A Black Poet Speaks: An Interview with Haki R. Madhubuti

In celebration of Black History Month, Dr. Michael Simanga sat down with poet, publisher and black activist Haki R. Madhubuti to discuss his diverse contributions to African-American arts across multi-generations.
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Haki Madhubuti Photo

A photo of Haki R. Madhubuti from the inside cover of his best-selling critical work 'Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?'

On February 23, 1942, a black boy was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and into the violent repression of the Jim Crow South. Seeking a better life, his family waded into the stream of millions of black people moving north during the Great Migration. No one could have known that boy would grow up to become a celebrated poet, publisher and educator and a driving force of black art and culture starting in the 1960s and through today.

The boy's name was Don L. Lee. He adopted Chicago as his permanent home and met important artists and mentors. He became a leading organizer and artist in local black arts and his reputation as a poet grew nationally. In 1966 he published his first book, Think Black and sold it on street corners and at his readings. In 1967, Lee invested a $400 honorarium he’d earned and founded Third World Press with the help of Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers. The new press published poets, historians, scholars, novelists and essayists, including both established and emerging black writers. It became the most significant literary institution of the Black Arts Movement. In addition to being a publisher, his own creative production generated an extensive body of work that includes, poetry, essays and a memoir.

After several visits to Africa, he replaced his birth name with Haki R. Madhubuti (his first name meaning: "just;" his last name meaning "accurate and precise"), making a public declaration of his commitment to center black culture and education with an African and African-American consciousness. In addition to his work as a writer and publisher, Madhubuti became an influential professor and leading advocate for black education. No one could have known that Don Luther Lee, a black boy born in Little Rock, Arkansas would journey so far and do so much and become Haki R. Madhubuti, one of the most influential black artists in the history of American and African-American literary tradition.

Biography: Your accomplishments are inspiring, but like Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and so many other black artists and leaders, your story began deep down in the most vulnerable of black communities.

Haki Madhubuti: I grew up in a poor black community in Detroit. My mother Maxine Graves Lee, struggled to provide for her children while battling the pressures of racism and poverty and eventually falling victim to drugs and forced into the sex trade.

Biography: You’ve mentioned in your lectures and writing that black literature saved your life.

Haki Madhubuti: My mother saw something in me. I was a creative child, interested in ideas and words but it didn’t mean anything because there wasn’t a process for me to develop. Looking back on it, she did her best to point me toward something positive and hoped I’d find my way. She sent me to the library to find refuge and Black Boy, Richard Wright’s powerful memoir about growing up black and poor in the segregated South and the racist North. I read it that night and returned to the library week after week, finding the black voices speaking from and about the African-American experience. Art in the forms of black literature, music and visual art, dance and black theater saved my life.

Biography: While in high school, you suffered a traumatic event.

Haki Madhubuti: The relative peace of my sanctuary in black literature was shattered when my mother was beaten to death by a man she’d become involved with. I was 16 and had to take care of myself. I moved to Chicago to live with a complete stranger, my father. I got a room at the YMCA, finished high school, and was always hungry. I enlisted in the U.S. Army because I needed to eat every day and the army at that time was a poor boys’ answer to unemployment. At basic training, I had a copy of Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand which enraged my sergeant. It helped me understand that books and ideas are dangerous.

Haki R. Madhubuti

Haki Madhubuti sits in the offices of the Chicago Defender newspaper during an interview, Chicago, Illinois, late 1960s.

Biography: When did know you were a poet/writer?

Haki Madhubuti: As it is today, I saw myself first as a poet. It was most like the music we produce and I was a student of black music, especially jazz and doo-wop. By the time I was discharged from the army I was becoming more certain of my own poetic voice.

Biography: In 1963, after the army you moved to Chicago.

Haki Madhubuti: It seemed like a place where I could make a new life. With the GI Bill I went to college, but my most important education came from several great mentors. I met the visual artist Margaret and writer Charles Burroughs who were also institution builders and founders of the DuSable Museum of African American History. They taught me the importance of independent black institutions. Gwendolyn Brooks, the Poet Laureate of Illinois also became a mentor and what I consider, my cultural mother. It was a great honor, after I’d started Third World Press to become her publisher.

