Dudley Randall Rediscovered

— Kim D. Hunter

WHAT BERRY GORDY and Motown were to pop music in the sixties, Dudley Randall and Broadside Press were to the Black Arts Movement (the cultural parallel to the Black Power Movement). Unlike Gordy, who made it his business to “crossover” to the larger, more lucrative white market, Randall’s bread and butter was militant political work aimed directly at Blacks.

When you take into account the centrality of creative writing and especially poetry to the movement, you realize just how important he was — and how much things have changed.

This was a time when poets like Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee) could sell poetry on the streets of Chicago’s Southside, and Randall would receive orders for books written on sheets torn from notebooks and brown paper bags. There was a politically aroused African-American proletarian audience for Black political poetry.

Randall risked all he had on that audience, on the idea that Black folks would support not just Black writers but poetry. (Note that there is currently one national publisher — Copper Canyon — that publishes poetry exclusively.)

Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Etheridge Knight and eventually, Gwendolyn Brooks were among the Black Arts Movement’s leading lights. All were in the Broadside stable at some point in time.

When Giovanni came to Broadside, she had been self-distributing her books to stores from her Volkswagen. Madhubuti, like Etheridge Knight and many others, cut his poetic teeth under Randall’s careful editorship and unassuming tutelage.

It is a testament to Randall’s talent and poetic sensibility that he drew such talented poets, young, old, militant and traditional to the press with very little outreach.

For all his groundbreaking work, contributions as a poet and awards, Randall remains relatively obscure, certainly not as well known, even in Detroit, as some of the poets he helped to prominence. Some of that obscurity resulted from Randall’s own shyness, depression and self-effacing manner as well as the racism Randall fought against directly and indirectly.

Wrestling with the Muse

Two new books, both by Detroiters who are poets, scholars and activists who knew him, could begin to give Randall the recognition he deserves. One is a biography; Melba Joyce Boyd’s Wrestling with the Muse. The other, A Different Image, is an anthology of Broadside Press poetry edited by Gloria House, Rosemary Weatherston and Albert M. Ward.

Created and released independently, these two works taken together give great insight into one of the country’s essential literary figures and movements. The anthology gives us the art, while the biography does a great job of putting that art into context.

Boyd was in the right place at the right time to participate in the Black Arts Movement and to witness the rise (and fall) of Broadside Press. She went to work for Randall in 1972 when she was just 22 years old. She became Assistant Editor, authored books of poetry and eventually became his biographer.

Prior to Muse, she produced a film biography of Randall called “Black Unicorn.” Only Randall’s closest relatives knew him as Boyd did.

Boyd was also close to the radical activists of the time and not just in spirit. In 1972 her brother, cousin and a friend ran afoul of the notorious STRESS (Stop Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) Detroit Police “undercover” unit. To make a long and disturbing story short, the trio of young men was at the center of one of the most storied man hunts and trials of the decade.

They were defended by Ken Cockrel Sr., an openly Marxist firebrand who could talk a dog off a meat truck and would eventually become a Detroit City Council member. All of this put Boyd in very close proximity to the machinations and upheavals of the time that fueled much of the poetry of the Black Arts Movement.

Boyd gives enough of her personal story to qualify the book as a memoir. But the added context is understandable as her story overlaps and is interwoven into the life of her main subject, Randall. It will also help younger readers appreciate the tenor of the times.

Though Muse gives insight to a phenomenal and important figure in American letters, it is uneven. Many of the passages that explicate Randall’s poetry are for fans only. The book shines where Boyd recounts the heyday of Broadside and places Randall’s and the presses ups and downs in historical context both in terms of politics and aesthetics.

For example, Boyd’s recounting of Madhubuti’s (then Lee) reading at Western Michigan University to a packed house of Black students in 1970 gives a good sense of the times and role of poets and poetry in the Black Arts Movement.

The audience was amazed at his spitfire confrontational style and taken aback by the way he chastised higher education as cultural brainwashing. Between poems he exclaimed that students were being processed into want-to-be white folks...that the real education was in the streets and not in the confines of the ivory tower. It felt like someone had been playing the dozens (telling jokes about your mother) behind your back and now the word was out.

At its best, Muse integrates aesthetics and politics with the vividness of an eyewitness and the conciseness of a good journalist. Boyd’s intimate knowledge of the press, local national and international poetry scenes serves her in good stead.

Poetry and Analysis

By the end of the book I had a good sense of the depth of Randall’s introspection and depression, and an even better sense of his pivotal role as elder statesmen of the Black Arts Movement. He supported much of the militancy of the younger poets like Giovanni and Sanchez while providing historical, aesthetic and political perspective on the poets and the movement.

Somewhere
On a rooftop
You fight for me
(Sniper)
Discarding the Spanish word for black
and taking the Anglo-Saxon word for Negro
discarding the names of English slave master
and taking the names of Arabian slave traders
won’t put a single
bean in your belly
or an inch of steel
in your spine
If the white man took the name Negro
and you took the name Caucasian
he’d still kick you as
as long as you let him
(An Answer to Lerone Bennett’s Questionnaire for Naming Black America)

These two excerpts point out better than any analysis where Randall stood on many questions that bubbled up from the Black Power movement.

But of course a biography of a poet is going to necessarily feature some analysis. Naturally, the art is more interesting and ironically, more insightful than the explication, all the more so when the artist has the power of a Dudley Randall.

