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Naomi Long Madgett. Pink Ladies in the Afternoon : Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1990. New and enlarged edition.
Cover. Naomi Long Madgett. Pink Ladies in the Afternoon : Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1990. New and enlarged edition. https://lccn.loc.gov/90060605

The Godmother of African American Poetry

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WRITING A POEM

Writing a poem is trying to catch a fluff of cloud
With open-fingered hands.
Slim ghost of truths, ethereal in twilight’s mist,
Glide and evade and dissipate into enormous air.
Making a poem is trying to capture gold-winged
Butterflies
With only a net of dreams.

~ Naomi Long Madgett, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon (1972)


Often referred to as “the godmother of African American poetry,” teacher, poet, and publisher Naomi Long Madgett (1923 – 2020) left an indelible impression on the American literary landscape. She increased Black representation in English literature curricula, authored numerous collections of verse, and founded a publishing firm in Detroit to publish African American writers. Her lyrical poetry is often compared to that of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and it shows influences from Langston Hughes, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson, among others. Naomi’s work can be found in the Library of Congress in both the Rare Book and Special Collections Division as well as the General Collections. In 1978, she read fourteen of her poems—beginning with “Writing A Poem”—for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, so that everyone can hear as well as read her work. This post remembers her life.

 

Naomi, born in 1923, was one of three children of Maude Selena (Hilton) and the Rev. Dr. Clarence Marcellus Long of Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to East Orange, New Jersey where he became pastor at Calvary Baptist Church when Naomi was only 18 months old. She moved through the East Orange schools, starting with Ashland Grammar and continuing to her freshman year at East Orange High School before her life was upended again by her father’s transfer to another congregation and the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis the schools were segregated, and Naomi completed her high school degree at Sumner High School. Shortly after her graduation, her first book of poetry was published by the Fortuny’s Publishing Company of New York: Songs to a Phantom Nightingale (1941).

Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett's first collection of poetry: Songs to a Phantom Nightingale. New York: Fortuny's, 1941.
Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett’s first collection of poetry: Songs to a Phantom Nightingale. New York: Fortuny’s, 1941. https://lccn.loc.gov/41015740
Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett's first collection of poetry: Songs to a Phantom Nightingale. New York: Fortuny's, 1941.
Title page for Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett’s first collection of poetry: Songs to a Phantom Nightingale. New York: Fortuny’s, 1941. https://lccn.loc.gov/41015740

Naomi next attended Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree while having many of her poems published in the college newspaper, The Virginia Statesman. It was at Virginia State College that she had the opportunity to meet with Langston Hughes at a small afternoon gathering before he was scheduled to do a reading one evening. After this meeting, she presented him with a notebook with some of her poetry and asked him to look it over. To her surprise, he read some of her poems during his reading and returned the notebook to her afterwards with his penciled-in comments. She counted Hughes as one of her biggest literary influences.

She started graduate studies but married her fiancé Julian Fields Witherspoon—also a graduate of Sumner High School—in 1946 after he returned from the army, and they moved to Detroit to start a family. For a while she published her poetry under her married name Naomi L. Witherspoon. The marriage came to an end, and soon Naomi was working full-time while working on her graduate studies part-time. She married William Harold Madgett in 1954, and she was able to return to school full-time at Wayne University (now Wayne State University).

Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett. One and the Many. New York: Exposition Press, [1956].
Naomi Cornelia Long Madgett. One and the Many. New York: Exposition Press, [1956].
https://lccn.loc.gov/56012373
Naomi began teaching in the Detroit Public Schools, primarily Northwestern High School, and taught the first black literary course in that city’s school system. Her marriage to William Harold Madgett ended, but she continued using the Madgett name since she had had several works published under it. In 1968 she took an associate professorship in English at Eastern Michigan University, where she would teach until her retirement. Four years later in 1972 she married Leonard P. Andrews (to whom she would remain married for the next 24 years until his passing). That same year she established the Lotus Press when she had difficulty finding a publisher for her collection Pink Ladies in the Afternoon, after it had been rejected by other publishers because it didn’t fit the predominant style of the time. Serving as reviewer and editor, Ms. Madgett selected manuscripts from both established and new African American writers to publish their works, often subsidizing the cost of printing herself, and eventually producing more than 90 titles.

Naomi Long Madgett. Pink Ladies in the Afternoon : Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1990. New and enlarged edition.
Cover. Naomi Long Madgett. Pink Ladies in the Afternoon : Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1990. New and enlarged edition.
https://lccn.loc.gov/90060605
Naomi Long Madgett. Sunny (From an Old Photograph). Detroit: Broadside Press, 1967.
Naomi Long Madgett. Sunny (From an Old Photograph). Detroit: Broadside Press, 1967.
ACQ18-007, no. 5.

She ran the press, taught, and continued with her own writing while earning her PhD. In 1993 the Lotus Press established the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award to publish the outstanding work of an African American writer. The Lotus Press merged with the Broadside Press in 2015 and became the Broadside Lotus Press, a natural fit since Ms. Madgett and Dudley Randall, founder of the Broadside Press, were friends and had published each other’s works.

The Unfinished Song. New York: IRA Aldridge Theatre, [1970?].
Cover. The Unfinished Song. New York: Ira Aldridge Theatre, [1970?]. Coe Collection.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2010368864
The Unfinished Song. New York: Ira Aldridge Theatre, [1970?]. Coe Collection.
Inside page. The Unfinished Song. New York: Ira Aldridge Theatre, [1970?]. Naomi Long Witherspoon shown in list of “The Poets.” Coe Collection.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2010368864
In 2001 Naomi was named the Poet Laureate for the City of Detroit. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 97 shortly after her last book of poetry, You Are My Joy and Pain: Love Poems, was published. Over her lifetime, Ms. Madgett published eleven collections of her poetry, two poetry anthologies, two textbooks, and an autobiography. She was a contributor to numerous other anthologies and textbooks as well, cementing her legacy as “the godmother of African American poetry.” Her papers are held by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Fisk University of Nashville. The archive for the Lotus Press is held by the University Michigan.

 

 

FURTHER READING

Madgett, Naomi Long. Pilgrim Journey. Detroit: Lotus Press, 2006. https://lccn.loc.gov/2006298245

Madgett, Naomi Long.  Naomi Madgett reading her poems with comment in the Recording Laboratory, May 23, 1978 [sound recording]. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsrs/poetryarch.91740241

A Poet’s Poet : The Life And Legacy Of Naomi Long Madgett (1923 – 2020) [website]. https://naomilongmadgett.net/

Naomi Long Madgett Wikipedia entry [website]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Long_Madgett

 

 

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