This is an expanded version of an article that appeared 8.29.18 in the Chicago Reader.
Don L. Lee was ten years old when his mother Maxine took him and his younger sister to visit the minister of one of the largest black churches in Detroit. It was mid-20th century America, and, abandoned years before by her husband, Maxine, a beautiful, vivacious woman, had been trying to keep the family afloat with the odds stacked against her.
Suddenly, with the minister, she was in luck. A man in his fifties, with a kindly demeanor, he offered her a job as a janitor at the four-story, twelve-unit building he owned next to his church — and free housing in a basement apartment. During the week, she’d be responsible for cleaning and dusting the public areas and hauling the garbage cans down the backstairs.
Oh, and one other thing — as the interview came to an end, the minister leaned over and whispered something to Maxine. “I knew what was going on,” her son tells me.
Thereafter, come Monday and Thursday afternoons, the minister would visit the family’s apartment “and she would service him.” She was what was known at the time as his outside woman, and, to protect his reputation and dodge the ire of his wife, he ordered Maxine never again to set foot inside his church. The accommodation lasted fourteen months until the minister’s sudden death.
Within a week, Maxine and her children were on the street.
And the arc of Maxine’s life was set. “My mother and the streets took to one another,” her son wrote in a memoir. She was a dreamer who “wrapped her body in clothes that refused to hide the nature of her desires…Her clothes got in the way of men taking them off.”
Six years later, addicted to alcohol and drugs, working as a freelance prostitute, she was beaten to death by a trick. “She was so battered,” her son says, “we couldn’t open the casket.”
“I could have been famous,
but this is what I chose to do”
It’s been six decades since Maxine’s murder, and, somehow, out of the chaos of his childhood, the brutality of his surroundings, the oppression of his self-hatred, her son, Don L. Lee, later renamed Haki R. Madhubuti, forged an extraordinary career on Chicago’s South Side as one of the great voices of black poetry to emerge in the 20th century and the most significant advocate and theorist of black self-determination since Malcolm X.
And the odds are you’ve never heard of him.
If you’re an African-American, you probably don’t recognize the name Haki Madhubuti unless you move in literary and intellectual circles. But you’ve heard echoes of his poetry in the music of rap and hip-hop. And you’re familiar with the tension between those in the black community who favor the opportunities of integration and those who argue that blacks need to take control of their lives, a gospel Madhubuti has preached for more than half a century.
If you’re white, it’s almost certain his name won’t ring a bell.
For one thing, Madhubuti doesn’t fit the white stereotype of a “black leader.” He’s not leading protest marches or getting out the vote, he’s not a talking-head on the news shows or running for office. He doesn’t devote his time to interacting with the mainstream culture, and, as a result, he and his work have been largely ignored by the news media.
He’s a different sort of black leader, one who is devoted to building black institutions, a doer and a thinker who works, almost exclusively, for and with other African-Americans, a cheerleader for black pride and responsibility, a model and a mentor for generations of like-thinking blacks.
In the late 1960s, when revolution was chic, Don L. Lee was a rising poetry star on the American scene, the black writer-in-residence at Cornell University where he was a colleague of Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet and anti-war activist. He was being courted by Random House. And one of his shortest and most pointed poems “The New Integrationist” — “I seek integration of Negroes with black people.” — would soon appear in the New York Times. (In the world of Madhubuti and others who contend that blacks should work together to create their own opportunities, “Negro” is a term for the black bourgeoisie and anyone who kowtows to the white power structure.)
“I could have been famous as Don L. Lee,” Madhubuti says to me as we walk down a stairwell at the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, while, outside, a late winter sun has turned the worn-down homes and cityscape across the street into blazing beauty. He’s what used to be called a long drink of water — six-foot-one and still thin at the age of 76, a vegan who exercises daily, meditates and does yoga.
“I could have been famous, but this is what I chose to do.”
“This” is not just the Sizemore elementary school which he helped found, but also the overwhelmingly black and, in most sections, heavily poor South Side. It’s the black community across the nation — and across the world. It’s the men, women and children in historically segregated neighborhoods and suburbs — left behind by the integrationists and white society — who, Madhubuti has long argued, must band together to create black institutions to serve and nourish black people.
