Naomi Long Madgett, champion of Black poets, is dead at 97

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Naomi Long Madgett, champion of Black poets, is dead at 97
Naomi Long Madgett, longtime poet laureate of Detroit who was as well known for publishing the work of others as she was for her own verse, in 1943. Madgett’s elegant, exacting and lyrical poems — which invited comparisons to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson — addressed a breadth of themes: social justice, romantic love, women’s histories, religious devotion and the craft of poetry itself. She died on Nov. 5, 2020, at 97, at her home in West Bloomfield, Mich., her daughter Jill Witherspoon Boyer said. Via David Schock via The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Naomi Long Madgett was 17 when her first book of poetry was published, and just 26 when her work appeared in an anthology co-edited by Langston Hughes, an early mentor, that covered 200 years of Black poetry — a new name among the greats.

Yet she was almost as well known as a publisher and editor of poetry, an accidental career that began in her Detroit basement when she couldn’t find the right press for her fourth book and decided to put it out herself. Lotus Press, her imprint, would go on to present, often for the first time, the work of Black writers like Herbert Woodward Martin, Dolores Kendrick, James A. Emmanuel and Toi Derricotte.

Despite its literary prestige, Lotus Press stayed in Madgett’s basement, and for decades she ran it mostly by herself. (In its first years, she invented an editorial assistant and named her Connie Withers — a nod to her middle name, Cornelia, and her first married name, Witherspoon — to give the imprint corporate heft.)

Madgett, who had been the poet laureate of Detroit since 2001, and whose elegant, exacting and lyrical poems, which invited comparisons to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, addressed a breadth of themes from social justice to romantic love, women’s histories, religious devotion and the craft of poetry itself, died Nov. 5 at her home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She was 97.

Her daughter, Jill Witherspoon Boyer, confirmed the death.

“I felt that publishing other poets was more important than the work of one poet,” Madgett said in “Star by Star,” a 2001 documentary about her life directed by David Schock. Still, she managed to write 11 books of her own; her most recent, “You Are My Joy and Pain,” its title taken from a line in the Billie Holiday song “Don’t Explain,” came out in January.

“You Are My Joy and Pain” is a collection of love poems that describe the rich contours of a well-seasoned heart. In the poem “Packrat,” she writes:

My trouble is

I always try

to save everything

old clocks and calendars

expired words buried

in open graves

But hoarded grains of sand

keep shifting as rivers

redefine boundaries and seasons

“I found it masterful and extremely daring,” Derricotte said of Madgett’s last collection. “I often wondered if what she did for others was taking away from her own work. Sometimes poets have to be very selfish, and she was always saying, when I’d ask her about her own writing, ‘I’ll get to it when this book is done.’”

Madgett was also an educator. She taught high school English for over a decade, and she created her own curriculum in the 1960s to make up for the scarcity of African American authors in the textbooks of the era — a bit of academic activism that inspired the Detroit public school system to make her own work required reading. She joined the English department at Eastern Michigan University in 1968 and retired as professor emerita in 1984.

Her most famous poem, “Midway,” written in 1959, was a response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Taking its rhythms from spirituals, its three stanzas note the terrible histories of African Americans and celebrate the milestone of social progress, while acknowledging how much more still needed to be accomplished. It concludes with these lines:

I’ve seen the daylight breaking high above the bough.

I’ve found my destination and I’ve made my vow;

So whether you abhor me

Or deride me or ignore me

Mighty mountains loom before me and I won’t stop now.

“Midway," as Madgett often said, lived a life of its own. It has been set to music, anthologized over and over, reproduced without permission, misquoted and published anonymously. It was also Madgett’s least favorite poem. She deemed it of “dubious literary merit” and “seriously flawed.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” she said on more than one occasion, “but I don’t know how to fix it.”

No one seemed to agree with her.

“I don’t think it’s flawed at all,” Melba Joyce Boyd, a Detroit-based poet, essayist and editor and distinguished professor of African American studies at Wayne State University, said in a phone interview. “I can see why people connect to it. I’m writing a chapter on Detroit for a book about policing, and I keep thinking about that poem. It seems like you’re always midway.

“Naomi is presenting the idea that the struggle is eternal,” she added. “It’s not a race you can win. You just have to keep moving.”

Naomi Cornelia Long was born July 5, 1923, in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, Clarence Marcellus Long, was a noted Baptist minister; her mother, Maude Selena (Hilton) Long, had been a teacher before her marriage. Naomi grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, a deeply segregated city where the school she and her two brothers attended was marked by entrenched racial prejudice.

She recalled being the only Black child in the A section of her grade, in a school that relegated most Black children to the C section. When her father accepted a post as minister of a church in St. Louis and she entered the all-Black Sumner High School there, her life was irrevocably changed. She remembered arriving during the hush of an induction ceremony for the National Honor Society and being transfixed.

“Here is a place you can be anything you are good enough to be,” she recalled thinking, “and I took off running.”

Naomi had been writing poetry since she was 7 and had her first poem printed in a local newspaper when she was 13. Her father, whom she adored, thought her poems were good enough to be published as a book, and he submitted them to a publishing house when she was 17, guaranteeing that he could persuade a certain number of people to buy it.

She had met Langston Hughes when she was 15 and attended a reading of his in St. Louis. When Hughes later gave a reading at her college, Virginia State University, she gave him her work, and he read it along with his, after which he became a lifelong mentor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Virginia State and a master’s of education from Wayne State University. She worked briefly at a newspaper and for the phone company while working toward her teaching degree — all while writing poetry and publishing two collections.

Her marriage to Julian Witherspoon, a lawyer and activist she met in high school, ended in divorce. So did her marriage to William Harold Madgett, a postal worker. After that, she later said, she was determined not to marry again, because she didn’t trust her own judgment. But Leonard Andrews, an educator and school principal, was a man too good to pass up, she said in “Star by Star,” and “that was the marriage that worked.”

In 2012, Madgett won a Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist Award, perhaps Detroit’s highest cultural honor. It was one of hundreds of awards she received during her lifetime, including three honorary degrees. She retired three years later from Lotus Press, which at that point merged with another homegrown poetry publisher, Broadside Press.

In addition to her daughter, Boyer, Madgett is survived by her stepchildren, Harold Madgett Jr., Gerald Madgett, Sharilyn Brown and Kathryn Andrews; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Boyer has spent the weeks since her mother’s death going through her belongings, and she discovered a note tucked into a package of photographs. It congratulated Madgett on her work and was signed, simply, “Langston.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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