Biography: You are considered one of the principal architects and key figures of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, that Larry Neal described as “…the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.”

Haki Madhubuti: As a black poet, seeking answers and solutions for black people in the 1960s I was drawn to the ideas of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African liberation struggle. Developing a black consciousness of self-respect, engaging in a struggle for human rights, self-determination and empowerment had an incredibly strong appeal. Those ideas were reflected in my poetry and the work we were doing to build the local and national community of like-minded black artists. That movement included people like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, Jayne Cortez, Gil Scott Heron and hundreds of others. Chicago was one of the urban centers of the Black Arts Movement. There was an emphasis on high quality, often experimental, cultural production and institution building. After Dudley Randall accepted [my work] for publication and wrote the introduction to my book Black Pride, his Broadside Press of Detroit, Michigan became the model for Third World Press. That is one of the reasons I founded Third World Press in 1967.

Haki Madhubuti Photo

Dr. Haki Madhubuti celebrates 50 years of publishing at a gala.

Biography: Third World Press/Third World Press Foundation is now the oldest continuously publishing independent black press in the United States and possibly the world . . .

Haki Madhubuti: We’ve been able to survive when many of the Black Arts Movement institutions did not. We have published hundreds of established and emerging black and white writers and make a significant contribution to black literature. We’ve published poets, historians, educators, novelists, psychiatrists and playwrights. We have a multi-generational roster of writers and consciously work to publish black women. Our authors include Gwendolyn Brooks, Gil Scott Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Bakari Kitwana, Marc Lamont Hill, Michael Simanga, Edmund Gordon and hundreds of others.

Biography: ...In addition to the more than two dozen books you’ve written.

Haki Madhubuti: I believe in building and supporting black institutions, I’ve only published with black publishers, Broadside Press, founded by the poet Dudley Randall in Detroit and Third World Press. I still see myself first as a poet, but I’ve also written several books of essays. I’m trying to focus on writing my memoirs. I started with the first book, Yellow Black: the First Twenty-One Years of a Poet's Life, A Memoir. My best known books are Don’t Cry, Scream! [as] Don L. Lee (over 75 thousand in print), and Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? as Haki R. Madhubuti (over one million in print).

Biography: As a professor at Chicago State University, you established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing and founded the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writer’s Conference. With other professors you also established the first MFA in Creative Writing focusing on black literature in the nation in addition to mentoring emerging black poets and writers. You were named the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University and have received numerous honors including induction into the Little Rock, Arkansas Hall of Fame and honorary doctorates from Spelman College and DePaul University.

You have also been involved in creating independent black schools on the south side of Chicago.

Haki Madhubuti: My wife and I have been advocating for a new Black education for decades. Safisha is a globally recognized scholar in education. With her brilliance and leadership (I always tell young men to follow my lead and marry a woman smarter than you) we’ve been able to establish, grow and maintain several schools, including the Institute of Positive Education, New Concept School, Betty Shabazz Academy and Barbara Ann Sizemore Academy. The creation and development of independent black schools is crucial to the development of independent, culturally conscious black people who will continue to offer productive alternatives and practical answers.

Haki Madhubuti

Dr. Madhubuti's 75th birthday celebration.

Biography: With your legacy as a poet, writer, institution builder, publisher, educator, political activist, what is next?

Haki Madhubuti: Ensuring the press and schools survive and grow. We’ve changed our business model; the press is now a non-profit [called] Third World Press Foundation, and we have engaged a multi-generational group of scholars, writers and activists to develop and implement our plan which we expect to be completed this year. I am busy writing, poems, the next book of memoir and new essays. There is a new recording of my poetry with the amazing Jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell (Liberation Narratives), who used to work with us at Third World Press. And I’m really trying to spend more time with my family including the newest members, our grandchildren. I continue to do, to the best of my ability, that which is good, just, correct and right, with a sense of integrity and honor. Remember, the most liberated people in the world, and most certainly in this culture, are artists. Art saved my life and can do the same for others. The struggle continues.