Remembering Dudley Randall

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Melba Joyce Boyd

POETRY IS PROBABLY the most mysterious of all the art forms in American culture. In the service of cultural memory, it penetrates and reveals humanity’s deepest yearnings and contradictions. Likewise, for African American culture, this service is especially significant because of its close ties to the struggle for freedom and equality.

In keeping with this tradition, Dudley Randall played an instrumental role as a poet, and made an historic and indelible imprint in libraries as the founder of Broadside Press in 1965, during the Black Arts Movement. On August 5, 2000 Randall expired at the age of 86 in Providence Hospital from congestive heart failure.

I met Dudley Randall in 1972 in the modest office of Broadside Press. He hired me as his assistant, and from that moment on, his life-struggles became as familiar to me as those of any member of my own natural family. In 1980, after recovering from a severe bout with depression, he told me that he had identified me as his official biographer in his will.

A Detroiter for Life

Dudley Felker Randall was born on January 14, 1914 in Washington, D.C. He was the third child of Rev. Arthur George Clyde Randall and Ada Viola Bradley Randall, a schoolteacher. In 1920, the Randalls moved to Detroit, where Dudley spent the majority of his life. On May 4, 1957, Dudley Randall was united in marriage to Vivian Barnett Spencer, his wife of forty-three years.

He grew up with his three brothers, James, Arthur and Philip and his sister, Esther. His family attended Plymouth Congregationalist Church, where he was a Boy Scout and belonged to the Young Democrats. He graduated from Eastern High School in 1930 at the age of sixteen. In 1935 he married his first wife, Ruby Hudson. From this marriage he had one daughter, Phyllis Randall Sherron.

He worked at the Ford Rouge Foundry Plant from 1932-37. While employed at Ford he was a member of the developing United Auto Workers (UAW) and a strong supporter of the labor movement. He then worked for the United States Postal Service from 1937-43 and 1946-1951, and was a member of the United Postal Workers. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a supply sergeant (T-4) while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

After the war, Randall returned to Detroit and enrolled at Wayne State University in 1946, where he majored in English and joined the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He also joined the Miles Poetry Workshop, and became acquainted with poets such as Philip Levine and Henrietta Epstein.

He graduated in 1949, and immediately entered the Masters of Arts degree program in Library Science at the University of Michigan. After graduation in 1951, he was employed as a librarian at Lincoln University from 1951-54 in Jefferson, Missouri, and from 1954-56 at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived with his brother Arthur and his family.

In 1956, Randall returned to Detroit and was employed by the Wayne County Federated Library System from 1956-69. In 1969, Randall was employed as a reference librarian at the University of Detroit and was the university’s poet-in-residence until he retired in 1976. In 1981, he was a visiting professor at the University of South Florida.

The Love of Poetry

Randall developed a love for poetry at an early age, creating his first poem orally at the age of four. By the age of nine, he was already writing poetry and his first published poems appeared in The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News when he was only fourteen years old.

He wrote incessantly, but because of the limited outlets for Black writers during the 1930s, `40s and `50s, his poetry rarely appeared in print. However, he became a close friend of poet Robert Hayden about 1937, and they met regularly to discuss literary techniques and their poetry.

Similarly, when Randall returned to Detroit in 1956, he reunited with the Miles Poetry Workshop, but found a more appealing literary community in 1962 when Margaret Danner, a Chicago poet and visiting professor at Wayne State University, founded Boone House. There he met other Black poets writing in Detroit and became friends with Naomi Long Madgett, Oliver LaGrone, and Edward Simpkins, among others.

It was the beginning of the Second Black Renaissance. As the civil rights movement was gaining the attention of the nation, a vital cultural movement was emerging. Under the editorship of Hoyt Fuller, his classmate from Wayne State University, Randall’s poetry, prose, essays and book reviews were frequently published in The Negro Digest and other progressive publications.

Fuller not only published Randall’s writings, he also consulted him on editorial matters that shaped the development of this key intellectual and cultural publication.

When the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Randall was asked by the editor of Correspondence Magazine to compose a poem for publication. In 1965, Jerry Moore, a folk singer, asked to set the poem “Ballad of Birmingham” to music for a Blue Note Recording.

To protect his copyright, Randall published the poem as a Broadside Press publication. In 1966, he continued The Broadside Press Series, which featured major Black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Naomi Long Madgett, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker and Melvin B. Tolson in a collection titled Poems of the Negro Revolt.

In 1966, he published a co-authored book of poetry with Margaret Danner, Poem Counterpoem; and in 1967, he published a co-edited anthology with Margaret Burroughs, Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X.

During this time, Randall worked as a reference librarian and poet-in-residence at the University of Detroit. He operated the press on his lunch hour and after work. He maintained this strenuous schedule until he took an early retirement in 1975 to run the press full time.

Broadside Press’ Contribution

By the early 1970s, Broadside Press was the most successful independent poetry press in the nation and in the history of African American literature. Unrestrained by the conventions of mainstream publishing, Randall’s efforts, in tandem with other activities in the Black Arts Movement, had effectively changed the range and complexity of American poetry by creating an independent press that was enthusiastically received by the reading public.

By 1975, the press had published approximately ninety titles of poetry, and there were 500,000 books in print. The Broadside roster included noted poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Naomi Madgett, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight, Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni, and introduced hundreds of new voices.

In addition to his work at Broadside, he edited one of the most significant anthologies of poetry, The Black Poets (Bantam Press, 1971), which is still in print.

Of his own poetry, Randall’s titles include: Poem Counterpoem (with Margaret Danner, Detroit Broadside Press, 1966); Cities Burning (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968); Love You (London: Bremen Press, 1970); More to Remember (Chicago, Third World Press, 1971); After the Killing (Chicago: Third World Press, 1973); and A Litany of Friends (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1981).

Dudley Randall was the publisher and editor of Broadside Press from 1965-1977. In 1980, he returned to publishing and regained control of the press. He produced the Broadside Theatre and published two new titles of poetry in 1983 by Detroit poets Melba Joyce and Aneb Kgositsile, who both served as Broadside Press editors.

Broadside Press did not regain its past glory. With the decline of the Black Arts Movement, the popularity of poetry and the productivity of the press experienced a marked decline.

But the impact of Randall’s poetry and publishing efforts were heralded by major awards and citations from local and national cultural organizations and governmental offices. For his poetry, he received Wayne State University’s Thompkins Award for Poetry and Fiction in 1962 and 1966, and the Michigan Council for the Arts Individual Artists Award in 1981.

In 1981, Mayor Coleman A. Young named Dudley Randall the poet laureate of Detroit, and in 1986, he was the recipient of the Life Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts. That same year, Wayne State University gave him an Honorary Doctor of Letters; the following year, 1987, the University of Michigan awarded Randall a Distinguished Alumni Award.

In 1990, he was honored at the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Broadside Press, and in 1996, on his 82nd birthday, he was celebrated at the Detroit Institute of Arts at the Detroit Premiere of the documentary film, “The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press.” In 1997, the Chrysler Corporation Fund donated an endowed scholarship in his honor to the Department of Africana Studies at Wayne State University.

In addition to this widespread recognition, his work has been widely anthologized, translated into several languages, included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry, as well as the Norton Introduction to American Literature.

Ironically, his poetry was not selected for the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. The critical twist in the mix was Houston Baker, whose second book of criticism, A Many Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen (1974), was published in the Broadside Press Critic Series. As a section editor for the Nineteen Sixties for the Norton anthology, Baker excluded Randall’s poetry and minimized Dudley Randall’s publishing accomplishments with a mere mention in the introduction.

Thus Dudley Randall, the poet/publisher who played an instrumental role in opening the American literary canon for Black poets was excluded from the book now considered to be the definitive anthology of African American literature. Perhaps, the contradiction in this revision of literary history reveals the same repressive spirit that seeks to control the muse.

A Poet’s Muse

Randall’s development as a scholar and an intellectual constituted him as a quintessential Renaissance man, having translated poetry in Latin, French, and Russian. His travels throughout Europe, Russia, Africa and the Pacific Islands infused an internationalist perspective, a cosmic balance and a political resolve that resisted any form of creative repression.

As a publisher, Randall accorded an editorial attitude that was critical and inclusive, stating: “There are many mansions in the house of poetry.”

His muse was concerned with common themes and common people, and how their concerns affect humanity in general and African American historical circumstances in particular. His capacity to focus on the subtleties of our essential being and how we affect our own destiny distinguish his poetic voice.

Dudley Randall was regarded as a man of integrity, dedication, sensitivity, creativity, industry and scholarship. He was kind, gentle, and a wonderful spirit who shared his imagination and resources to inspire and encourage others to share the power and joy of poetry.

ATC 90, January-April 2001