“Black business women and men who make a payroll every week — they’re the real revolutionaries,” he says.
can you dance?…”
Even as he stood on the doorstep of mainstream fame a half century ago, a colorfully dressed, thick-bearded, big-Afroed, angry black man, feted at Cornell and praised to high heaven in an eight-page spread in Ebony magazine, the Bible of middle-class and working-class black America, Don L. Lee turned his back on what might have been. And became Haki Madhubuti
It wasn’t a sacrifice. Black empowerment had been his lodestar since his teenage years, and, already he’d begun to put down roots among his fellow blacks in Chicago, even though, because of his light skin — his memoir is titled YellowBlack — he felt not fully accepted.
“As an outsider within my own community, I was never black enough,” Madhubuti tells me, as he looks back on his half century devoted to the black community. “I decided what I can do to deal with this is I will out-work you and build something.” And what he has built are black institutions that have outlasted virtually all others created in that more optimistic earlier era.
In 1966, well before he’d gotten to Cornell, Don L. Lee had self-published his first book of acrid, street-accented free verse Think Black and hawked it on street corners. In its opening poem, he wrote: “America calling/negroes./can you dance?/play foot/baseball?/nanny?/cook?/needed now, negroes/who can entertain/ONLY/others not/wanted/(& are considered extremely dangerous)”
A year later, in December, 1967, he used the $400 honorarium from a reading he gave to buy a mimeograph machine and, with the help of poets Carolyn Rodgers and Johari Amini, establish his own publishing house in his basement apartment in the West Englewood neighborhood.
Over the next half century, Third World Press became the largest, most successful and longest-operating black press in the U.S., bringing to print more than 300 books of all genres written by black writers about black issues for black readers — and shaping the debate over what it means to be black in America.
Indeed, last year at one of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Third World Press, Ta-Nehisi Coates, bestselling author of Between the World and Me and writer of the Black Panther comic books, told the audience, “There were numerous times throughout the course of my childhood and early adulthood…when books [written] by Brother Haki directly and published by Brother Haki were central to me.”
Those books, he said, “made me possible.”
His father, W. Paul Coates, who was inspired by Madhubuti’s example and writings to establish his own black publishing house in the 1970s, Black Classic Press, asserts that, by providing a forum for black thinkers, Madhubuti’s impact on African-American culture has been “as significant as Motown.”
More than a million copies of Madhubuti’s 1991 book of essays Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? — The African American Family in Transition are in print with hundreds of thousands circulating in American prisons. Another Third World Press title, The Covenant with Black America, a 2006 collection of essays by a range of African American scholars and leaders, including Cornel West and Marian Wright Edelman, was the first title from a black press to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.
Third World Press has published books on the Million Man March and the Los Angeles riots and, in 2017, one on Donald Trump, titled Not Our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America. It has brought to print works by novelists Ishmael Reed and Gloria Naylor, sociologist St. Clair Drake and actress Ruby Dee. — and, in 1987, the groundbreaking reexamination of black history by Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.
For the last two decades of her life, Gwendolyn Brooks published all her books with Third World Press. Other poets for the Press include Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scott-Heron, the poet laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile and Askia Toure whose Dawnsong! has been described as the manifesto of the Black Arts Movement.
And, of course, Madhubuti’s own work. His books of essays, and his memoir YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life which Reed praises as “one of the great African-American autobiographies, on a par with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man [by James Weldon] and Up from Slavery [by Booker T. Washington].” And his poetry, such as his 2004 book Run Toward Fear which includes the poem “For the Consideration of Poets.” It opens with the lines, “where is the poetry of resistance, the poetry of honorable defiance.”
Those are words that sum up the work of the Third World Press and Madhubuti’s life and philosophy. He has no interest in writing confessional poetry and no respect for poetry produced “for art’s sake.”
From his beginnings as a published writer and as a publisher, he has lived by the credo of producing “art for the people’s sake” — political art, art that wrestles with white supremacy, art that’s knee-deep in what, back in the 1960s, was called “the struggle.” Fashions have changed over the past half century, and Madhubuti today looks like any mildly successful middle-class retiree. But he’s not at all retired, and he remains committed to “the struggle.” As he writes at the end of the “Consideration” poem, he looks around and wonders:
“where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion/not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,/not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises,/not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic clown talk?”
