Rashid BookerDon L. Lee
“Poetry in my home was almost as strange as money,” Haki R. Madhubuti, originally named Donald L. Lee, related in Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s. Abandoned by his father, and bereaved of his mother at the age of sixteen, Madhubuti made his living by maintaining two paper routes and cleaning a nearby bar. Poetry was scarce in his early life, he explained in the same source, because “what wasn’t taught, but was consciously learned, in our early educational experience was that writing of any kind was something that Black people just didn’t do.” Nonetheless, he has become one of the best-known poets of the black arts movement of the 1960s, a respected and influential critic of poetry, and an activist dedicated to the cultural unity of black Americans. “In many ways,” wrote Catherine Daniels Hurst in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Madhubuti “is one of the most representative voices of his time. Although most significant as a poet, his work as an essayist, critic, publisher, social activist, and educator has enabled him to go beyond the confines of poetry to the establishment of a black press and a school for black children.”
The literature of the Harlem Renaissance–a literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s in which the works of many black artists became popular–was not deeply felt by the majority of America’s black population, Madhubuti writes. “In the Sixties, however, Black Art in all its various forms began to flourish as never before: music, theater, art (painting, sculpture), films, prose (novel[s], essays), and poetry. The new and powerful voices of the Sixties came to light mainly because of the temper of the times.” The writers of this turbulent generation who worked to preserve a cultural heritage distinct from white culture did not look to previous literary traditions–black or white–for inspiration. Says Madhubuti, “The major influences on the new Black poets were/are Black music, Black life style, Black churches, and their own Black contemporaries.”
An Ebony article on the poet by David Llorens hailed him as “a lion of a poet who splits syllables, invents phrases, makes letters work as words, and gives rhythmic quality to verse that is never savage but often vicious and always reflecting a revolutionary black consciousness.” As a result, his “lines rumble like a street gang on the page,” remarked Liz Gant in a Black World review. Though Madhubuti believes, as he declares in Don’t Cry, Scream, that “most, if not all black poetry will be political,” he explains in Dynamite Voices I that it must do more than protest, since “mere ‘protest’ writing is generally a weak reaction to persons or events and often lacks the substance necessary to motivate and move people.” Black poetry will be powerful, he says, if it is “a genuine reflection of [the poet] and his people,” presenting “the beauty and joy” of the black experience as well as outrage against social and economic oppression.
However, some critics hear only the voice of protest in Madhubuti’s work. Jascha Kessler, writing in a Poetry review, actually saw no poetry in Madhubuti’s books. “Anger, bombast, raw hatred, strident, aggrieved, perhaps charismatically crude religious and political canting, propaganda and racist nonsense, yes…. [Madhubuti] is outside poetry somewhere, exhorting, hectoring, cursing, making a lot of noise.” But the same elements that grate against the sensibilities of such critics stem from the poet’s cultural objectives and are much better received by the poet’s intended audience, said others. “He is not interested in modes of writing that aspire to elegance,” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks in the introduction of Don’t Cry, Scream. Madhubuti writes for and to blacks, and “the last thing these people crave is elegance. It is very hard to enchant, with elegant song, the ears of a fellow whose stomach is growling,” she noted. Explained Hurst, “often he uses street language and the dialect of the uneducated Black community…. He uses unconventional abbreviations and strung-together words … in a visually rendered dialect designed to convey the stress, pitch, volume, texture, resonance, and the intensity of the black speaking voice. By these and other means, Madhubuti intends to engage the active participation of a black audience accustomed to the oral tradition of storytelling and song.”
Poems in Don’t Cry, Scream and We Walk the Way of the New World show the activist-poet’s increasing incorporation of jazz into his works. In fact, the title poem of Don’t Cry, Scream, believed Hurst, “should be dedicated to that consummate musician, John Coltrane, whose untimely death left many of his admirers in deep mourning. In this poem (which begs to be read out loud as only the poet himself can do it), Madhubuti strains to duplicate the virtuoso high notes of Coltrane’s instrumental sound.” This link to music is significant for the black writer: Whereas white Americans preserve themselves or their legacy through literature, black Americans have done so in music, particularly in the blues form. Madhubuti elaborates in Dynamite Voices I: “Black music is our most advanced form of Black art. In spite of the debilitating conditions of slavery and its aftermath, Black music endured and grew as a communicative language, as a sustaining spiritual force, as entertainment, and as a creative extension of our African selves. It was one of the few mediums of expression open to Black people that was virtually free of interferences…. To understand … art … which is uniquely Black, we must start with the art form that has been least distorted, a form that has so far resisted being molded into a pure product of European-American culture.” Numerous references to black musicians and lines that imitate the sounds of black music connect Madhubuti’s poetry to that tradition and extend its life as well.
Madhubuti’s poetic voice softened somewhat during the 1970s, during which time he directed his energies to the writing of political essays (“From Plan to Planet-Life Studies: The Need for Afrikan Minds and Institutions” and “Enemies: The Clash of Races”). In addition, he contributed to the establishment of a black aesthetic for new writers through critical essays and reviews. Dynamite Voices I, for instance, “has become one of the major contemporary scholarly resources for black poetry,” noted Hurst. Fulfilling the role of “cultural stabilizer,” he also gave himself to the construction of institutions that promote the cultural independence and education of his people. In a fight against “brain mismanagement” in America, he founded the Third World Press in 1967 to encourage literacy and the Institute of Positive Education in 1969 “to provide educational and communication services to a community struggling to assert its identity amidst powerful, negative forces,” he told Donnarae MacCann for an interview published in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin.
