Haki Madhubuti Biography

Poet, Publisher, Educator, Author(1942–)
Haki Madhubuti is an African-American poet, educator and founder of Third World Press, the country's oldest black-owned independent publishing house.

Who Is Haki Madhubuti?

Born as Donald Lee on February 23, 1942, Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti grew up in poverty in Detroit and Chicago before becoming a respected professor and educator who has founded several African-centered schools in Chicago. His Third World Press, which started in a Chicago apartment in 1967, is the country's oldest continuously operating black-owned independent publishing house. As a poet and author, he has published more than 31 books including Don’t Cry, Scream! [written as Don L. Lee], YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet's Life, A Memoir, and Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The African American Family in Transition.

Haki Madhubuti Photo

(From left) Poet Haki R. Madhubuti, educator Peggy Cooper Cafritz, poet Clarence Major and harmonica player Frederic Yonnet are honored at the 19th Annual Celebration of Leadership In The Fine Arts on September 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. 

Third World Press

In 1967, Haki Madhubuti, who then went by the name Don Lee, took $400 he'd been paid for a poetry reading, acquired a mimeograph machine and started Third World Press out of an apartment on the South Side of Chicago (helped by Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers). From such small beginnings — Madhubuti even transported books across the country himself at times — the publishing house grew in size and stature to become the oldest independent black-owned press continuously operating in the United States.

Third World Press has put out hundreds of titles in the fields of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir and children's books. Its published work includes The Diary of Malcolm X (edited by Herb Boyd and Ilyasah Shabazz) and books from Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Marc Lamont Hill and Mumia Abu Jamal. With Tavis Smiley's The Covenant With Black America (2006), Third World Press became the first black-owned publisher to have a nonfiction book reach the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

Madhubuti has never taken a salary or royalties from the press, which became a nonprofit organization in 2015. The organization's archives, along with Madhubuti’s personal papers, were acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois in 2017.

Poems and Books

Before starting Third World Press, Madhubuti gained fame as a poet in the 1960s (while still using the name Don Lee). His free verse had attention-grabbing rhythms that evoked speech, as well as content that couldn't be ignored. Madhubuti's poetry can be personal, politically charged, or both. Over the years he has written about musicians (like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane), civil rights leaders (such as in "Malcolm spoke / who listened?" and "Assassination") and the power of poetry to unveil truth and possibility.

In 1966, Madhubuti paid to have his first book of poems, Think Black, printed, and then sold copies himself on street corners. His poetry collection Black Pride was published by Broadside Press in 1968, and he followed with Don’t Cry, Scream! (1969) which ended up selling 50,000 copies. Among Madhubuti's other poetry volumes are We Walk the Way of the New World (1970), Book of Life (1973), Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors (1987), GroundWork (1996) and Run Toward Fear: New Poems and a Poet’s Handbook (2004).

Madhubuti has also delved into questions of society, race and blackness via prose. Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? (1990) has sold more than 1 million copies. He also wrote Enemies: The Clash of Races (1978) and Taking Bullets: Black Boys and Men in Twenty-First Century America Fighting Terrorism, Stopping Violence and Seeking Healing (2016).

Madhubuti's YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life, a Memoir came out in 2005. Additionally, he co-edited Not Our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America (2017).

Albums

Madhubuti has released two albums: Rise Vision Comin (1976) and Medasi (1984). He also recited poetry while accompanied by flutist Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble for the 2017 album Liberation Narratives.

Black Arts Movement

Madhubuti was prominently involved in the rise of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s. He drew inspiration from time spent in the 1960s as an apprentice curator at Chicago's Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art (precursor to the DuSable Museum of African American History), and from museum founders Margaret and Charles Burroughs. He was also mentored by poet Gwendolyn Brooks (whose later work was published by Third World Press), and views Malcolm X as another of his "literary parents."

During the Civil Rights Movement, Madhubuti was involved with organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At rallies, he would sometimes read and sell his poetry.

When Was Haki Madhubuti Born?

Haki Madhubuti was born Donald Luther Lee on February 23, 1942, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Name Change

A trip to Africa prompted Madhubuti to choose a new name that better reflected his heritage and ancestry. He selected the name from the Swahili language: Haki means "justice" and Madhubuti "accurate and precise." He legally changed his name to Haki Madhubuti in 1974.

Wife, Family and Personal Life

Madhubuti is married to Safisha Madhubuti. Under the name Carol D. Lee, she is a professor of education at Northwestern University. With her husband, she has co-founded several schools that offer an African-centered curriculum.

Madhubuti and Safisha have three children: Laini, Bomani and Akili; Madhubuti also has two older children: Don and Mari.

A vegan who abstains from drugs and alcohol, Madhubuti stays fit by cycling.

Early Life and Education

Madhubuti's mother, Maxine Graves Lee, and father, James Lee, moved with him from Arkansas to Detroit when he was a baby. A few years later his father would abandon Madhubuti's mother, leaving her to raise Madhubuti and a younger sister. The family was very poor; Madhubuti's mother had to earn a living "in the sex trade," and turned to alcohol and drugs.

When Madhubuti was 14, his mother encouraged him to visit the Detroit library to read Richard Wright's Black Boy. He resisted, but ended up reading the book, which talked about Wright's experiences in the South during segregation. It marked a turning point in Madhubuti's life, as it was the first time he had read something that didn't dismiss his circumstances, and he became a voracious reader. "[I] returned to the library week after week, finding the black voices speaking from and about the African-American experience," Madhubuti told Biography. "Art in the forms of black literature, music and visual art, dance and black theater saved my life."

However, Madhubuti's "sanctuary in black literature was shattered" at the age of 16 when his mother was beaten to death by a man she’d become involved with.  After this loss, Madhubuti tried to live with his estranged father in Chicago, but threats of violence pushed him to move into the YMCA.

Madhubuti served in the U.S. Army from 1960-63; afterward, the GI Bill helped him attend college. He was a student at Chicago City College, Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University and the University of Illinois. In 1984, he received his MFA from the University of Iowa.

Educator

Madhubuti served as a writer-in-residence at different institutions, including Cornell University and Howard University, before becoming a professor at Chicago State University in 1984. There, he helped establish the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, before leaving the school in 2010. In 2010-11, he was the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University. Madhubuti is also the recipient of three honorary doctorates.

As someone who sees that black citizens in America have been denied the confidence and power that comes with having their own institutions, Madhubuti feels the need to create black institutions. To work toward this goal, he co-founded several schools in the Chicago area, including the Institute of Positive Education (1969) and its New Concept School (1972). Additionally, he helped found the schools that fall under the banner of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, including the Betty Shabazz Academy (1998), the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy (2005) and the DuSable Leadership Academy (2005).

Madhubuti is also a founder of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and the National Black Writers Retreat.

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