Literary Treasures: Dudley Randall Reads His Poetry at the Library of Congress, 1975

The following is a guest post by Megan Jenkins, an academic-year intern at the Poetry and Literature Center.

This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

As a long-term intern at the Poetry and Literature Center, I have been given the opportunity to thoroughly explore and experience all the offerings at the Library of Congress. One such offering is the Poetry and Literature Center’s abundant Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature collection, which contains thousands of recorded lectures, performances, and poetry and prose readings dating back to 1943. In the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature collection, I am tasked with listening to poets and writers read their work within the recording and timestamp where each piece was read to ensure a more useful and comprehensive experience for listeners.

[Dudley Randall, Melvin B. Tolson, and Olivier LaGroan, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated on bench below seal of the City of Detroit, Michigan]. 1965. Prints & Photographs Division.

Poems on a piece of paper or on a screen can only convey so much meaning, but to hear it from the mouth of its creator can add both character and personality to the poem. Sometimes poems are interpreted by a reader one way, but when read by the poet can carry a whole new interpretation. Poetry has the power to be interpreted in the eyes of its beholder, and it’s interesting to hear how the poet reads their work and to hear their comments and thoughts about the piece.

In this “Literary Treasures” post, I’d like to examine Dudley Randall reading his poems at the Library of Congress on October 23, 1975. Dudley Randall was born in Washington, D.C., on January 14, 1914, but moved to Detroit when he was young. Randall pursued an undergraduate degree in English at Wayne State University, followed by a master’s degree in library science at the University of Michigan. He later established a publishing company, Broadside Press, in 1965, which featured and empowered the voices of African American poets and political writers. Randall died on August 5, 2000, in Detroit.

The recording opens with Dudley Randall introducing himself and reading his poem “Incident,” a short poem that sets the tone and overarching theme of his reading—the Civil Rights Movement.

Shortly after “Incident,” Randall dives into one his most well-recognized pieces, “Booker T. and W.E.B.,” of which he explains,

It’s an imaginary dialogue between two leaders of black people who had opposed philosophies on education and social action. Booker T. stands for Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; and W.E.B stands for William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

What makes this poem so unique and well-crafted is the juxtaposition between its historical figures and the poetic expression of their beliefs to create this imaginary dialogue on civil rights. Both figures’  approaches were very different, yet their goal for equality and freedom was shared.

[Casket with the body of 14-year-old Carol Robertson, one of four girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama]. 1963. Prints & Photographs Division.

The third poem Randall reads, “Ballad of Birmingham,” was inspired and written in response to the infamous bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. The Ku Klux Klan’s attack killed four African American girls and injured approximately 14 other people. The event sparked national outrage, and Birmingham became a major city for protests throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

In a powerful and sorrowful stanza from the poem, Randall reads,

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

The poem’s tone of anguish and heartache is mixed with the ironic line “was in the sacred place,” insinuating that the mother’s child was safe and would not be harmed since the children were going to a church.

Dudley Randall’s poems are alluring and thought provoking. Listening to him read his poems 45 years later made me think more about how poems crafted in the past, inspired by historical events, can still carry so much weight and relevance in today’s world.

Below is the full timestamped index of Dudley Randall reading his poems:

  • “Incident” (3:08–4:03)
  • “Booker T. and W.E.B.” (4:46–6:45)
  • “Ballad of Birmingham” (07:05–08:52)
  • “Old Witherington” (9:42–11:25)
  • “George” (12:19–14:32)
  • “Green Apples” (14:43–16:03)
  • “Women” (16:18–17:52)
  • “The Profile on the Pillow” (19:04–20:08)
  • “Sanctuary” (20:25–21:19)
  • “Dressed All in Pink” (21:30–22:46)

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