogs “and clubs and hoses, guns and jails,” protectively refuses and, in searing irony, suggests that her child go to Sunday School instead, where she will be safe. Dramatic tension builds as the mother lovingly dresses the child for church and smiles to think of her daughter “in the sacred place.” Then she hears the explosion: “her eyes grew wet and wild. / She raced through the streets of Birmingham / calling for her child.” The murder, as if too terrible for description and thus augmented by mystery, powerfully registers in this vignette of maternal anguish. The poem conveys the dreadful lesson: no place is sacred or safe in such a time and place. The name of Birmingham, a city then regarded as the “capital” of segregation, becomes a symbol: “Birmingham becomes any city or town in which the oppressed Black is killed out of racial prejudice.” [John T. Shawcross, “Names as ‘Symbols’ in Black Poetry,” in Literary Onomestics Studies, 1978].
Publication of the anthologies For Malcolm and Black Poetry, the addition of Gwendolyn Brooks, Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, and other important writers to the regular list, along with Broadside Series authors such as Robert Hayden, LeRoi Jones, Margaret Walker, and Melvin B. Tolson, enhanced the prestige of the Press as the unquestioned leader in Black publishing. In Black Poetry, Randall reprinted from Poem Counterpoem his own popular “George” and “Booker T. and W. E. B.” The latter imagines a dialogue between Booker T. Washington, epitome of the industrious, conservative Negro who accepts a subservient position—“Just keep your mouth shut, do not grouse, / But work, and save, and buy a house”—and W. E. B. Du Bois, the intellectual progenitor of the Civil Rights Movement, who disagrees: “For what can property avail / If dignity and justice fail?” Randall clearly and accurately represents both sides, although, as he acknowledges wryly, Du Bois has the last word: “Speak soft, and try your little plan, / But as for me, I'll be a man.”
“George,” on the other hand, a workingman's tribute in free verse, describes a foundry co-worker who once gave Randall his “highest accolade: / You said: ‘You not afraid of sweat. You strong as a mule.’” Years later, visiting the old man in a hospital ward, the poet poignantly returns the compliment.
In 1970, an important year for Randall, he traveled to Africa, and his volume of love poems, Love You, was published in London. Of the book's fourteen pieces, a few seem occasionally overwhelmed by ardent feelings. Others show the application of his fine lyricism to free verse, as in “The Profile on the Pillow,” and to metrical verse, in which “Black magic” seems to sing its refrain of “Black girl, black girl.” “Faces” lauds the beauty of ordinary, aging features shaped by experience, “not only crocus faces / or fresh-snowfall faces / but driftwood faces, grooved by salt waters.”
“Sanctuary,” the last poem, mainly in iambic pentameter with deliberately varied stresses, offers particular interest for its whirlwind imagery, recalling Brooks's “Second Sermon on the Warpland,” and its compounding (“nation-death-and-birth”), another heroic device of Brooks. “This is the time of the whirlwind and the fire” also reverts to the introductory poem, “The Profile on the Pillow,” where tender memory remains, despite possibilities that
Perhaps you may cease to love me, or we may be consumed in the holocaust, but I keep, against the ice and the fire, the memory of your profile on the pillow.
This opening poem may be considered as companion to Brook's “An Aspect of Love, / Alive in the Ice and Fire” (Riot, 1969), a title which alludes in mild irony to Robert Frost's “Fire and Ice.” Brooks, like Randall, offers a tentative hope that personal love will endure.
It should be noted that Randall's use of the strong word “holocaust,” which has acquired in this century the connotation of genocide, refers specifically to the widely held belief among Blacks, after the riots of the sixties, that the government was preparing concentration camps for their confinement, even extermination. The poet conveys an awareness of fatal peril that will hurl the lovers “with the other doomed spirits / around and around in the fury of the whirlwind”—an allusion to Dante's meeting, in his Inferno, with the lovers Paolo and Francesca, whose passion dooms them to be tossed forever by stormy winds. Brooks, on the other hand, uses the whirlwind as a symbol of social change.
Randall's energies converged in high gear upon a full edition, More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades (the 1930s through the 1960s), published by Third World Press the following year and dedicated to Don L. Lee. The collection shows a wide range of interests, prosodic skill, and experimentation, its poems almost evenly divided between rhyme and free verse—the latter featured in polemical pieces and the later poems. The main thrust is political and humane and includes lively commentary on poets and poetics. The book is organized by decades into four sections. The first, “The Kindness and the Cruelty,” begins significantly with “For Pharish Pinckney, Bindle Stiff During the Depression,” dedicated to the brother of Randall's second wife, Mildred. At one time, the youth had lived as a boxcar riding hobo who “learned the kindness and the cruelty / of the land that mothered and rejected you.” Here the ambivalence of the Black experience in the United States may be generalized to include all those oppressed by poverty (see the expanded version in A Litany of Friends). Other poems celebrate youth in forms close to the traditions of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century English poetry. “Shape of the Invisible,” a cinquain after Adelaide Crapsey yet showing Japanese influence, effectively measures poetic feet (1, 2, 3, 4, 1):
At dawn Upon the snow The delicate imprint Left by the sleeping body of The wind.
