Dan Gutstein on DUDLEY RANDALL
(January 14, 1914 - August 5, 2000)
Dudley Randall led a life full of intellectual exploration, service, and literary entrepreneurship. He started writing poetry at an early age, and filled notebooks throughout his years, drawing on the civil rights movement, work experiences, travels, and personal experiences for inspiration. In addition to serving his country in the Pacific theatre during World War II, Randall worked for Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Postal Service, and several libraries. In the 1960s, he built one of the most important presses in American history, and went on to publish scores of African American authors, as well as several books of his own poetry, including some truly classic pieces.
In "Ballad of Birmingham," Randall conjures one of the most vivid and vicious chapters from the civil rights movement: the bombing of a church in 1963 that wounded 21 and cost four girls their lives. The poem begins with a dialogue between mother and daughter during which, ironically, the mother forbids the daughter to march for freedom, fearing that street violence will erupt. Instead, she gives permission for the daughter to sing in the children's choir at their church. How could the mother know, of course, that the streets, that day, might have offered some relative safety? The tragedy, a central feature of many ballads, becomes especially clear and poignant at the end, when the mother searches for her missing daughter. The poem can speak for itself:
BALLAD OF BIRMINGHAM
"Mother dear, may I go downtown
instead of out to play,
and march the streets of Birmingham
in a Freedom March today?"
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
for the dogs are fierce and wild,
and clubs and hoses, guns and jails
ain't good for a little child."
"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
and march the streets of Birmingham
to make our country free."
"No, baby, no, you may not go,
for I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
and sing in the children's choir."
She has combed and brushed her nightdark hair,
and bathed rose petal sweet,
and drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
and white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
was in the sacred place,
but that smile was the last smile
to come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
but, baby, where are you?"
(The Black Poets 143-144)
Some readers may care to know that other versions of the poem contained different wordings, here and there. Consider the poem's final stanza from Randall's 1966 publication, Poem Counterpoem, where the piece originally appeared in book form: "She clawed in bits of glass and brick / Then lifted out a shoe. / 'O, here's a shoe, but where's the foot, / And, baby, where are you?'"
Two men involved with the bombing finally received lifetime jail sentences in 2001, in one case, and 2002, in the other, but "The Ballad of Birmingham" retains its relevance for other reasons: the tenderness between mother and daughter, a well-chiseled pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and haunting visual images, including the symbol of loss--the shoe--at the end. Many of Randall's other poems, formal and free verse alike, contain this soft-spoken honesty and truthfulness.
In Randall's widely-anthologized poem, "Booker T. and W.E.B.," Booker T. Washington argues that African Americans should work quietly on the plantation for Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann and save money to buy a house, among other things, as part of a fictional conversation with W.E.B. DuBois, who constantly disagrees, citing education as the goal to which Afircan Americans should aspire. Randall ends the poem with a nod to the latter, W.E.B.:
"I don't agree," said W.E.B.
"For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws,
They'll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope's as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you've got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I'll be a man."
"It seems to me," said Booker T.--
"I don't agree,"
(Poem Counterpoem 8)
In "Pacific Epitaphs," Randall remembers fallen World War II servicemen, and where they fell, with a series of 17 haiku-like short poems that stamp a quiet face on otherwise grisly deaths:
In far-off Rabaul
I died for democracy.
Better I fell in Mississippi.
Splendid against the night
The searchlights, the tracers' arcs,
And the red flare of bombs
Filling the eye,
And the brain.
(More to Remember 36-39)
Going even farther back, beyond the civil rights movement and World War II, Randall presents a simple portrait of a man down on his luck in the poem, "For Pharish Pinckney, / Bindle-Stiff During the Depression." He finishes by poking a stick in the eye of the country that abandoned the man: "You felt the joy of roaming far and free, / and in the jungle shared the hobo's stew, / and learned the kindness and the cruelty / of the land that mothered and rejected you" (More to Remember 15).
A great Randall poem, "An Answer to / Lerone Bennett's Questionnaire / On a Name for Black Americans" explores, in blunt terms, the importance of "name tags" versus "inner mettle." Employing a tone a bit uncharacteristic for him, Randall replies loudly to this young man's "questionnaire," finishing with a challenge:
If the white man took the name Negro,
and you took the name Caucasian,
he'd still kick your ass,
as long as you let him.
If you're so insecure
that a word makes you quake,
won't cure you.
Change your mind,
not your name.
Change your life,
not your clothes.
(More to Remember 67)
Together, Dudley Randall's body of work both chronicles and evokes, informs and emotes. Many of his poems capture characters, speech, and "response." Randall challenges readers to examine the foundations of their beliefs and values, by way of his genuine word.