TX In the same interview, he defines the publishing goals of the Third World Press, which he founded in 1967: “We look for writers who continue to critically assess the ambivalence of being Black in America…. What we are trying to do is to service the great majority of Black people, those who do not have a voice, who have not made it. Black themes over the past years have moved from reaction and rage to contemplative assessments of today’s problems to a kind of visionary look at the world,” a vision that includes not just blacks, but all people. But the development of the black community remains its main focus, he told David Streitfield for a Washington Post article. “There’s just so much negative material out there, and so little that helps. That’s not to say we don’t publish material that is critical, but it has to be constructive.” As Streitfield reports, “Third World’s greatest success has been with … Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilization, which has gone through 16 printings.” Other articles also commended the press for breaking even for the first time in nineteen years in 1987.
When reviewing Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men: Affirmations, Meditations, Readings, and Strategies, published in 2002, for the Progressive, Bakari Kitwana began: “The divide between the hip-hop generation (black people born between 1965 and 1984) and the older civil rights/Black Power generation (black baby boomers) is steadily widening. It is a divide that is as vast as the one exhibited inside white America in the 1960s…. The older generation usually maintains that remaining in leadership for four decades without nurturing a new generation of leadership is not a problem. The younger generation, for its part, is quick to say that the older generation failed us, while benefiting every day from the struggles of the ’50s and ’60s.” Kitwana believed that an excellent place for the two generations to begin an attempt to understand each other is in Tough Notes. Madhubuti explains in his book that the most urgent reason he wrote it was “my need to personally respond to the hundreds of letters, notes, and telephone calls I received over the years from prisoners–mainly young men seeking guidance and a kind word.” In the heavily autobiographical work, he touches on subjects as wide ranging as history and identity to education to parenting in an effort to help guide the younger generation through the abyss of obstacles faced by them. “Young progressives, activists, institution-builders, intellectuals, writers, and everyday people will find tons of useful information in this blend of personal narrative and advice,” commented Kitwana.
Summing up the importance of Madhubuti’s work, Hurst stated that, except for Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Madhubuti is the most widely emulated black poet of all time, and his enormous influence continues to grow. “His books have sold more than a million copies, without benefit of a national distributor. Perhaps Madhubuti will even succeed in helping to establish some lasting institutions in education and in the publishing world. Whether he does or not, he has already secured a place for himself in American literature. He is among the foremost anthologized contemporary revolutionary poets, and he has played a significant role in stimulating other young black talent.”
DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, IL, apprentice curator, 1963-67; founder, publisher, and editor, Third World Press, 1967–; Montgomery Ward, Chicago, stock department clerk, 1963-64; post office clerk in Chicago, 1964-65; Spiegels, Chicago, junior executive, 1965-66; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, writer-in-residence, 1968-69; Northeastern Illinois State College, Chicago, poet-in-residence, 1969-70; University of Illinois, Chicago, lecturer, 1969-71; Howard University, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence, 1970-78; Morgan State College, Baltimore, MD, 1972-73; Chicago State University, Chicago, professor of English, 1984–. Director of the Institute of Positive Education, Chicago, 1969-91. Cofounder, New Concept Development Center, 1971.
UNDER NAME DON L. LEE
Think Black, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1967 , enlarged edition, 1969.
Black Pride, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1967.
For Black People (and Negroes Too), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1968.
Don’t Cry, Scream (poems), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1969.
We Walk the Way of the New World (poems), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
(Author of introduction) To Blackness: A Definition in Thought, Kansas City Black Writers Workshop, 1970.
Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s (essays), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
(Editor, with P. L. Brown and F. Ward) To Gwen with Love, Johnson Publishing (Chicago, IL), 1971.
Directionscore: Selected and New Poems, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
(Author of introduction) Marion Nicholas, Life Styles, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
The Need for an African Education (pamphlet), Institute of Positive Education (Chicago, IL), 1972.
UNDER NAME HAKI R. MADHUBUTI
Book of Life (poems), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
From Plan to Planet-Life Studies: The Need for Afrikan Minds and Institutions, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
(With Jawanza Kunjufu) Black People and the Coming Depression (pamphlet), Institute of Positive Education (Chicago, IL), 1975.
(Contributor) A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1975.
Enemies: The Clash of Races (essays), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1978.
Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions: Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973-1983 (poems), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1984.
Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors (poems), Lotus, 1987.
Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry and prose), Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Kwanzaa: A Progressive and Uplifting African American Holiday, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?; Afrikan American Families in Transition: Essays in Discovery, Solution, and Hope, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1990.
(Editor) Confusion by Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of the Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1992.
(Editor) Children of Africa, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.
Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.
GroundWork: Selected Poems of Haki R. Madhubuti, foreword by Gwendolyn Brooks and introduction by Bakari Kitwana, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
(Editor, with Karenga) Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology: Speeches, Commentary, Photography, Poetry, Illustrations, Documents, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.
(Editor, with Gwendolyn Mitchell) Releasing the Spirit, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.
Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men: Affirmations, Meditations, Readings, and Strategies, Third World Press (Chicago, IL) 2002.
Run toward Fear: New Poems and a Poet’s Handbook, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 2004.
Also author of Back Again, Home, 1968, and One Sided Shootout, 1968; editor of Why L.A. Happened: Implications of the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, 1993. Contributor to more than one hundred anthologies, including Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor-Doubleday, 1984, and Tapping Potential: English and Language Arts for the Black Learner, edited by Charlotte K. Brooks and others, Black Caucus of National Council of Teachers of English, 1985. Contributor to numerous magazines and literary journals, including Black World, Negro Digest, Journal of Black Poetry, Essence, Journal of Black History, Chicago Defender, and Black American Literature Forum. Founder and editor of Black Books Bulletin, 1972–; contributing editor, Black Scholar and First World.