Content Warning: attempted suicide, casual sexism, and some use of racial slurs
Wrestling With The Muse (Columbia University Press, 2003) by Melba Joyce Boyd is a mishmash of memoir and biography about one of the most important publishers in the United States. Because most people have never heard of Broadside Press or its founder, Dudley Randall, I’m going to give you a longer synopsis and then review a few aspects of the book.
Dudley Randall was born in 1914 and died in 2000. His grandparents had been slaves, which should remind you slavery wasn’t that long ago. When Randall was 6, his family moved to Detroit where he lived the rest of his life (with one or two brief moves). In 1910, Detroit’s black population was small at 5,741. But the urge to escape the South caused a mass migration to Northern cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. After a wave of migrants hit Detroit, the black population swelled to 40,838! Note that both North and South have rampant racism, but in the South black people were more likely to be murdered. In Detroit the KKK had over 32,000 members, and in under 18 months police killed 25 black people.
Randall served in WWII and wrote poetry during his service. During WWII, another great migration brought more black people to Detroit, and the population reach around 500,000 black men, women, and children. Randall graduated from Wayne University (now Wayne State) in Detroit in 1949 and attended University of Michigan for a degree in library science. Meanwhile, times were tumultuous in Detroit. There were famous race riots and Black Bottom (a black neighborhood) was bulldozed, causing 2,000 black families to lose their homes. Randall was married 3 times, but remained married for over 40 years to his 3rd wife. Randall could be shy, moody, introverted, and very quite. He had the perfect demeanor for a librarian.
Randall’s work gained recognition in the 1960s, even though he wrote most of his poems during the 1930s-1950s. This would make a difference in how people perceived him. In 1963, Randall’s arguably most famous poem, “Ballad of Birmingham,” about the girls killed in the church bombing, was published. A folk singer wanted to set it to music, and because Randall was worried about his rights as an author, he “printed the poem as a broadside and copyrighted it as a Broadside Press publication.” And that’s how the most important black press started. *mind blown*
Because 1960s activism was dominated by young people, Randall, then around 50, was a different type of poet than Black Power crowd. He respected form and the great white poets everyone reads in school. The Black Arts Movement of the 60s, a literary voice of the Black Power Movement, was dominated by anger, hypermasculinity, and the absolute rejection of whites. Their poetry ignored form, was mainly free verse, and was always about race. Randall argued that good poems are more important than race poems, which put him on the outside.
However, established presses were not publishing black poets, and Randall did, regardless of his feelings about their politics. He established the careers of powerhouses like Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez and edited and published a collection of poems from various contributors called For Malcolm after Malcolm X’s murder. Randall wrote, “A neighbor told me that he saw a worker on the production line of an automobile factory with a copy of the anthology For Malcolm in his hop pocket . . . . black people were reading poetry and finding it a meaningful, not esoteric, art.”
While a few black poets did get publishing contracts with large presses after they were established, many abandoned those contracts and stuck with Broadside Press, even if they would have less marketing, because they believed in what Randall was doing. Broadside Press books cost $1, with 10% going to the writer, so “students, young people, and poor people might be able to afford them.” But after 10 years and over half a million books printed, Broadside Press had to be sold. Randall focused on poetry more than money and was $30,000 in debt.
In the 20 years before Broadside Press, only 35 books by black poets had been published in the United States. In 9 years, Randall published 81 books and a critical poetry studies series — all on a shoe-string budget in an office that used to be a burger restaurant.
After Broadside Press was sold, Randall entered a deep depression for 3 years and was stopped right before attempting suicide. Randall felt like he failed. After 3 years, he then wrote a surprising bawdy poetry collection. Gwendolyn Brooks scoffed at Randall writing a love poem shortly after a race riot in Miami, saying “So you’re in that bag now.” Randall scolded in poetry those who told him he had to write race poetry, writing:
I repeat, A poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his
ear and get the tune they want to hear,
Soon after, he got ownership of Broadside Press back due to some clause he forgot about in the contract when he sold it. The press didn’t last much longer, but regaining ownership seemed to encourage Randall further out of his dark depression. Randall was awarded the 1986 NEA Life Achievement Award, 1981 Poet Laureate of Detroit, and many others. He still thought of himself as a nobody.
The story of Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press makes for an interesting book. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s got a lot of attention, so people argue that Broadside Press became the bridge into the Black Arts Movement. Wrestling With The Muse includes B&W photos of famous poets with Randall, and those poets perspectives are included and quoted. I was surprised how easy people would change their minds in the movement. Don L. Lee, who Randall helped rise to fame, later said Randall himself wasn’t a black poet because Randall saw white people as human. At Randall’s funeral, Lee said Randall was one of Lee’s “true heroes” and compared Randall to Malcolm X.
What you really see is a clash of ideas, which is never a bad thing. Randall frequently gathered with poets to discuss ideas. Later, some of the black women Randall published felt hesitant about Randall because he didn’t take to the feminist movement well. He thought women should appear and behave traditionally, though he respected their intelligence.
I didn’t worry about author Melba Joyce Boyd’s accuracy in Wrestling With The Muse even though she was a friend of and mentored by Randall. In the introduction, she explains her 3rd-person POV is used to distance herself, but uses 1st-person when she was present for something, like Randall’s funeral. Boyd used audio and video interviews, though those were not always helpful due to Randall’s shyness; however, they were effective in “…determin[ing] any inconsistencies and to clarify Dudley’s recollections.” Although Randall destroyed many papers and diaries during the three years he was severely depressed after Broadside Press was sold, Boyd used essays, interviews, and correspondence written by both Randall and his friends, family, and colleagues. Thus, I do not worry about the author’s bias. At times, she is critical of him in a fair way.
There several frustrating typos and places where it’s hard to tell who’s being quoted. Randall’s diary may be quoted in italics and then the next paragraph is not in italics, but it’s still Randall’s voice (perhaps an interview?), which can be confusing.
However, Wrestling With The Muse by Melba Joyce Boyd is worth the read. You can skip the chapters in which Boyd analyzes Randall’s books of poems, to be honest, especially since she doesn’t always include entire poems or excerpts (likely due to copyright issues). But seeing the changes poetry underwent over an 86-year lifespan gives you a fantastic idea of race relations in the U.S.