Sometimes Boyd’s poetic analysis weaves well into the overall narrative. Other times Boyd belabors the obvious or, even with the occasional lapse into wordiness, omits crucial aspects of the work. An example of the latter comes with Boyd’s look at Randall’s poem, “The Rite.”

“Now you must die,” the young one said,
and all your art be overthrown.”
The old one bowed his head
as if those words had been his own.

Boyd emphasizes the destructive nature of the youth supplanting the elder in this poem. But the last line revealing the elder’s acceptance of and identification with his own demise is, to me, the most striking aspect of the work.

Perhaps Boyd left that part alone because it all but leaps off the page. Ironically, I get the feeing that these sorts of omissions could be the result of years of familiarity with Randall and his work.

After having said that, I want to be clear that this is an important book that puts an important poet/publisher in a clear political/aesthetic context. In the course of providing that context, Boyd also gives great insight into the lives of other stellar figures who were close to Randall, such as the aforementioned Brooks and the only African-American U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Hayden.

We not only ride the roller coaster of Randall’s Broadside Press’ successes and failures, but the political, social and aesthetic churning of some of the best writers in the world.

A Different Image, great companion to Boyd’s Muse, is also the work of a Detroiter (by way of the Bay Area) who knew Randall and has a history of activism. Gloria House, Rosemary Weatherston and Albert M. Ward have edited a wonderful anthology with short, insightful introductions on each of the poets and a CD with House and Ward reading the work.

The CD is important. It’s always good to get poetry up off the page, and work such as Madhubuti’s and Sanchez’s really needs to be heard. The work has six of the best Broadside poets: Brooks, Knight, Audre Lorde, Madhubuti, Randall and Sanchez.

Clearly, the editors were able to cherry pick but it is nonetheless tasty. That fact that they could pick six names all major writers and cover a wide range of styles is yet another compliment to the quality of Broadside.

Changing Times

In the first paragraph of this review I alluded to how much things have changed since this work was written and first appeared in the 1960s and ‘70s. The unorthodox spelling and typography, and the strange mixture of unfiltered anger and hope, take me back to another time. Here’s an excerpt from Sanchez’s “Indianapolis/ Summer/1969/Poem.”

if mothas programmed
                    sistuhs to
good feelings bout they blk/men
and i
        mean if blk/fathas proved
they man/hood by
                  fighten the enemy
instead of fucken every available sistuh.
and i mean
            if we programmed/
                          loved/each
other in com/mun/al ways
                       so that no
blk/person starved
                       or killed
                             each other on
a sat/ur/day nite corner.

Brooks and Randall were middle-aged admirers of the younger more overtly militant poets like Sanchez and Madhubuti. Brooks and Randall were also admired by those younger poets. Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Gwendolyn Brooks” by Madhubuti:

she don’t wear
costume jewelry
& she knows that walt disney
was /is making a fortune off
false-eyelashes and that time magazine is the
authority of the knee/grow
her makeup is total real

Knight and Lorde

Etheridge Knight, in and out of prison on drug charges, has serious credibility on the street and may have been more open to the grass roots audience that more political poets wanted to claim. His work falls somewhere between the more formal work of Brooks and Randall and the bomb throwing of Sanchez and Madhubuti.

Knight’s narrative poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” tells the story of recalcitrant inmate who is lobotomized. It is also a metaphor for what happened to many recalcitrant slaves who were broken with torture. Knight’s ability to blend the old and the new, to look backwards and forward comes through best in one of his most anthologized works, “The Idea of Ancestry.”

While I placed Knight between the elders and the young turks, one poet’s work in this anthology seems transcendent. The work of Audre Lorde is the highlight of the volume for me.

Lorde is one of those singular writers whose work is both in the moment and timeless. As a bit of an outsider, being a lesbian, feminist, in the Black Arts Movement, Lorde came with a different take on the poetry of Movement.

Her work is more personal, singular and less romantic, her images so singular and powerful that they almost seem like the work of imagists (vivid images for images’ sake). But make no mistake. She imbued her images with the dry-eyed power of Richard Wright. The results are unforgettable, as in this excerpt from Lorde’s “Blackstudies.”

While I sit choosing the voice
in which my children hear my prayers
above the wind
they will follow the black roads out of my hands
unencumbered by the weight of my remembered sorrow

This is a virtual mirror image of Randall’s “Rite” where the youth destroys the elder. Here, Lorde’s conscious letting go of her students/children is as powerful and emotional as it is precise and clean.

Lorde also penned the often used admonishment not to try to tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. She created many clear poetic analyses such as that. Lorde also shows that such an analysis was influenced by Randall’s matter-of-fact poetic voice; the following excerpt could be a continuation of Randall’s poem “Answer to Lerone Bennett’s Questionnaire”

When the man is busy
making niggers
it doesn’t matter
much
what shade
you are.

Lorde goes on to say that “the man” will use size to oppress folks when he runs out of folks with different colors. Finally, sex (gender) will be the determinant and that “was where it all began.”

Such sage, political advice makes this work indispensable. These books and the work in them, as aesthetically great as they are, serve a function beyond aesthetics. They are full of focused fury and insight.

West African artisans spend days crafting eating utensils, chairs, combs and the like for everyday use. Africans live with functional art. The artists in Muse and Image continue that fine tradition.

ATC 114, January-February 2005