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Wrestling with the Muse

Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press

Melba Joyce Boyd
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 368
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    Wrestling with the Muse
    Book Description:

    And as I groped in darkness

    and felt the pain of millions,

    gradually, like day driving night across the continent,

    I saw dawn upon them like the sun a vision.

    -- Dudley Randall, from "Roses and Revolutions"

    In 1963, the African American poet Dudley Randall (1914--2000) wrote "The Ballad of Birmingham" in response to the bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four young black girls, and "Dressed All in Pink," about the assassination of President Kennedy. When both were set to music by folk singer Jerry Moore in 1965, Randall published them as broadsides. Thus was born the Broadside Press, whose popular chapbooks opened the canon of American literature to the works of African American writers.

    Dudley Randall, one of the great success stories of American small-press history, was also poet laureate of Detroit, a civil-rights activist, and a force in the Black Arts Movement. Melba Joyce Boyd was an editor at Broadside, was Randall's friend and colleague for twenty-eight years, and became his authorized biographer. Her book is an account of the interconnections between urban and labor politics in Detroit and the broader struggles of black America before and during the Civil Rights era. But also, through Randall's poetry and sixteen years of interviews, the narrative is a multipart dialogue between poets, Randall, the author, and the history of American letters itself, and it affords unique insights into the life and work of this crucial figure.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50364-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xi-xiv)
    Melba Joyce Boyd

    The muse resides inside the imagination of the poet. It is the mysterious force that separates the words of a poet from ordinary encounters with language. It is a madness that dares to venture into the closets and caves of human anxiety to wrestle with the soul, to argue with the wisdom of God, and to fight with deeds of the devil. It is a balancing act on the edge of forbidden conversations with ghosts, or engaging challenges before the power of authority in hostile territory while measuring the weight of unspoken fears crafted into prayers.

    Dudley Randall’s fascination with...

  6. 1 BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS (pp. 18-30)

    I met Dudley Randall in the summer of 1972. I was 22 years old and had just completed my course work for a master’s degree in English at Western Michigan University. During my research in black American poetry, I discovered that the major publisher of this literature at that time was Broadside Press in Detroit. So, that summer, when I returned home to find a shortage of teaching jobs, circumstances led me to another career possibility. I consulted the copyright page of Dudley Randall’s book Poem Counterpoem, which located Broadside Press at an address on Old Mill Place, a poetic...


    Dudley Randall gazed wistfully into the fading cigarette smoke. A middle child, Randall was born in Washington, D.C., on 14 January 1914, but he spent almost all of his life in the automobile capital of the world, a time that nearly spanned the twentieth century.

    Spurred by Henry Ford’s five-dollar-a-day labor campaign throughout the South, a major migration of African Americans to Detroit, Michigan, began in 1914. It was also the beginning of World War I and the year Dudley Felker Randall was born. But when his father, Arthur Randall, initially set his sights on Detroit, he was not interested...


    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 brass 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. I think, however, that I write because I have an urge to write and because I enjoy writing. Some of my happiest hours...

  9. 4 WAR AT HOME AND ABROAD (pp. 54-67)

    Dudley Randall met Mildred Pinckney the same year that the United States entered World War II and he and Ruby Randall were divorced. He made this acquaintance through a mutual friend. Mildred was also a divorcée, but, unlike his first wife, Mildred was a working woman employed as a secretary for the United Auto Workers (UAW). Such positions for black women became available as a result of the more liberal employment practices of the UAW and the increased labor demands generated by the war. Mildred was an attractive, intelligent woman with a quick wit and a temper to match. On...


    After dudley randall returned from the war, his primary goal was to go to college, and the campus setting provided a reprieve from a difficult marriage and a conflicted country. Many black veterans faced renewed terrorism, especially in the South. As Martin Duberman’s biography of Paul Robeson relates: “The latest tide of violence seemed aimed at ‘uppity’ black veterans who had returned from the ‘struggle for democracy’ overseas determined to struggle for it at home as well.”¹ In Detroit, the second wave of black migration to the city after World War II significantly impacted its demographics. By the end of...

