Detroit poetry, Detroit history, and why I love Dudley Randall

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As someone who has made the conscious decision to remain in Detroit through thick and thin ’til the end, I’ve also decided to learn everything I can about the history of this city. This could take awhile, but I figure it will be worth the trip. After all, doesn’t it make more sense to live your life in a location when you have an idea what that location is all about?

Which leads me to one of my favorite things about my new job, which actually has nothing to do with the job at all. In case my boss is reading this, the job is cool and I like it just fine. Honest. But one of the best things about this gig is that it’s walking distance from the library. For me, I may as well be walking distance from the Pearly Gates with an all-access pass that doesn’t require me to expire before enjoying the harp music. For a writer, a library is far better than a bookstore because bookstores …well… bookstores require money before letting you take books out the front door. But a library? Just a (free) library card and I’m good to go. Incidentally, the Detroit Public Library is one of the most beautiful old buildings in the city, and that’s without the books. Add the knowledge stored on all those pages and you’ve got a treasure beyond measure.

How’d you like that rhyme?

Anyway, I just finished reading “Wrestling with the Muse,” an excellent biography of Detroit’s own poet laureate, and founder of  the historic Broadside Press, the late Dudley Randall. The book was written by Melba Joyce Boyd, who worked closely with Randall for years and was on hand to witness the ups and downs of both Randall and the publishing house he founded and nurtured for so many years in this city. For those who don’t know, Broadside Press was one of the most significant cultural forces behind the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, without which a large number of remarkable African American poets and writers may never have received the recognition they deserved. Broadside was an incredibly significant institution, and I didn’t have any idea how significant until I read this book.

But equally as fascinating to me as learning about what Randall managed to accomplish through sheer will, love, and devotion, was learning about Randall himself. “Muse” portrays a man who, though somewhat shy, fiercely defended the concept – and the necessity – of independent thought during a time when some purveyors of radical thought tended to insist that only those who were “black enough” deserved to be heard. Randall totally disagreed with that approach, and made a point of publishing all sorts of worthy manuscripts, whether they lined up with his personal beliefs or not. What mattered to Randall was publishing good poetry by black poets, not promoting cultural lockdown. What good is black freedom if we’re just handing over the reins to someone else who wants to tell us what to do? Freedom means freedom. Either you’re free or you’re not.

And just so we’re clear, none of this is to dismiss the power or importance of radical politics, for which Detroit was pretty much the center of gravity throughout the duration of the labor movement and civil rights eras. The jarring influence of radical politics  played a major role in the development of black culture as well as in the orchestration of black liberation. Radical politics is what results when someone’s foot is on your neck and you refuse to go quietly into that good night. But the occasional downside of that aspect of the movement was the insistence among some that black writers and cultural observers must all be on the same revolutionary page, creativity and independence be damned.

Randall knew all too well what a huge mistake this was, why it was contrary to what we were supposed to be fighting for, and sometimes he caught hell for not keeping quiet about why it was such a mistake. But because of Randall’s well-known integrity and character, he was just as often left alone to speak his mind without fear of being ostracized – at least not to a crippling degree. In other words, it was impossible  to criticize someone with Randall’s credentials for not being ‘black enough’. 

Detroit has so many stories to tell, and has made so  many remarkable contributions to America that seem to so easily be washed over these days beneath the latest murder statistic or doom-and-gloom headline. It’s time to remind the world who we are, and why anyone who writes off Detroit doesn’t know what this city is made of.

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~ by Keith A. Owens on May 2, 2007.

8 Responses to “Detroit poetry, Detroit history, and why I love Dudley Randall”

  1. I have had a life long love of books. There is something very peaceful about being in a library. We have had libraries in our last 2 homes. Thanks for the history lesson

  2. Great post about Detroit, it’s history and Mr. Randall. I have a niece living in the city and she loves Detroit.

    The library. I could tell you some stories about libraries. I spent two weeks during a winter’s break, on lock down in a library.

    I use the library internet service from home free. So many folks are unaware that with a library card they can have access to the internet. Free.

    I had a meeting today. I passed a library. Had to stop and go in. I ran into a quilting friend who had to show me a few of the patterns that she is working on and her new computer!

    I tell you the library is not the old library, it’s a great place to do some serious networking in there.

    Thanks again for the Detroit history.

  3. […] Read more here… […]

  4. Thank you for this post! As an avid supporter of the arts and our community I greatly appreciated your summary of “Wrestling with the Muse” and plan to buy and read it. Coincidentally my favorite poet Taalam Acey will be performing in Detroit May 4 & 5. Any lovers of spoken word are highly encouraged to attend, he does not dissappoint. (www.myspace.com/officialtaalamacey – for more info)
    Peace & Blessings to you!

  5. Carmen,

    Thank you very much! And “Wrestling with the Muse” is definitely worth buying. I hope you keep coming back!

  6. Credo,

    Thank you for stopping by, and I plan to do more posts in the future about Detroit’s history and culture. There’s so much great stuff there. Stay tuned!

  7. Excellent post, my friend. I love the library. When I was younger it was a great escape for me. I was such a nerd that I would skip school to go to the Boston Public Library which I believe was the very first public library in America.

    Wishing you well as always.

  8. Hey Danielle!

    Thanks so much. And I personally believe that hey, if you’re gonna skip school, then skipping school for the library is the best way to play hookie.

    So the Boston Public Library was the first in America…? Wow. Now you’ve done it, Danielle. NOw I’ve got to make a trip to Boston…

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