“Incredible Harvests,” the second section, marks an enhancement of poetic power and a life that encompasses fatherhood, love and other problems, wartime service, reflections on police arrest (see the blues ballad “Jailhouse Blues,” and “The Line-Up”), and frequently politics. Here the poet attends more closely to visual elements, most notably in “Pacific Epitaphs.” The abbreviated and irregular length of these seventeen impressions epitomizes the brief lives of the dead and of their tombs, scattered among Pacific islands. Deep feeling compresses into epigram and understatement, as in “Halmaherra,” “Laughing I left the earth. / Flaming returned,” and “Guadalcanal”:
Your letter. These medals. This grave.
Avoiding sentimentality, the poems convey a dignity of grief while employing the restraint of, ironically, the Japanese haiku or tanka. Randall himself points out the additional influences of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology and of The Greek Anthology, which share a mode that is, in his words, “simple, spare, suggestive.”
Yet the poet's lyricism does not fail him. Following “Pacific Epitaphs,” “The Ascent” memorably describes an airman's view of the earth as he moves
Into the air like dandelion seed Or like the spiral of lark into the light Or fountain into sun. … … … … … … … … … … We poise in air, hang motionless, and see The planet turn with slow grace of a dancer.
“Coral Atoll” extends the meditation on natural beauty in the wartime scene and ends with a line that suggests Randall's ideal of poetic form at the time: “Have died into a perfect form that sings.” One recalls Keats's “die into life” in speaking of Apollo (Hyperion, 1.130).
In several ways, by contrasting form and relating content, Randall emphasizes the senseless recurrence of war and the timeless fraternity of its dead. “Helmeted Boy” addresses a youth killed in battle:
Your forehead capped with steel Is smoother than a coin With profile of a boy who fell At Marathon.
As in “Pacific Epitaphs,” the brevity of the lines conveys the brevity of life.
The third section, “If Not Attic, Alexandrian,” is the shortest yet displays an interesting variety of technique. It represents the 1950s, Randall notes, “when the nation was quiescent under President Eisenhower, and poetry was under the dominance of the Eliot/academic establishment.” It takes its title from “The Dilemma,” subtitled with a quotation from the late Ray Durem, “My poems are not sufficiently obscure / to please the critics.” In a Shakespearean sonnet, the speaker ironically claims that he cultivates his irony in order to be as confusing as the times. “So, though no Shelley, I'm a gentleman, / And, if not Attic, Alexandrian.” Thus, tongue in cheek, Randall presents a poem not marked by simple refinement (Attic) but concerned with technical perfection (Alexandrian).
Other sonnets in this section include “Anniversary Words,” in the even stricter Petrarchan form, addressed to the poet's wife: “You who have shared my scanty bread with me / and borne my carelessness and forget-fulness / with only occasional lack of tenderness, / who have long patiently endured my faculty / for genial neglect of practicality.” Apologia and appreciation, the poem may be instructively compared and contrasted with “For Vivian,” a more recent tribute (1983), published and then “calligraphized” in 1984, the poet notes, as Broadside No. 94:
Me, this snoring, belching, babbling semblance of man kind, What woman could refrain from laughing at? Or, caring more, quietly take her hat And leave? Yet, these four and twenty years You've stayed, though not without heart wring and tears. For which my thanks. And bless your love which binds.
The third section also contains the poet's aesthetic credo “Aim,” which calls for “words transparent as the air, / which hint the whole by showing the part clear.” Randall comments that this poem shows his “liking for a classically natural style, without distracting eccentricities and obscurities.”
“Interview” presents another technical surprise. In a dramatic monologue in blank verse after the fashion of Robert Browning—its sixty lines constituting Randall's longest published poem—a rich, elderly man (Henry Ford?) explains his tax-exempt research foundation and his life's philosophy to a brash reporter. He grants the interview in order to
prove to those Who could not take the world as they found it And therefore lack the power to change it at all That one old, greedy, and predacious villain Can do more good in the world than all of them In all their years of whining and complaining.
The portrait renders the shadowy grays as well as the clear blacks and whites of existence.