  11. 6 SOJOURN AND RETURN (pp. 85-97)

    In the autumn of 1951, Dudley and Mildred Randall left Detroit for Lincoln, Missouri, for Dudley’s first librarian position at Lincoln University, a historically black college. Dudley Randall had hoped that his position at Lincoln would be intensely cultural and intellectually exciting, but Missouri was as Southern as it was Midwestern. Therefore, it was socially segregated and culturally limited. The move was a dramatic shift in lifestyle for the Randalls. Disappointed by the lack of literary activity at the Lincoln University and burdened by a troubled marriage, Randall missed the diversity and sophistication of the big city:

    I had been...


    Dudley Randall’s poetry began to appear nationally in the early 1960s during the emergence of the second renaissance in African American culture. As a number of progressive political and cultural periodicals appeared, Randall’s earlier poems, written during the 1930s, 1940s. and 1950s, as well as poetry written in response to current events and social issues, reached a larger audience.¹ When activist and educator Edward Simpkins was invited to be the guest editor of a special Detroit issue of The Negro History Bulletin (October 1962), the official publication of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), several...


    In 1965, two years after “Ballad of Birmingham” was first published, folk singer Jerry Moore asked Dudley Randall for permission to set the poem to music. To preserve his rights as the author, Randall printed the poem as a broadside and copyrighted it as a Broadside Press publication. This marked the beginning of Randall’s publishing career.

    Although initially printed to protect his creative interests, the poem became famous in this format. Public demand inspired Randall to print more copies and to publish broadsides by other poets. However, Randall’s interest in publishing expanded as a response to the developing Black Arts...


    Dudley Randall composed “When I Think of Russia” shortly after his visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1966, and Hoyt Fuller published it in Negro Digest (16, no. 8 [June 1967]: 74). In the midst of the Black Nationalist fervor, Margaret Burroughs invited Randall to join a delegation of “Negro American artists” on a tour sponsored by the Council for American-Soviet Friendship. This trip was Randall’s first opportunity to see the native land of Russian poets Alexander Pushkin and K. M. Simonov and to experience the Russian language within its cultural context. The delegation toured Leningrad, Baku,...

  15. 10 CULTURAL WARS AND CIVIL WARS (pp. 143-152)

    In the anthology’s introduction, Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs explain how Margaret Walker’s poem “For Malcolm X” inspired the publication of For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X (1967), one year after the 1966 Fisk University Writers Conference. The introduction does not elaborate on the politics of aesthetics that fueled so much debate at that conference, but in tandem and in contrast to the generation gap and ideological rift that split that event, the book combines the insight and skill of the older generation of poets with the militant momentum of the burgeoning Black Arts...


    The retrieval of african american poetry was a primary goal for Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press. Publishing well-known poets with significant standing and distinctive voices in the literary annals, as exemplified in the first broadsides, solidified the identity of the press. Randall expanded this premise by soliciting manuscripts from some of the same poets published in The Broadside Series. Most of them had already achieved considerable and even international literary fame, but despite their previous accomplishments and obvious talent, many of them watched their earlier books go out of print and their more recent writings patiently awaiting publication. Randall said, “The...

  17. 12 THE NEW BLACK POETS (pp. 172-190)

    Just as Dudley Randall’s quiet and unassuming manner accommodated the zeal of the new black voices, his nonpartisan editorial style facilitated the individuality of their work. From production to public appearance, For Malcolm became a vortex for many of the new poets, and Broadside Press, in turn, became the most productive publisher of Black Arts poetry. Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, James A. Emanuel, and James Randall were some of the first to benefit from Dudley Randall’s cultural venture. For the most part, the circumstances that directed their poetry to Broadside illustrated their collective...


    In the midst of the Black Arts Movement, Dudley Randall referenced an African Roman writer, which reflects the depth of his literary knowledge of black writers throughout the ages and reiterates his creative freedom to express any theme. And in 1989, Naomi Long Madgett concurred: “Dudley doesn’t write the kind of poetry he published.”² This statement refers to some of the more popular Broadside Press poets who emerged during the Black Arts Movement and whose poetry has come to typify that era. Randall’s publishing activity brought attention and recognition to these writers, while his own poetry assumed a less prominent...


    In 1971, third world press published More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades by Dudley Randall. Dedicated to Don L. Lee, it represents Randall’s first comprehensive poetry collection. Lee founded Third World Press in Chicago and published poetry and other genres related to the black experience, including Randall’s More to Remember and After the Killing (1973). Since Lee modeled the poetry books after Broadside productions, and in many instances used the same Detroit printer, Randall maintained creative control over the text and the presentation. More to Remember represents a broad spectrum of styles and themes reflective of the poet’s development...