Madhubuti, insistent, earnest, unbending, is still writing “the poetry of resistance, the poetry of honorable defiance,” and, in one form or another, so are the authors he publishes.
All the rest is “clown talk.”
“If you don’t know who you are,
someone else can name you
— and they will.”
In April, the seemingly endless string of shootings of unarmed blacks by police across the United States is much on the minds of the high school and college students who take part in the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Festival in a meeting room at Chicago State University where Madhubuti used to teach.
“Too much bloodshed” is a key phrase from the poem read by Reshay Ingram. She’s working at Chicago State on a master’s degree in fine arts for creative writing, with a concentration on black literature — the only such program in the nation and one that was established by Madhubuti.
Next is undergrad Jeremiah Moore who offers a poem that ends: “Like our nation, I just want to live my life,/Not be followed and shot, after I leave a gas station.”
After listening to this poetry, Madhubuti is called up to the podium to receive an award. Flashing a shy smile that hints of the small boy he once was, he is a study in tans and muted colors, from his African kufi to his dark sport coat, light slacks and tweed vest. His skin, too, is a coffee-with-cream tone, a lightness inherited from his mother for whom it turned out to be deadly. (Several times over the previous months, Madhubuti has talked to me about how problematic skin color has been for him, but always adding that one of his philosophical mentors W.E.B. DuBois was even lighter.)
“The black people of this country,” he says to the eighty or so poets gathered for the festival, “we all have horror stories. The task is not only to rise above our own horror stories but also the expectations of others. You’ve got to embrace the idea of liberation. If you don’t know who you are, someone else can name you — and they will.”
Liberation, for Madhubuti, is for blacks to take control of their lives. To define themselves in whatever way they want, regardless of what white society says. To follow the example of Brooks, the Chicago-based Pulitzer Prize-winning poet he describes as his cultural mother.
It is her strength and kindness that he recalls for the young poets in reading his new poem “Gwendolyn Brooks: America in the Wintertime,” published in a recent issue of Poetry magazine.
Confronted by modern America — “In a moment of orangutans, wolves, and scavengers…of liars, thieves, and get-over artists” — he writes: “you were honey and yes to us,/never ran from Black as in bones, Africa,/blood and questioning yesterdays and tomorrows,/…creating earth language, uncommon signs and melodies,/and did not sing the songs of career slaves.”
“I would have to tell him
to put [the book] away: ‘This is a date.’ ”
Madhubuti and the woman who became his wife met cute.
It was late 1967, and Carol Easton was teaching at a South Side high school while also working on her master’s degree in education at the University of Chicago. To her surprise and delight, she learned that her principal had invited Don L. Lee to speak at the school. “My thesis was on the Black Arts Movement, and here comes the Black Arts Movement to speak at my school,” she tells me.
The Black Arts Movement was the greatest — and most controversial — flowering of African-American artistry since the Harlem Renaissance. Fueled by the teachings of Malcolm X, it was the reflection of the politics of Black Power in poetry, painting and all the other arts, and Chicago was a hotbed of creativity. The famed guerilla mural called The Wall of Respect, asserting a fierce black pride and launching the neighborhood mural movement across the nation, was painted on the bricks of a rundown South Side building. Two poets read at the dedication of the wall: Gwendolyn Brooks and her protégé, the foremost Black Arts Movement writer in the city, the 25-year-old Don L. Lee.
Throughout his poem Lee refers to the artwork as “the mighty black wall” and notes: “whi-te people can’t stand/the wall,/killed their eyes (they cry)/black beauty hurts them–/they thought black beauty was a horse…”
Later in the year, when Lee showed up at Easton’s school, he turned out to be not only handsome but also something of a ladies man. He made sure to ask her for her number. But she noticed something else. And, when he called, she chided him, “You got those other ladies’ numbers, too.” “Yeah, but I called you.”
