Denied seating at the local ice-cream parlor and ushered to far-flung theater balconies, life in the 1920s for African-Americans in East Orange, N.J., was far from the idealized vision of equal opportunity that America so boldly trumpets.
But East Orange meant home for Naomi Long Madgett, albeit a lonely one. She had little company growing up beyond the pen and paper she used to scribble down “silly rhymes.” Her precocious pursuits bloomed to unveil the wordsmith within; Madgett emerged a preeminent poet of the 20th century and went on to become an English teacher, journalist and founder of her own publishing company, Lotus Press. She has held the title of Detroit’s Poet Laureate since 2001.
Madgett has published nine books of poetry since 1938 – “Pink Ladies In The Afternoon,” “Octavia And Other Poems” and “Midway” among them – an accomplishment few others can hold a candle to. And in an effort to celebrate African-American poets, the Long Poetry Foundation established the Naomi Long Madgett Award in honor of her lasting dedication to poetry.
Madgett absorbed the contents of her minister father’s extensive library at an early age and learned the art of composition from his sermons and spiritual hymns, all of which bolstered her literary impulses. By the time she was 12, Madgett had written exactly 100 poems and showed no signs of slowing.
At the outset of her high-school years, Madgett’s family relocated to St. Louis. The move was a turning point for the ambitious teenager. She discovered the unforeseen blessings of a legally segregated, all-black school, where it was popular to be smart and academic achievement was the top priority. Madgett had finally found a place where lofty aspirations were encouraged without question, and she took off running.
But she wasn’t alone in her poetic endeavors. Madgett not only found support in her father, but also in Harlem Renaissance poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.
In a meeting arranged by Madgett’s father, Cullen confirmed the growing suspicions behind her bursting creativity: “Well, you’re a poet.”
Hughes’s influence proved to be an even greater one. After an opportune book-signing session, the two became lifelong friends and she still strives to pattern herself after him.
“He was such a wonderful human being,” she recalled, “so down to earth, so encouraging of other poets. If he walked into a room, in ten minutes you would be calling him by his first name.”
Around the same time, Madgett was assembling a collection of poetry with unfettered devotion, titled “Songs to a Phantom Nightingale.” The book was brought to fruition and published just days after her high-school graduation. After leaving school, Madgett studied English at Virginia State College and completed graduate work at New York University.