  20. 15 POETRY AS INDUSTRY (pp. 230-244)

    For the first five years, Broadside Press was largely a one-man operation. But despite the limitations of the developmental period, within a few short years, the press grew beyond Dudley Randall’s wildest dreams. In a similar regard, several interviews with Randall were published to determine this man’s vision and energy. To a large extent, these narratives outline the essence and the day-to-day determinations that turned a solo act into an industry:

    The press started in my house. For Malcolm was stored in the basement, and they sold out. I didn’t know how, but gradually the books disappeared and one day...


    When i came to work at broadside press in the summer of 1972, the company was approaching its peak period. Forty-five of the eighty-one books published between 1966 and 1975 were printed in the last three years of that period. The office was bursting at the seams from boxes of books piled on floors, shelves, and under tables. Stacks of paper crowded desktops—manuscripts, correspondence, galleys, schedules, newsletters—publishing matter in various forms and stages of development commandeered any available space. In kind, my life was as densely packed as Broadside Press operations. In the midst of an antagonistic political...

  22. 17 “IN THE MOURNING TIME”: THE RETURN (pp. 264-276)

    Despite everybody’s protestations, Dudley repeatedly said to me, “My poetry is not that good.” He turned a deaf ear to the counsel of his psychiatrist, and his refusal to write sealed his mental coffin. He sank deeper and deeper into the “black pit,” until he resolved to kill himself.

    To my sleep at night there comes a constant guest.

    His eyes, deeper than any woman’s eyes

    that ever burned in mine, destroy my rest.

    His voice. knifing and vibrant as the cries

    of lovers at the summit of delight,

    calls out my name with more than lovers’ passion,

    while his...

  23. 18 A POET IS NOT A JUKEBOX (pp. 277-297)

    The first part of the title for Dudley Randall’s A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems is also the name of the opening poem, initially drafted on 1 April 1980 after he came out of his depression and began to write again.¹ He later transformed those lines, on 17 December 1980, into a form for publication. The shocking first lines outline the horror of his depression years and provide the crux of the poem, as he identifies his wife as the stalwart who rescued him from suicide and the depths of despair. Like notes from his diary (the entries...

  24. 19 AT PEACE WITH THE MUSE (pp. 298-309)

    On April 4, 1983, The Detroit News announced Dudley Randall’s return to publishing in a joint venture with poets Dennis Teichman and Glenn Mannisto and their Detroit River Press. I was in San Francisco giving a reading from Song for Maya at an event organized by The Black Scholar. I did a second reading at the University of Iowa with Paule Marshall, who was a visiting lecturer for the semester in the Writers’ Workshop. In August of that same year, I went to West Germany as a Fulbright Scholar to teach at the University of Bremen. Just before I left...

  25. 20 “THE ASCENT” (pp. 310-319)

    The third weekend in May 2000, I attended a conference at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The French scholar of African American literature, Michel Fabre, asked about Dudley’s health. Unknowingly, I said he was fine. But on the day of my return, Naomi Madgett telephoned to tell me Dudley was in the hospital, that he had had surgery for colon cancer. Initially, he had gone into the hospital for a routine procedure when the doctor discovered the disease, and an operation to remove it immediately ensued. She assured me that his heart was strong and that he...

  26. EPILOGUE (pp. 320-322)

    I’m sitting in a plaza on the perimeter of a medieval castle, the Castello di San Michelle, on the Island of Sardinia, once a Roman outpost in the Mediterranean Sea. The buildings in the distance are pink and yellow and terra cotta brown. The sea and the hills and the clouds meet each other in wavering shades of blue. It is partially sunny, and because of this, it is sometimes cool, sometimes hot.

    I’ve just left an international conference dedicated to the study of African American culture. Everyone there knows who Dudley Randall was and they queried me about the...

  27. APPENDIX 1: TRANSLATING POETRY INTO FILM:The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press (pp. 323-341)
  29. NOTES (pp. 347-362)
  30. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 363-370)
  31. INDEX (pp. 371-386)
  32. Back Matter (pp. 387-388)