Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995.
Back in those days, it was a point of pride to be impatient. We listened to Max Roach's pan-African jazz on Freedom NOW Suite while reading Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait, getting ready for "a new day." Given the activist character of African American art and political discourse in the 1960s and '70s, it is understandable that we should be disturbed by the scarcity of serious critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement. It is a happy fact that many of the movement's primary sources are still in print, but that does not excuse the lacuna in our scholarship.
Julius E. Thompson's carefully crafted Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1 960-1 995, is a valuable and somewhat unusual book that delivers everything the title promises, though not necessarily in the proportions a reader might expect. Part biography, part literary history, the book is primarily a flawlessly detailed study of an important publishing enterprise. McFarland is a publishing house that specializes in reference works and books intended for the use of librarians, and that fact surely has influenced Thompson's approach.
An accomplished poet himself and chair of the Black Studies program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Thompson possesses the skills and sensibility required for this multifaceted project. His narrative employs the neutral tone of a standard reference work, yet he chooses biographical details that deftly and almost imperceptibly guide the reader's attention.
Dudley Randall was born in 1914 to a middle-class family, but--as the family moved from Washington, D.C., to East St. Louis and, finally, to Detroit--his father's employment status steadily declined. A full-scale biography might explore this development at length, speculating on its effect on the young Randall. Thompson's format, however, only allows him to supply enough data so that the perceptive reader will be aware of this aspect of Randall's formative years. As a poet, Dudley Randall got off to a slow start. Encouraged by his parents, he developed a serious interest in poetry and began to write while still in high school, but his only literary contact was a casual friendship with Robert Hayden in the 1930s. Secure in a clerk's job at the Post Office, Randall did not participate in the Depression-era Federal Writers Project that set Hayden and many others on the road to later success.
After Army service in the South Pacific in World War II, Randall used his GI Bill benefits to attend Wayne State University. When he graduated in 1948 he was more confident about his poetry, but, unfortunately, it was at just that moment that the Urban League's Opportunity magazine and the NAACP's The Crisis--the nation's major outlets for black poets since the 1920s--were no longer viable publishing venues. Randall did manage to publish a few poems in Midwest Journal, Russell Atkins's FreeLance, and other small magazines as he continued to juggle the duties of a full-time job and graduate school, earning a degree in library science at the University of Michigan. As a professional librarian with literary interests, he joined the ranks of figures such as Arna Bontemps, Dorothy Porter, Ernest Kaiser, Casper Leroy Jordan, and Ann Allen Shockley.
By 1960 Randall was enjoying a comfortable professional career, but it was the early stirrings of the Black Arts Movement that provided the catalyst for his most productive period as a writer, as well as his establishment of Broadside Press. During the decade, Randall developed mutually energizing associations with Detroit writers such as Margaret Danner, Woodie King, Ron Milner, Oliver La Grone, and James W. Thompson. For Randall and his peers, the establishment of independent African American media began to seem an indispensable element of Civil Rights goals such as "self-determination" or community political empowerment. As a result, Thompson writes, Randall assumed an effective role as "an active participant both in the Black Arts Movement and in the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Randall and the writers and artists who published under the Broadside Press label became major shapers of the cultural and intellectual developments fostered by the Black Arts Movement" (29). The project defini tely reflected the movement's emphasis on "grass roots" political engagement.
Randall's first publications in 1965 were literally broadsides--single poems printed on large sheets of paper that sold for fifty cents. The next year the press produced a small book, Poem Counterpoem, a collaboration by Randall and Margaret Danner that resembled a conversation in verse. For Malcolm X, an anthology edited by Randall and Margaret Burroughs, appeared in 1967 and immediately sold more than 8,000 copies. Unlike most small literary presses, Broadside seemed to have an audience avidly--almost impatiently--awaiting its publications. Certainly, Randall's editorial acumen was impressive. The poets published by Broadside would eventually include major voices of the 1940s such as Melvin B. Tolson, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks as well as newcomers Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Mae Jackson, James A. Emanuel, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Keorapetse Kgositsile. Randall's press also introduced important yet still underrated poets such as Sterling D. Plumpp, Me lba Joyce Boyd, and the late Lance Jeffers.
The press consumed enough of Randall's time to require that he resign his post in the Detroit public library system and assume more flexible academic appointments. By the end of its first decade in 1975, Broadside Press (with its offices in Randall's home) was a major outlet for African American poetry with sales of individual volumes that exceeded the usual figures for university or trade publishers. As early as 1969, Broadside had sold 80,000 copies of Madhubuti's books--a figure that surely places him among the nation's best-selling poets since Longfellow. The true impact of Broadside Press was not economic but cultural; despite his sales figures Randall still had to struggle to obtain grant funding for some projects, and to devise budgets that could provide necessary staff and effective in-house management systems. It is in this area that Thompson's book offers important insights and data not usually found in discussions of literary publishing. This focus does not, however, prevent an informed assessment of cultural issues; Thompson's thorough chronological account of the press's development is balanced by useful critical comments on the poetry, profiles of the poets (illustrated with photographs), and intelligent suggestions regarding how the activities of these artists might have contributed to the rise of Black Studies in the academy or significant changes in the African American public's outlook.
Nevertheless, Thompson has an odd fondness for charts and statistics of all kinds; one can learn here, for example, not only how many copies of Nikki Giovanni's Black Judgement were sold in 1972 but also--in a footnote--how many black students attended the University of Detroit in 1947, and--elsewhere in the main text--how many black men and black women were employed at the Detroit Post Office in 1926. Fifty pages of footnotes, some of them presenting quite lengthy bibliographies, suggest that very few pertinent sources have eluded Thompson's search. Moreover, the text makes it clear that his examination of these sources has been exhaustive. This astonishing level of attention to detail will not be useful to all readers but will be welcomed by those--including undergraduates--conducting serious scholarly research concerning the 1970s and '80s.
Particularly valuable is Thompson's study of the careers of Broadside Press's "Big Four"--Giovanni, Madhubuti, Etheridge Knight, and Sonia Sanchez. For many readers, then and now, these poets epitomized the Black Arts Movement; in 1968 Giovanni's Black Judgement sold an average of 2,000 copies a month, and Madhubuti's three volumes sold better than 100,000 copies in less than five years. "Broadside's royalty payments at 10 percent of sales did not make any of the writers rich," Thompson notes, but Randall's dependable distribution of their work opened up opportunities for well-paid lecture tours and university teaching appointments. The 1980s, however, brought important changes. Those years, Thompson writes, "were a dangerous period for black publishing and writers in America. Generally, in the contemporary world of American culture during this period, black writers had fallen on 'hard times.' Black poets, as well as black writers in fiction and nonfiction, found themselves isolated in the publishing busines s of this nation." it is beyond the scope of his book, but it seems certain that Thompson would view the appearance of black women novelists, inspirational counselors, and Affirmative Action memorists on the best-seller lists of the late 1990s as a trend that raises more serious questions about cultural regression than it does about the decade's rampant "commodification."
For Thompson, Dudley Randall--as both poet and publisher--was successful "because he was able to break the chains of the past, which largely viewed much of black poetry as a middle[-] and upper[-]class phenomenon. instead of an elitist formation of black poets and publications, Randall and Broadside Press stressed an egalitarian basis for promoting the work of black poets." Thompson depicts Randall's labors as no less than heroic, comparing him to nineteenth-century abolitionists who "worked for decades to foster creative change and human awareness and understanding." If Thompson's final statistical citation is accurate-that 44 percent of American adults do not read even one book per year-- the praise that he expends on Dudley Randall's efforts to promote African American literacy is not overstated at all.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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