The relatively long closing section, “And Her Skin Deep Velvet Night,” takes its title from “On Getting a Natural (For Gwendolyn Brooks),” the tribute that ends the volume. Mordantly amusing, “Ancestors” questions: “Why are our ancestors / always kings or princes / and never the common people? … Or did the slavecatchers / steal only the aristocrats / and leave the fieldhands / laborers / streetcleaners / garbage collectors / dishwashers / cooks and maids / behind?” The democratic Randall tolerates neither snobbery nor intolerance. In “Aphorisms,” written with Blakean simplicity (Randall approves the comparison), he warns, “He who vilifies the Jew / next day will slander you. / / He who calls his neighbor ‘nigger’ / upon your turning back will snigger,” and ends on a religious note: “While he who calls a faith absurd / thrusts the spear into his Lord.”
The majority of the remaining poems in this group share a political nexus. “Hymn” expresses horror over “our worship” of the atomic bomb, which may end life on earth. “The Trouble with Intellectuals” and “The Intellectuals” were inspired by the difference between the Mensheviks who talked and the Bolsheviks who acted. A number of the poems scold the excesses of Black Nationalism and level criticisms of arrogance, extremism, and hypocrisy at some Black activists.
But there are tributes, too. The syncopated “Langston Blues” presents a moving elegy for one who brought “laughter from hell.” And the closing poem praises Brooks's adoption of a natural hair style and becomes an encomium of her beauty combined in spirit, action, and appearance: “And now her regal wooly crown / declares / I know / I'm black / AND / beautiful.”
In 1973 Randall published After the Killing, dedicated to the memory of a loyal Broadside worker, Ruth Elois Whitsitt Fondren. The fifteen poems, whose variety of subject matter accompanies the turn to even more free verse (only two are rhymed), show increased versatility in Randall's use of the form, to allow for more lyricism as well as argument. “African Suite,” the opening poem in five parts, gives Randall's impression of an African still racist and describes his feelings at visiting a Ghana castle that once held slaves. Some pieces apply Randall's critical humor to Blacks as well as to humanity in general, continuing the tact of More to Remember.
“After the Killing,” the title poem, evokes the Brooks metonymic, heroic style: “'We will kill', said the blood-thirster, / ‘and after the killing / there will be peace.’” Although Randall will not call the poem pacifistic, it does dramatize the absurdity of war, preventive or retaliatory, and of the arms race. “To the Mercy Killers,” a Shakespearean sonnet, powerfully affirms life to the end: “if ever mercy move you murder me, / I pray you, kindly killers, let me live.” “For Gwendolyn Brooks, Teacher,” utilizes spondaic energy and a spare meter: “You teach / without talk. / / Your life / is lesson. / / We give / because you do, / / are kind / because you are. / / Just live. / We will learn.” Randall ends the book with a translation, an earlier poem, “I Loved You Once” (Ya vas lyubil), from Pushkin, described in an editor's footnote as “the Russian of African descent who is credited for making the Russian language live again.”
After emerging from his silence in 1980, in 1981 Randall published A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems, his first book in eight years. Its moving title poem of dedication, autobiographical, identifies those many poets, friends, and family members who helped him morally, spiritually, and financially during his depression. The long-awaited book, which may be viewed in part as transitional, surprised some, pleased and dismayed others. It comprises excellent selections from previous years and volumes, interfaced with new or newly appearing poems in both free verse and conventional forms. “Verse Forms,” written in free verse, defends the sonnet: “A sonnet is an arrow. / Pointed and slim, it pierces / The slit in the armor.” (Compare Gwendolyn Brooks's earlier admonition in “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”: “not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet, / shall straddle the whirlwind.”)
“A Litany of Friends,” also in free verse, was begun April 1, 1980; along with “The Mini Skirt,” written on April 4, and “To an Old Man,” a sonnet written on Easter Sunday, two days later, it inaugurates the revived creative flow. The three poems, while they reflect the personal emphasis of much of the poetry, Black and white, of the seventies, reveal Randall's psychic energy shaping the two main categories of the new works: humanist concerns (in sections titled “Friends,” “War,” “Africa,” and “Me”) and love poetry (in “Eros,” which, followed in number by “Friends,” contains the bulk of the new poetry).
Part III, “War,” offers a distinguished set from More to Remember, including “Pacific Epitaphs.” Among the new or newly appearing antiwar poems are “Games,” a fine Petrarchan sonnet variant on boys’ war games transposed into real battle, and “Straight Talk from a Patriot,” a satirical quatrain on the Vietnam War. Of two translations from the Russian of Konstantin M. Simonov, the exquisitely achieved “My Native Land (Rodina),” in six rhymed quatrains of iambic pentameter, personalizes patriotism. Randall's translations, for which his skill and temperament seem equally suited, confirm the breadth of his consciousness.