Though he spent most of his life in Detroit, nevertheless Washington, D.C. can call Dudley Randall one of its own. Born here in 1914, Randall lived in the Washington area for the first six years of his life. One of his early memories involved a concert he attended in Towson, MD, which, according to the scholar Julius E. Thompson, inspired him to compose new words for a song he heard, "Maryland, My Maryland." (Obviously the creative impulse started extremely early.) After living for a short time in East St. Louis, the family moved finally in 1920 to Detroit, where Randall's father, a college educated teacher, principal, and minister, found work at an automotive plant. Randall's mother worked for a time as a kindergarten teacher and also stayed at home with her five children: four sons and a daughter.
In 1927, just thirteen years old, Randall won a poetry contest sponsored by the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper published his poem and awarded him $1, but the young writer did not publish another poem for some time. After graduating from high school, Randall worked at an automotive plant himself, for Ford, and then for the U.S. Postal Service as a carrier. He served as a supply sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946, upon several islands in the Pacific, with the fighting often nearby. After the war, Randall earned a bachelor's degree in English from Wayne State University (1949) and a master's degree in library science from the University of Michigan (1951). He worked for several libraries throughout the 1950s, including those at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Mo., and Morgan State College, Baltimore, Md., and in Wayne County, in the Detroit area. As the early 1960s began to unfold, Randall hungered to move forward with his own writing and become part of a larger community of Black writers. He ended up creating history.
Randall founded Broadside Press, a house devoted to publishing African American poets, by printing his own "Ballad of Birmingham" on a single sheet of paper (a "broadside") in 1965. Shortly thereafter, he published Poem Counterpoem, a collaboration between himself and Margaret Danner, a fellow Detroit poet, in which one poem by Danner followed a poem by Randall, and so forth. The 24 page, saddle stitched chapbook, which came out in 1966, contained the Randall favorites "Ballad of Birmingham," "Booker T. and W.E.B.," and "The Southern Road," among others.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Broadside went on to publish 90 titles of poetry up until 1977, and had some 500,000 books in print. Randall published several writers active in the Black Arts Movement as well as a host of major poets, including Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki R. Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee), Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, June Jordan, and Jean Toomer. Audre Lorde's Broadside book From a Land Where Other People Live (1973) received a nomination for the National Book Award. Moreover, Randall nurtured the careers of many young poets, and engaged the talents of several artists to produce cover art for his many broadsides, pamphlets, and paperbacks, and also some hard cover titles. Broadside even sold tapes of authors reading their poems.
Randall self-published a short collection, Cities Burning, in 1968 and published another short collection, Love You, through Paul Breman two years later. Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of third world press, published Randall's fourth book, More to Remember, in 1971, and a subsequent collection, After the Killing, in 1973. Randall published two more books after that, but also edited several important anthologies, including The Black Poets (Bantam, 1971).
Randall traveled widely in mid-life, visiting such countries as France, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Ghana, and Togo. He taught English at the University of Michigan and served as poet-in-residence at the University of Detroit. He went on to receive a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981) and, in the same year, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young named Dudley Randall as Detroit's first Poet Laureate. Retiring from the literary lifestyle, Randall sold Broadside Press in 1985. The press still operates, listing a Detroit address.
After two early marriages that ended in divorce, Randall married Vivian Barnett Spencer in 1957, and the two would stay together until the time of his death, in 2000. The couple had no children, but Randall did have a daughter, Phyllis, with his first wife. Other survivors include two grandchildren and two great grandchildren. At the time of his death, Haki Madhubuti called Randall "one of the great men of the century," crediting his success, and the success of many others, to the man who wrote "Ballad of Birmingham" and founded Broadside Press.
Books Written by Dudley Randall:
Poem Counterpoem, by Dudley Randall and Margaret Danner (Detroit: Broadside
Cities Burning (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968).
Love You (London: Paul Breman, 1970).
More to Remember: Poems of Four Decades (Chicago: third world press, 1971).
After the Killing (Chicago: third world press, 1973),
Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975).
A Litany of Friends: New and Selected Poems (Detroit: Lotus Press, 1981).
Books Edited by Dudley Randall:
For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, edited by
Dudley Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1967).
Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969).
Black Poets (New York: Bantam, 1971).
Golden Song: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology of the Poetry Society of Michigan, edited by Dudley Randall and Louis J. Cantoni (Detroit: Harlo, 1985).
Books About Dudley Randall:
Boyd, Melba Joyce. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside
Press (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming December 2003).
Thompson, Julius E. Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1999)
The best information on the Internet can be found at: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/randall/randall.htm