The poem was one of many recited by teenagers during the gala in October honoring the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s literary jewel, the Third World Press.
In its rhythms and sharp humor, the poem, written by Haki Madhubuti, captured the spirit of the evening and of the South Side publishing house that he founded.
It was written in the mid-1960s around the time when Third World Press, today the nation’s largest black publishing house, was just getting started, and when Madhubuti was still known as Don L. Lee. Titled “Gwendolyn Brooks,” it honored his mentor, and it reveled in the then-new focus of African-Americans on blackness, including more than a dozen lines like these:
“…black doubleblack purpleblack blue-black beenblack was
black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack super
black blackblack yellowblack…..
so black we can’t even see you black on black in
black by black technically black mantanblack winter
black coolblack 360degreesblack….”
Chicago’s cultural treasure
Most Chicagoans know of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago, but, unfortunately, few realize that Third World Press is one of the city’s cultural treasures.
And all Chicagoans, no matter their color, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation or political preference, benefit from this long-vibrant forum for speaking truth to power.
From the start, the press has brought to readers across the country and across the world important works of African-American literature, commentary and politics by such writers as Sonia Sanchez, Sterling Plumpp, Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron and Tavis Smiley as well as Brooks and Madhubuti. It has published more than 400 books (with more than six million copies in print) dealing with all aspects of the African-American experience.
Started in a basement
Madhubuti was a young poet active in the Black Arts movement in Chicago when he and two others started Third World Press in 1967 with a mimeograph machine in his basement apartment. Now its headquarters are in a former Catholic rectory at 7822 S. Dobson Ave.
Like Brooks, Madhubuti had many chances to leave Chicago and make a bigger splash on the mainstream poetry scene — and make more money. But he stayed. As WVON radio host Cliff Kelley, a former Chicago alderman, noted, a half-century ago, the South Side was filled with thriving cultural institutions and businesses, most of which are now gone. “If all those had been more like Third World Press, we’d have them here today,” he said.
“Strong and black for 50 years”
Not only was it committed to the African-American community, he added, but “Third World Press brought up stuff no one thought would be addressed.” Former WBEZ host Richard Steel added that Madhubuti has kept Third World Press going “strong and black for 50 years.”
Another poem recited at the gala was “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals — never look a hot comb in the teeth,” written by Brooks and published by Third World Press in 1986. It included the lines:
“You never worshipped Marilyn Monroe.
You say, Farah’s hair is hers.
You have not wanted to be white…
But oh the rough dark Other music!
“Our own prophet”
The gala, held at the Parkway Ballroom, 4455 S. King Dr., was the conclusion of a weeklong celebration that included appearances by prominent African-Americans as Sanchez, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Casandra Wilson and Danny Glover. Kelley noted that Madhubuti had insisted that all of the week’s events take place in the black community.
“Haki has been our very own prophet,” said Sara Lomax-Reese, president and general manager of black-owned WURD radio in Philadelphia.
“The collective village”
Glover, one of two honorary chairs of the gala, told the audience of more than 200:
“I am who I am from the collective village that formed me in my life — not only as an artist, but as a human being. It started when I first read the poetry of Don L. Lee.”
Near the conclusion of the evening, Sanchez read several haiku she had written for Madhubuti — and, by extension, for Third World Press. One said:
“You beat your words like Monk beat his notes until they melted into prayer.”
Patrick T. Reardon