The introductory section, “Friends,” reveals the warmth of the poet, who can write with stirring compassion of his dog (“Poor Dumb Butch”); with lyricism of his students (“My Students” is a series of fifteen haiku); and with imaginative appreciation of fellow Black poets (“The Six,” from 1975). At times the conventional form strains art into conventional registers, but when it succeeds, it does so notably. Randall comments: “Some of the love poems I wanted to sound simple and naive: ‘For love converts away from sad,’ using the adjective sad as a noun; ‘And never mind receive,’ using the verb receive as a noun, the object of the verb mind.”
What has disturbed some readers more than the uneven quality of certain pieces is their content. Part II, “Eros,” has incurred the most criticism, partly for its unabashed indulgence in sensual appreciation and its occasional Elizabethan inflection (as in “Maiden, Open” and “May and December: A Song”). But Randall replies: “Poets strain against barriers. Wordsworth attacked Pope's ‘poetic diction.’ Now, no contemporary poet would be caught dead using ‘poetic diction’ like ‘maiden,’ ‘bower,’ ‘sigh.’ It's this new interdiction that I fight. Call it ‘The New Romanticism,’ if you will. I fight for the right to use ‘romantic’ diction as much as the Black poets of the 1960s fought to use street language.” “The Mini Skirt” typifies the relaxed, Rabelaisian mode. Health of both ego and libido return here in force as the poet delights in his own recovery. The mischievous iconoclast appears in “The New Woman,” a reply inscribed “to M.H.W. and D.H.M.” (Mary Helen Washington and me), “who said that my poem ‘Women’ was sexist.” Hence, from the mildly amusing “I like women they're so warm & soft & sweet / Touch one & her skin yields like the flesh of a peach” of the older poem, “The New Woman” shifts to “I like women they're so hard & tough & strong / Feel their muscle it's hard & hairy as a coconut,” and charges on to a hilarious reversal of the first poem's images and values. An intriguing found poem, “The Erotic Poetry of Sir Isaac Newton,” convincingly adapts The Motion of Bodies (1687) to free verse. “Translation from Chopin”—Prelude Number 7 in A Major, Opus 28—the first published sample from Randall's intended project, seems to dissolve into the poignancy of the piece when read accompanied by the music.
Some of Randall's friends and fellow poets had expected stirring political broadsides, calls for justice, and exhortations to Black unity. Several wondered, as he observes in the militant apologia “A Poet Is Not a Jukebox,” “But why don't you write about the riot in Miami?” In this rebuttal, forthright in free verse, Randall admits ignorance of Miami because of his immediate needs to revive his economic and creative life. But his defense turns into a spirited offense. He warns that
Telling a Black poet what he ought to write Is like some Commissar of Culture in Russia telling a poet He'd better write about the new steel furnaces in the Novobigorsk region, Or the heroic feats of Soviet labor in digging the trans-Caucasus Canal, Or the unprecedented achievement of workers in the sugar beet industry who exceeded their quota by 400 per cent (it was later discovered to be a typist's error).
Randall's unfailing humanity empathizes with the Russian poet who may be devastated by his mother's dying of cancer, or by other personal matters. Further, states Randall, as the broadside becomes an aesthetic manifesto,
I'll bet that in a hundred years the poems the Russian people will read, sing, and love Will be the poems about his mother's death, his unfaithful mistress, or his wine, roses, and nightingales, Not the poems about steel furnaces, the trans-Caucasus Canal, or the sugar beet industry. A poet writes about what he feels, what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion. Not what some apparatchnik dictates, to promote his own career or theories.
Randall maintains his freedom to choose, in his own time, his own subjects, those which move him personally, including Miami. He goes on to defend writing about love and, with extravagant seriousness, offers love as a sociopolitical prescription. He sardonically notes that “If Josephine had given Napoleon more loving, he wouldn't have sown / the meadows of Europe with skulls.” In closing the poem and the book, Randall insists:
A poet is not a jukebox. A poet is not a jukebox. A poet is not a jukebox.
So don't tell me what to write.
The revolutionary action of poets has ever been freely to create from their deepest psychic sources. Defending himself, ably and with humor, Randall affirms his own center, his humanist core. One anticipates that as the poet retrieves and reshapes the extensions of his daily life, he will again articulate the range of interests that have made him, in the words of R. Baxter Miller, “one of the most important Black men of letters in the twentieth century.” The reader will welcome his courageous heart, its wit, lyricism, and humane expansiveness.