The couple married in 1974. Shortly after that, Lee asked a committee of friends to give him a new African name, and, ever since, he has been known as Haki R. Madhubuti. The name is from the Swahili language: Haki, meaning “just” or “justice,” and Madhubuti meaning “precise, accurate and dependable.” The middle initial stands for “rising.” For her career as an educator and eventually as a Northwestern University professor, his wife has been known as Carol Lee, but she also was given an African name by the committee: Safisha Madhubuti. Safisha in Swahili means “to make clean and correct.”
From the start of their romance, Easton learned that books were at the core of her suitor’s life. “In his basement apartment, he had books everywhere. He had books in the bathroom! We would go to a restaurant or to a movie, and, while we were waiting, he’d take out a book. I would have to tell him to put it away: ‘This is a date.’ ”
There’s more to this than Madhubuti being a nerd — although he definitely is one. He doesn’t smoke, drink or get high, and he never has. He’s not one for letting off steam with late-night partying. He’s so serious that he’s been called ascetic.
“He had a very difficult childhood,” his wife says. “His love of books is very much influenced by his traumas as a child. Books are an escape for him. Books are deeply personal. They’re not just intellectual. From his teenage years, books have been a way for him to reap meaning out of bad situations.”
“You feel guilty
about being black”
“I grew up a Negro. My self-hatred was off the charts.”
Madhubuti is saying this to a gathering of South Side black ministers, business people and community leaders in a church auditorium, but most in the audience have probably heard it before.
For five decades and more, in his essays and poetry, in his speeches and interviews, he has summarized his childhood this way. Covering Madhubuti as a Chicago Tribune reporter and later as a freelance writer, I’ve certainly heard it often enough from him.
Yet, the broad brushstrokes account of this experience, as well as others Madhubuti often tells, don’t give the full story. The details, pieced together from many sources, including Yellowblack, portray an appallingly traumatic childhood, an abyss from which it’s difficult to imagine anyone surviving to live a productive life.
In 1963, Madhubuti wrote a poem titled “The Self-Hatred of Don L. Lee” in which he focuses on the perverse pride he’d had as a child in his light skin. It begins: “I,/at one time,/loved/my/color–/it opened sMall/doors of/tokenism/&/acceptance./(doors called “the only one” & “our negro”)/…”
By that time, he’d grown to loathe that light-skin pride and how it reflected his shame at being black.
“You feel guilty about being black,” Madhubuti tells me as we sit in his comfortably crowded, book-filled (of course) office in the headquarters of Third World Press at the northern edge of the middle-class African-American neighborhood of Chatham. “That’s what white oppression does. It makes the oppressed feel they’re the problem. The culture seasons you.”
It was an era in which the popular adage was “white is right, yellow is mellow, brown stick around, and black step back.” So, Maxine Lee’s light skin and white features opened doors for her — the wrong doors.
While her two children were home alone, Maxine was working nights at Sunnie Wilson’s Forest Club, a huge black-owned night club and entertainment complex. She had such a following there that she was voted Miss Barmaid of Detroit, 1948. Even so, money was tight and got tighter all the time as she found herself sucked into dependency on booze and narcotics. For her son and daughter, it was holy hell.
To feed her habit and feed her children, Maxine was servicing a seemingly endless stream of black and white men-of-the-cloth from virtually every religious faith as well as a host of other men similarly drawn to her. Not only did sex bring in money, but it also gave her a momentary physical high and the fleeting feeling of being cherished.
At home with her children, she was not the sort of mother to cuddle with. Her son didn’t go to her if he cut his finger. He didn’t cry on her shoulder.
“Our talk was primarily about survival,” Madhubuti tells me. “About where to get money, how to pay the rent. There was no joy in my childhood at all, just trying to survive. That’s why I became so serious.”
The young boy worked every job he could find, even during the school year, working four or more hours a day, delivering newspapers, working in the school cafeteria, cleaning up a tavern where, at twelve, he witnessed a murder for the first time.
The family’s apartment was an emotional desert for the young boy, and so was the Detroit’s East Side. What was worse for someone who was thoughtful and intelligent and naturally reserved, his was a life filled with a constant clamor.
