On Dudley Randall, The Black Unicorn

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Bill Mullen

The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and The Broadside Press.
Documentary video, VHS, color, 54 minutes.
Written, produced and directed by Melba Boyd.
Distributed by the National Black Programming Consortium
761 Oak Street, Suite A, Columbus, OH 43205, phone 614-229-4399.

THE BLACK UNICORN begins its narrative of the life of Detroit-based poet, publisher and cultural worker Dudley Randall with the voice of the author reading “Ballad of Birmingham,” Randall’s mournful commemoration of the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young Black girls. Against the resonance of Randall’s measured cadence, familiar civil rights era images of police dogs, waterhoses and brutal beatings of protestors are rendered shockingly new life as links to the longer legacy of African-American protest in the street and on the page.

It is a strong and fitting moment of departure for a film on Randall, who was at the center of Detroit’s, and Black America’s, reconfiguration of literature’s relationship to social change throughout his nearly fifty-year career. Melba Boyd, author of four books of poetry and professor of Africana Studies at Wayne State University, met Randall in 1977 and became an editorial assistant for Broadside Press, Randall’s publishing house. Her moving, contemplative and admirably political portrait of Randall pays proper service to his status as a revolutionary agent in Black art and cultural politics.

The Poem as a Broadside

Randall was already an established poetic voice in Black America when in 1975, inspired by pocket-size editions of books selling for twenty-five kopeks he had seen during a 1966 tour of the Soviet Union, he published a same-size edition of Poem Counterpoem, a collaborative collection of poems written with Margaret Danner. The book sold badly, but a revolution in Black letters was born.

Randall’s new Broadside Press, named for the spontaneous guerilla genre historically used by unpublished and radical writers worldwide, was soon acquiring and publishing work by African-American writers scorned or ignored without their own country.

In short time Randall had published poems and books by the likes of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Sterling Brown, Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and others. Broadside quickly became a Detroit institution, and one of the most permanent and influential living artifacts of the Black Arts Movement and Black Nationalist insurgency of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From Randall’s example Chicago’s Third World Press, Lotus Press and subsequently dozens of other small marginalized presses emerged to ensure room for minority voices, particularly in American poetry.

Fittingly, Boyd frames Randall’s life and work between his own two most politically forceful and progressive poems, “Ballad of Birmingham” and “Roses and Revolutions,” to remind viewers of the cyclical ground of oppression and protest against which Randall’s creative life–and much Black writing–have moved throughout the 20th century.

Racism Up North

Randall came to Detroit, as he recalls in an extended interview occupying a sizeable early portion of the film, on New Year’s Day, 1920. The son of a minister and a schoolteacher, Randall grew up among books, economic hardship (the depression) and the influence of Detroit’s unofficial Jim Crow segregation and racial hostility.

In the interview, Randall lingers long over the June, 1943 Detroit riots sparked by housing overcrowding unalleviated by federally sponsored housing projects. The riot underscored the lingering depression circumstances of Black northern urbanites and inaugurated aggressive civil rights movements in Detroit and other Northern urban centers increasingly headed by Black militants. Randall himself was drafted during the war, and responded as if it were an opportunity for adventure as much as a chance to aid in the defeat of fascism.

After the war Randall enrolled at what was then Wayne College (now Wayne State University), studying with, among others, his colleague Phillip Levine. He graduated in 1949, and in 1951 took a Masters Degree in Library Science at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. For years Randall worked as the reference librarian at the University of Detroit until quitting to work fulltime for Broadside in 1976.

The years between the end of the war and the formation of the press were for Randall ones of prolific poetic output but sometimes frustrated success. Randall recalls waiting until the 1960s to publish poems he had written during the 1930s in order to underscore the restrictions on the poetry market for Black writers, which partly prompted him to start up Broadside.

Boyd’s film honestly, directly and devotedly recreates Randall as a quiet, sensitive but ingenious entrepreneur who gave witness and access at Broadside to black poetry’s most radical voices during the 1970s while maintaining a modest personal persona and steadfast business acumen.

Nurturing a Community

For example, in an interview, ex-convict Etheridge Knight recalls Randall encouraging his early prison poems, publishing them in a Broadside edition, then standing by the writer during his ascent to critical acclaim and celebrity.

If, as Randall himself in one of the film interviews suggests, Broadside’s slogan should have been “Poetry is Power,” Randall’s discovery and nurturing of Knight serves as a symbol for his own legacy and gift for empowering others.

Boyd also emphasizes Broadside and Randall’s place in an internationalist literature of creative resistance. Randall recalls his initial visit to the Soviet Union, initiated by friend and painter Margaret Burroughs. There Randall read Pushkin to adoring Russian crowds so steeped in poetry as a public national discourse they moved in synchronous voice to his reading of “I Loved You Once.”

Other interviews, with Marvin Bell and Knight, establish Randall’s importance as a builder of communities of writers, artists, activists, musicians responsible in part for Detroit’s local Black cultural renaissance up to, and through the years of Coleman Young’s mayoralty. To this end Boyd makes detailed and appropriate visual use of important Detroit icons, like the famous Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, as a backdrop for a reading of Randall’s “George,” a tribute to autoworkers, in part to recall the legacy of cultural work in Detroit as a point of connection for its primarily working-class population and its cultural community.

Randall is seen as working in the grain of a traditional fusion of public activism and private struggle over the function of creative expression that the film suggests is the central theme of his life and work.

Its clarity, intimacy with its subject and important linkage of Black writing to both publishing and political work makes Black Unicorn an accessible and important text for teaching potentially uninitiated students the myriad aspects of cultural work in contemporary African-American communities. Boyd keeps the narration straight and simple, the music subdued and the selection of images to surround the poems spartan in order to let Randall’s poetic voice and publishing persona hold center stage.

If Black Unicorn has a fault, it is only that the film, made on a modest budget, might have been longer, exploring in more depth the political and aesthetic influence of Randall on Broadside writers, and the numerous benefits they derived from association with him. The film might also have included interviews with family members to flesh out the personal side of Randall’s public life. As is, however, the film is a streamlined and extremely efficient portrait of one of the most understudied figures in contemporary Black letters.

Boyd’s film hopefully signals a return to interest not just in Randall and his publishing legacy, but to comparable grassroots strategies for organizing and distributing African-American literature and culture that have been a major part of the American landscape since the 1960s at least. The film might also turn students and teachers to Randall’s important edited anthologies, like the Black Poets, where Randall further defined the political and artistic parameters of contemporary Black poetry.

In short, Boyd’s film is timely, important, honest, and from the heart, much like Randall’s commitment to Broadside and his fellow Black writers. It is no accident that his biographical portrait leaves the viewer feeling as good about the film as about the subject himself. Both deserve a close look from historians of Black culture.

ATC 72, January-February 1998