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Race & Prejudice > Stir It Up

Gift of a poet: Clarity

How Dudley Randall used poetry to express the truth elegantly

 

Published 8/26/2009

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Sometime in the mid-1980s I was with a group of poets at a café. We were young and excited because Dudley Randall was among us. Randall, poet laureate of Detroit, founder of Broadside Press and editor of the exciting anthology The Black Poets, was a gigantic figure in my mind, although his calm, nearly nerdish demeanor belied that.

The anthology had been a nearly sacred text to me in my formative years. I was young, black and longed to be poetic. In the wake of the civil rights and black power movements, a time when black writers were propagandists, and helped focus the emotions and messages of those efforts, just the name of the book, The Black Poets, could not have been more succinct, direct or inspiring.

So I sat at the table with Randall. Somehow full of myself, I bragged that I had written my first poem when I was 10 years old, and recited the banal couplet. Randall looked at me with that great stillness that resided within him, and said that I had composed a rhyme, not a poem. He didn't say it in a demeaning way to put me down. Randall was publishing poetry before I was born, had studied and burnished his craft with masters of the idiom, and he just wanted to be very clear and direct about what was and what wasn't a poem.

The new book Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall, edited and with an introduction by Melba Joyce Boyd (Wayne State University Press), reacquaints me with this man of clarity and eloquence. A man of impressive learning, whose great intellect had been forged on the streets of Detroit and the foundry at Ford Motor Company as well as at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, through the Great Depression and World War II, through the civil rights, black power and black arts movements. He consorted with communists yet started a business. 

Randall was born in Washington, D.C., in 1914, and lived mostly in Detroit from 1920 on, growing up to write poetry, criticism, essays, fiction and reviews, until his death in 2000. During his lifetime he was honored by literary and educational institutions, including a Life Achievement award from the National Endowment of the Arts, and he was twice invited to read his work at the Library of Congress. Boyd, who also wrote and published the biography Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, is the executor of his literary estate.

As Detroit teeters on the precipice of disaster, lurching toward a future fraught with uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse, ill will, lack of vision and flawed leadership — both internal and external — we need to build upon the good that has already come forth from the city. Yes, Henry Ford, Joe Louis, Berry Gordy and Coleman Young are local legends. But we also need to look at other inspirations. And that would include Dudley Randall, one of our literary giants. Although his Broadside Press didn't have the economic impact of Ford or Gordy, its cultural impact reverberated internationally by giving voice to new poets such as Don L. Lee and Nikki Giovanni, and old hands like Gwendolyn Brooks and Randall himself. It was a beacon of the possible in a literary world that gave short shrift to the black voices unleashed by the new aesthetic. 

He is probably most widely known for his poem "Ballad of Birmingham," a response to the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church that killed four young girls, and he is widely associated with the black arts movement of the 1950s and '60s. He had a clear appreciation for the black aesthetic, yet even a cursory look at Randall's work reveals an intellectual honesty that overpowered any breast-beating and vision-clouding passion. "I think we should beware of expecting perfection or Utopia," he wrote in the 1966 essay "Black Power." How well we have learned that lesson in Detroit, where we have been roiled in recent years by blacks exploiting blacks for selfish power and self-gratification. How well his studied clarity could have served had it been more widely known and taken to heart.

Tell it like it is
Lies won't get it

Randall wrote that in the 1960s. This is not the "tell it like it is" of insinuating bravado. This is the take-a-good-look-inside-your-self-and-stop-bullshitting stuff that doesn't make for good video or TV news sound bites. Randall actually read history and newspapers, and was well informed before he opined on most subjects. Still he understood the stakes, and he embraced the many different roads and roles necessary to achieve racial justice. In the 1967 poem "Sniper" he wrote:

Somewhere
On a rooftop
You fight for me

But to those who strutted around trying to create false pride by claiming to be African royalty, he wrote the poem "Ancestors":

Why are our ancestors
Always kings or princes
And never the common people?

Was the old country a democracy
where every man was a king?
Or did the slavecatchers
steal only the aristocrats
and leave the fieldhands
laborers
streetcleaners
garbage collectors
dishwashers
cooks
and maids
behind?

My own ancestor
(research reveals)
was a swineherd,
who tended the pigs
in the Royal Pigstye
and slept in the mud
among the hogs.

Yet I'm proud of him
as of any king or prince
dreamed up in fantasies
of bygone glory.

Dudley Randall was a man of stately demeanor, something that has been seriously lacking in our local elected officials. He was educated, language-loving (he translated from Russian) and wrote poetry in classic forms such as the sonnet in addition to modern free verse. As new political personalities grab for the reins of Detroit and seek to break with the past, Randall gives us pause to consider what is good from our past.

Boyd has done us a great service in bringing together many of Randall's disparate writings in one volume. Let's not forget him. He never seemed to forget who he was or where he was from. And he never wavered a bit in seeking justice.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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