“I wanted quiet in my life more than love,” he writes in YellowBlack. “I had tired of noise. The noise of public school, the parties of never-ending weekends, the hurt and confusion of verbal and physical fights that closed most days and, most of all, the noise in my own head that had few answers for the angry, debilitating confusion of a non-functioning family, always in need, always on the verge of collapsing.”
In addition, young Don L. Lee felt himself ostracized by many in the black community because of his mother’s prostitution and the family’s grinding poverty. One time, outfitted completely in resale-shop clothes, he attended a dance at the church next door, only to be ridiculed by the middle-class kids. “You know you’re poor,” he tells me, “when you’re wearing second-hand underwear.”
As time went on and his mother’s deterioration accelerated, roles were reversed. “I was her protector,” Madhubuti tells me. Mornings when he awoke to find that his mother had not gotten home the night before, he’d go out into the streets to search local hotels and rooming houses for her.
Sometimes, Maxine would bring tricks home for a night or a longer stay. In one case, her son says, “She had done something, and the man who was living with us started slapping her. I grabbed a butcher knife and said, if he ever did that again, he would not live out the night. I was twelve or thirteen.”
When young Don Lee would find Maxine after a morning search, he’d often be physically confronted by the man who’d spent the night with her and didn’t want her to leave. He took to carrying a lead pipe in his belt. But he apparently didn’t have it with him on the day he tracked down the gang leader who had gotten his fourteen-year-old sister pregnant. Without a word, he punched the man and, in retaliation, was beaten nearly unconscious by the gang. When he arrived home, Maxine beat him herself — for letting himself be whipped.
Throughout his teenage years and young adulthood, anger and violence were always just beneath the surface.
In fact, later, disillusioned as the only black junior executive at Chicago-based Spiegel catalogue company, Madhubuti moved quickly to end a physical confrontation with a white colleague.
“For the first time, I was reading literature
that was not an insult to my personhood”
The turning point of Madhubuti’s life came when he was fourteen and his mother sent him to the public library for a book. He doesn’t remember her being much of a reader, but, for whatever reason, she asked him to stop in the library to pick up for her a copy of Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy.
“Black Boy saved my life,” he tells me. “It slapped me on every page I read, especially in the misery I was experiencing.”
His story about that trip to the library is another one he tells frequently, one he’s told thousands of times over the past half century. But it’s the details that give a deep insight into what makes Madhubuti tick and why his career has taken the arc it has.
Already, young Don L. Lee was a reader. He’d read the newspapers he delivered. He’d read comic books, and he’d go to the library, take a book almost at random off a shelf and sit there reading it. “I had a library card, but, when I would go to the library, I would never have to interact with the white librarian,” he tells me as we sit in the Third World Press conference room after the weekly business meeting. “I would just read the book there.”
He was ashamed of his blackness and ashamed that the book’s title included the word “black.” And the young teen knew in a vague way that Wright was a black man who was critical of white America, something he was sure the white librarian would know as well.
So, when he found a copy of Black Boy, instead of checking it out, he skulked to a table where he started to read. And he couldn’t stop reading.
“For the first time, I was reading literature that was not an insult to my personhood,” he tells me. “I was reading sentences and paragraphs about me, about us. He was dealing with ideas about us.”
Suddenly, he wasn’t so ashamed before the white librarian. He checked out the book and kept reading it through the night until he’d finished it. And he never looked back.
Black Boy launched Don L. Lee on an odyssey of reading every black thinker and writer he could get his hands on. The rest of Wright’s books, of course, but also DuBois and Langston Hughes and philosopher Alain Locke and historian Joel Rogers and singer Paul Robeson.
He had found a new family — everyone in the world who was black. At least, everyone who accepted their blackness and found pride in their African roots and communal culture, every black person who wasn’t a Negro. A few years later, in “Wake-Up Niggers” in his first book, Lee would sarcastically respond to the frequent brag of middle-class blacks that they were part-Indian by writing, “have you ever/heard tonto say,/’i’m part negro?’/(in yr/mama’s dreams)….”
In October, 1960, Lee was reading Robeson’s autobiography Here I Stand when, as an 18-year-old recruit, he arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for Army boot camp. (This is another oft-repeated story.)
Lining up the 100 or so new men, only three of whom were black, the drill sergeant spotted Robeson’s resolute face on the cover of Lee’s book, and, snatching it out of his hands, he shouted, “What’s your Negro mind doing reading this black Communist?!” Holding the book high above his head, he proceeded to rip it apart, handing each recruit a page to use as toilet paper.
“After that, I decided three things,” Madhubuti says. “I’m a black man, and I’m never going to apologize for that again. I realized the importance of ideas. Ideas run the world. And I’m not going to be digging ditches. I’m going to be part of the intellect business.”
Lee’s two-year, eight-month Army tour was not without incident. He tells the story of white recruits who, during a field exercise, targeted him for a beating in the middle of the night.
“This white guy and I were in a small tent,” he tells me. “These guys came after me, and they knocked the pole out and the tent fell on us. I grabbed the white guy and pulled him on top of me, and they broke his back. They were hitting us with trench shovels. They airlifted him out.”
Even so, most of any soldier’s time is spent dealing with boredom, and Lee used his down time for a self-taught seminar on black literature and white literature and any subject that caught his eye. He read whatever he could get his hands on — and he read it fast, using the same Evelyn Wood speed-reading methods that had been employed by President John F. Kennedy.
“The motto of the Army was to hurry up and wait,” Madhubuti says. “So, I waited with books.
“I’m not anti-white; I’m anti-evil.
A good majority of white people are suffering like we are.”
Today, Madhubuti remains as radical as ever, and, unlike many other 1960s black nationalists, he continues to preach the need to create black institutions to serve the black community — and to practice what he’s preached.
Indeed, he’s trumpeted black self-realization so loudly and so long that he is accused by some whites of being “too black.” For someone whose light skin tone has always been problematic, this is an ironic charge to face.
“Can a person be too white?” he says to me. “If I was an Irish or Jewish or Italian poet who chose to work in my community, would that be held against me? I’m not anti-white; I’m anti-evil. A good majority of white people are suffering like we are.”
Perhaps the closest parallel to Madhubuti is the 99-year-old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Not only is he the co-founder of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as well as the work of other major mid-century poets and writers, but he’s also a vocal proponent of social causes. Even so, Ferlinghetti is one of many artists engaged in progressive campaigns. By contrast, Madhubuti is unique in the black community in his roles as an artist and institution builder.
Some of Madhubuti’s projects, such as the Black Books Bulletin, a community farm in Michigan, a credit union, a food co-op and three bookstores specializing in black literature, have prospered for a time and then withered.
By contrast, Third World Press has survived five decades of financial challenges, including a near-death experience in 2008, and so has another major undertaking: the Institute of Positive Education, a community group that he and his wife began with a group of friends in 1969.
The group’s main focus today is on its two elementary schools — one named for Barbara Sizemore, the first African-American woman to head the public school system in a major city (Washington, D.C.), and the other for Betty Shabazz, civil rights advocate and widow of Malcolm X — and its New Concept School for pre-kindergarten children. The schools offer an Afro-centric curriculum and, over the decades, have educated thousands of black students, including one preschooler named Kanye West.
Kanye’s mother, Donda, knew Madhubuti well. They were friends and colleagues at Chicago State, but her first experience with him was back in 1969 in his Don L. Lee days.
As West explained to me in an interview in 2000, seven years before her death, she was a freshman at Virginia Union University, a small, historically black Baptist school in Richmond, when Lee went there to speak. “He read his poetry and answered questions,” she said, “and it was so powerful and made such an impact that, the next day, we took over the administration building.”
It wasn’t that the poet had told them to seize any buildings. He just listened to their complaints about such school rules as one requiring women to wear white gloves on Sunday, and simply told them that, if they didn’t take a stand, they wouldn’t see any change.
Throughout his career, Madhubuti has written more than 30 books, all from black publishers — initially, the Detroit-based Broadside Press and then Third World Press. More than half of those books have been essays, and he has been honored as a publisher, educator and theorist.
Nonetheless, Madhubuti tells me, “I see myself primarily as a poet because none of this would have happened if I wasn’t a poet.”
