The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Dudley Randall
Dudley Randall pic
'The age shapes the writer'
...I believe a poet can change things. He can change the way people look and feel about things.

Though almost unknown today, Dudley Randall was a major influence on contemporary African American writing. Born in Washington, DC, Randall wrote his first poem at age four and published before he turned 13. He took a notebook everywhere-even to the Pacific, where he served during World War II. He remembered his fallen friends and fellow soldiers in a series of short poems, including the two below:

Splendid against the night
The searchlights, the tracers' arcs,
And the red flare of bombs
Filling the eye,
And the brain.

Your letter.
These medals.
This grave.

About World War II, Randall said, "I believe that the age shapes the writer. World War II, I think, was the big event that shaped me. There was Nazism and the belief that the Germanic race was the superior race and other races were inferior. The fight against Nazism was what influenced me."

Randall obtained degrees in English and library science and for several years worked as a librarian at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Some years later, while working as a librarian at the University of Detroit, he used his lunchtime and other spare hours to create and manage Broadside Press, a major press for African American writers. After writing "The Ballad of Birmingham" in reaction to the 1963 deaths of four black children in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, he printed it on single-sheet broadsides as a way to make it public. That led him to produce broadsides by such writers as Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Randall helped build the careers of such poets as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Gwendolyn Brooks left her publisher, Harper and Row, in order to work with Randall.

Married for over 40 years to Vivian Barnett Spencer, Randall spent much of his life in Detroit. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young acknowledged Randall's contributions to the city, naming him Detroit's first Poet Laureate in 1981. Of this honor, Randall said, ''Well, they gave me a $500 check, so I figured they are certainly going to want something... I asked the Mayor, and he tells me, 'All we want you to do is to keep on doing what you're doing.' And I done that, all right."

In addition to his work as a writer and publisher, Dudley Randall also influenced African American literature as an editor of anthologies, including For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X (with Margaret G. Burroughs) and Black Poetry: A Supplement to Anthologies Which Exclude Black Poets.

Randall died in 2000 at age 86.

Places of interest: