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Madgett, Naomi Long (1923—)

Madgett, Naomi Long (1923—)

African-American poet, professor, publisher, and editor . Name variations: Naomi Witherspoon; Naomi Cornelia Long. Born Naomi Cornelia Long on July 5, 1923, in Norfolk, Virginia; daughter of Clarence Marcellus Long (a minister) and Maude (Hilton) Long (a teacher); Virginia State College, B.A., 1945; Wayne State University, M.Ed., 1956; International Institute for Advanced Studies, Ph.D., 1980; married Julian F. Witherspoon, in 1946 (divorced 1949); married William Harold Madgett, in 1954 (divorced 1960); married Leonard Patton Andrews, in 1972 (died 1996); children: (first marriage) Jill Witherspoon (b. 1947).

Selected writings:

Songs of a Phantom Nightingale (1941); One and the Many (1956); Star by Star (1965); Pink Ladies in the Afternoon: New Poems (1972); Exits and Entrances (1978); Octavia and Other Poems (1988); Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems (1993).

The daughter of Clarence and Maude Long , Naomi Long Madgett was born on July 5, 1923, in Norfolk, Virginia, and experienced a lonely childhood in an intensely religious home. Her father's extensive library offered her refuge in such diverse literature as Aesop's Fables and Robert T. Kerlin's Negro Poets and Their Poems, and she found solace in the dissimilar works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Langston Hughes, two poets she credits for having a strong influence on her writing.

In addition to reading poetry, she also began writing it at an early age, expressing herself in verse. Madgett spent her childhood in East Orange, New Jersey, before moving with her family to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1937. She later identified the consequent transfer from an integrated high school to an all-black one as a positive turning point in her life. In an environment free from institutional racism, she began to recognize the achievements of African-Americans. In 1941, she published Songs of a Phantom Nightingale, a collection of poems she had written in high school. These poems reflect her lonely childhood and a growing awareness of her black heritage. Reviewers criticized her style for its youthful imitation of romantic poetry, but recognized her innovations with language and technique.

In 1945, Madgett earned a B.A. from Virginia State College and began graduate studies at New York University; however, she withdrew early in her studies to marry Julian F. Witherspoon in 1946. They moved to Detroit, where Madgett worked as a reporter and copyreader for an African-American weekly, The Michigan Chronicle. In 1947, she gave birth to their daughter Jill, and two years later she and Witherspoon divorced. She married her second husband, William Madgett, in 1954, and continued to use his last name after that marriage also ended in divorce. She began teaching in the Detroit school system in 1955 and earned a master's degree in education at Wayne State University in 1956. Madgett later earned a Ph.D. in 1980, from the International Institute for Advanced Studies (Greenwich University).

The long interval after her first publication ended in 1956, when Madgett published her second collection of poems, One and the Many. Documenting her life to the mid-1950s, these poems covered a wide variety of feelings, from her sense of satisfaction as a mother to her sense of life passing and leaving her unfulfilled. The poems express feelings of entrapment as a homemaker, and the heartbreak of a failed love. In One and the Many, Madgett also began to deepen her expression of the African-American experience, although the nine poems dealing with this subject do not appear until the end of the book. One of her most important poems, "Refugee," appeared in this collection, and had been included by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in their anthology The Poetry of the Negro: 1746–1949 (1949).

Madgett's third collection of poems, Star by Star (1965), further explored the African-American experience. In it, the poet emphasized the beauty of the black race and the often crippling effects of the white-black relationship on black America. At this time Madgett was becoming increasingly concerned that black children were losing touch with many of their best literary representatives, such as Langston Hughes, and in the summer of 1965 she taught the first African-American literature course offered in the Detroit school system. She spent that school year at Oakland University as a Mott fellow and returned to Detroit to teach her African-American literature class as a regular part of the curriculum. Resigning from the public schools in 1968, Madgett accepted an assistant professorship at Eastern Michigan University, where she would remain until her retirement as professor emeritus in 1984.

Her fourth book of poems, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon: New Poems, was published in 1972. In the volume, she reflects upon her life in the 1960s and 1970s; her dual career, middle age, and the ongoing awareness of her heritage. Her love poems in this series express a quiet dignity. Madgett and her third husband, Leonard P. Andrews, also took over the Lotus Press in Detroit (which had published three of her collections) that year. The Lotus Press has since gone on to publish such writers as Gayl Jones, Paulette White , and Ray Fleming. Exits and Entrances (1978), her fifth collection, is presented in three sections: the first continues her autobiographical approach, the second her African-American themes, and the third contains her most recent poems to that time. A sixth collection of poetry, Octavia and Other Poems (1988), explores her deep family history, focusing on an aunt, Octavia Cornelia Long . The poems also extol the deep resolve of other family members and their efforts to make good lives for themselves and their families. In 1993, Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems was published. In addition to her poetry collections, Madgett wrote Deep Rivers (a teachers' guide, 1974) and A Student's Guide to Creative Writing (1980), and edited A Milestone Sampler: 15th Anniversary Anthology (1988) and Adam of Ifé: Black Women in Praise of Black Men (1992).

Naomi Long Madgett has received many awards, including the Esther R. Beer Poetry Award from the National Writers Club for "Native" (1957); the Josephine Nevins Keal Development Fund Award (1979); the Robert Hayden Runagate Award and the Heritage House and Arts Achievement Award, both from Wayne State University (1985); the Creative Artist Award from the Michigan Council for the Arts (1987); the Creative Achievement Award from the College Language Association, for Octavia and Other Poems (1988); "In Her Lifetime" tribute from the Afrikan Poets Theater (1989); the Arts Foundation of Michigan literature award (1990); an honorary doctorate of literature from Siena Heights College (1991); the Award of Excellence from Black Scholar magazine (1992); the American Book Award and the Governor's Arts Award (both 1993); the Michigan State University American Arts Award (1994); and the George Kent award (1995). In 1993, the Hilton-Long Poetry Foundation began granting the annual Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award in her honor.

sources:

Contemporary Authors. Vol. 33–36. Revised. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 76. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

collections:

Special Collections Library at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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