“black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblacek was
black daybeforeyesterday blacker than ultrablack…”
Don L. Lee began writing poetry in high school, but, if spotted by a friend, he’d say they were lyrics for a song. He played trumpet at house parties and in school bands. He was a good enough horn player to be offered a college scholarship, one he couldn’t accept because he couldn’t cover the other costs. “I was decent,” he tells me. “I could read music, but I couldn’t improvise.”
That musical background as well as his deep love of jazz, particularly the work of John Coltrane, has always been evident in his poetry, such as “Gwendolyn Brooks,” the first of many poems he would write about his literary mentor and surrogate mother.
The 1969 poem opens with Lee quoting from various reviewers describing Brooks, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, as “a fine negro poet” and “a credit to the negro race.” It concludes, though, that she is as much a black poet as the young writers coming out of the Black Arts Movement, learning from them as they learn from her.
In between is this jazz-flavored riff about what comes from the ball-point pens of such poets, beginning with these five lines: “black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblacek was/black daybeforeyesterday blacker than ultrablack super/black blackblack yellowblack niggerblack blackwhi-te-man/blackerthanyoueverbes ¼ black unblack coldblack clear/black my momma’s blackerthanyourmomma pimpleblack fall/so black we can’t even see you black on black….” And so on for eight more lines.
Lee displayed in “Gwendolyn Brooks” and many of the poems a deep faith in blackness — black culture, black beauty, black unity. That faith as well as a jazzy swagger is also on display in Madhubuti’s 1996 poem “The B Network,” which opens with a description of “brothers” in prisons and addicted to drugs within the oppressive American culture.
Nonetheless, the poem goes on, African-American men need to rise above such oppression: “the critical best is that/brothers better be the best if they are to avoid backwardness/brothers better be the best if they are to conquer beautiful bigness/Comprehend that bad is only bad if it’s big, Black and better/than boastful braggarts belittling our best and brightest/with bosses seeking inches when miles are better./brothers need to bop to being Black & bright above board…”
In its final lines, the poem urges black men to work toward a new beginning “while be-boppin to be better than the test,/brotherman./better yet write the exam.”
That’s the sort of punchline that concludes many of Madhubuti’s poems, including one of his most popular “In the Interest of Black Salvation.” Written in 1968, the poem is a send-up of the search for spiritual meaning within organized religions, and it concludes with lines that were widely repeated, even by many who weren’t familiar with the full poem:
“Father forgive us for we know what we do./Jesus saves/Jesus saves,/Jesus saves S & H Green Stamps.”
Like “In the Interest of Black Salvation,” all of Madhubuti’s poems send a message. They exhort blacks to be strong and united and to take responsibility for their own lives. And many describe specific approaches to a better life, such as his 2004 prose poem “Art” which he often reads in public, especially to young people.
In the second of the poem’s three sections, every line ends with the word “art.” This permits Madhubuti to turn the section into a call-and-response chant with the audience joining him for the word “art” at the end of those lines: “Magnify your children’s mind with art,/jumpstart their questions with art,/introduce your children to the cultures of the world through art,/energize their young feet, spirits and souls with art,/infuse the values important to civil culture via art,/keep them curious, political and creative with art,…”
“What comes to mind is
I’m still alive”
Madhubuti often says that art saved his life. Yet, it wasn’t art as in Shakespeare, Beethoven and Rembrandt. It was black art — Richard Wright’s Black Boy, black literature, black music and Gwendolyn Brooks.
He was saved because art provided him with the vehicle with which to embrace all of his black brothers and sisters as his family, a family that has its flaws and “horror stories” but, unlike Maxine’s, a family that also has brought him hope and love.
For one of our interviews, I bring along a couple dozen photos of Madhubuti throughout his career, from him as a tall, thin soldier in dress uniform, to the poet wearing a khaki jacket and reading his work in Washington Park, to the publishing executive with a receding hairline.
He pages through them one by one, not saying much.
When he finishes, I ask him what he’s thinking.
“What comes to mind is I’m still alive,” he says.
“I’m still published, still have people across the country who care about me, and we have been a part of something that’s lasted fifty years.”
And still counting.
Patrick T. Reardon