Haki Madhubuti reflects on 50 years of cultivating black arts

Haki Madhubuti

Photo by Max Herman

Haki Madhubuti stands in his office at Third World Press, the oldest independent black press in the United States, which he founded in 1967, in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

Poet and educator Haki Madhubuti could easily spend every waking hour repeating “I told you so” when it comes to what’s at stake for black America, but he’s characteristically doing something about it rather than talking about it.

It, in this case, is educating future generations of black children in knowing and loving themselves by operating three South Side schools (two elementary, one preschool), publishing meaningful cultural works by black authors and securing the future of Chicago State University’s Master of Fine Arts program while revitalizing the campus’ annual Gwendolyn Brooks writer’s conference. Madhubuti describes the late poet as his “cultural mother.”

“If you are a whole people, you’ve got to be involved in everything that goes into building whole people … in schools, in books, our education is critical,” the 75-year-old Madhubuti shared during a chat with The Chicago Reporter in a chilled, book-filled room at Third World Press Foundation headquarters on South Dobson Avenue.

The publishing house Madhubuti founded in 1967, with support from Johari Amini and Carolyn Rodgers, is celebrating 50 years of cultivating whole people, particularly black people, but including brown ones, poor whites and anyone outside the full embrace of the monied interests that dominate civic life in these United States. As white supremacy boldly declares a loud and proud space in the public conversation, as it did in the 1950s when he made the Great Migration from Little Rock to Detroit then Chicago, Madhubuti is unwavering in his belief in the necessity of building sustainable black institutions. In these institutions African-Americans “control their own cultural imperatives” in the service of “the healthy replication of themselves”—emphasis on the “healthy” part.

“Look at our community,” he said. “You don’t see serious black businesses in the black community. Most of the serious businesses are franchises, which we don’t own, mom-and-pop stores, a few barbershops and some beauty shops. In terms of serious, I mean even mid-level black businesses that employ, say, 100 people or more. You don’t see anything like that.”

But then, Madhubuti manages to come up with a few: churches, fraternities and sororities, funeral homes — and Third World Press Foundation.

Born of the Black Arts Movement sparked by the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, the press began with $400 and a mimeograph machine that Madhubuti operated from his Englewood apartment on South Ada Street. He started out selling chapbooks on the street for a dollar, deciding to model his business after Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit, which published Madhubuti’s first book, “Black Pride,” with an introduction by Randall, a black poet of note. That, and an intro by Brooks in Madhubuti’s second book, “Don’t Cry, Scream,” was a sort of red-carpet debut for a young poet.

It is auspicious that an institution dedicated to powering the black community’s drive to know and narrate its world is taking stock of its legacy at a particularly polarizing time, marked by racial demagoguery at the highest levels. From debates over Confederate monuments in public areas or the right of professional athletes to protest police brutality and racist public policies without being fired or suspended, the time is ripe for the straight talk for which Third World Press Foundation is known.

Consider the titles published over five decades: Madhubuti’s bestselling “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?”; “The Destruction of Black Civilization,” by Chancellor Williams; and “By Any Means Necessary–Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented,” edited by Herb Boyd, Ron Daniels and Maulana Karenga, the father of Kwanzaa. Or recall the powerful voices amplified by the press, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks, legal scholar Derrick Bell, poet Margaret Walker Alexander and author Chris Benson, the biographer of Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother.

Madhubuti, a poet and essayist, has authored more than 20 books. His career was seeded in the early 1960s, when he was attending college and volunteering at the Ebony Museum, the precursor to the DuSable Museum. Early on, DuSable was cultivated in the Bronzeville home of Margaret and Charlie Burroughs before locating in Washington Park in 1973.

“I was rough, raw and ready to fight everybody trying to write poetry,” said Madhubuti, who is emphatic that poetry, with Brooks’ support, was the catalyst for everything he’s been able to create in the world. “She saw something of value in me.”

A 1969 Ebony magazine account of his appearance (as Don Lee, his given name) at the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh with Brooks captured his manner. Writer David Llorens described “an ingratiating black matron who sought to assure [Brooks] that her works had been well-received. Then, pointing to the wiry, bearded figure walking a few steps ahead, she whispered: ‘But he frightens me.’ ”

Of Brooks’ response, Llorens wrote, “Brevity as a value has roots in Miss Brooks: ‘He should,’ she responded dispassionately, keeping her pace.”

In the current national moment of dueling narratives over the value of blackness and the meaning of American-ness, it’s critical for African-Americans to have a full grip on history and its implications for thriving into the future, Madhubuti said. That includes using whatever resources and talents they have to build institutions, starting young.

“What we try to do in our own way is become decision-makers, and that’s critical because in this country, most people make choices within the parameters of other people’s decisions,” he explained. “But when you find people with money, influence, in control of the structures and institutions, they’re the decision-makers. So how do you become a decision-maker?”

“If you’re in art, you’re a decision-maker because you’re making art,” said Madhubuti, who views creative output as a form of ownership and a building block for institution building. “So for us, it has always been critical to understand that if you don’t own yourself, ownership of anything else is almost out of the question.”

The power of art has driven Madhubuti since he was a teen, when his mother sent him to the Detroit Public Library’s main branch to read Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.” Born in Arkansas, Madhubuti, ne Don Lee, was raised with a younger sister by his mother, a sex worker whose customers included preachers, rabbis and priests.

“I resisted at first, because I basically hated myself. I hated our circumstances, my color, my everything,” he said, describing how he retreated to an “unpeopled” section of the library and inhaled Wright’s prose. “For the first time in my life, I was reading literature that was not an insult to my own personhood. So I finished ‘Black Boy’ in less than, you know, 24 hours. I gave it to my mother and went back and started checking out everything Richard Wright had ever published at that time.

“That was my avenue out,” Madhubuti said. “Arts saved my life. Starting with literary non-fiction, fiction, poetry and then I moved to other areas.”

He needed saving.

Madhubuti’s mother, Helen Maxine Graves Lee, was murdered at age 34 by a customer. He was just 15 then. In a memoir of his early years, “Yellow Black,” Madhubuti describes an existence in which “step-fathers” frequented the family home on the city’s East Side, an existence clothed in second-hand finds and more odd jobs than any boy should shoulder. After completing two years at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (a school for outstanding students), he left his pregnant sister and retreated to Chicago to live with his father, James Lee.

“I ended up staying with him a week until he tried to put his hands on me,” Madhubuti explained about his unwillingness to put up with physical abuse. “I left and went to live in a YMCA on 50th Street and Indiana Avenue and went to Dunbar, finishing a two-year course in one year.”

After high school, Madhubuti enlisted in the U.S. Army. When he came back to Chicago, he attended community college, then Roosevelt University. He caught the eye of Brooks, who “adopted” him after a fashion, encouraging him and writing a recommendation for his first teaching job at Columbia College, one she had vacated. Madhubuti’s academic career supported his publishing pursuits and family life as he, with his wife Safisha Madhubuti, were able to continue the business of institution-building as his teaching took him to Cornell University, Howard University, Chicago State University and his last appointment at DePaul. He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was awarded three honorary Doctor of Letters degrees, the last from Spelman College in 2006.

Through it all, he has remained steadfast in his passion for the arts — he and his wife are passionate collectors of visual arts — and the fate of black people.

“Very few people realize we built the country,” Madhubuti said. “This country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. That’s us. If I had four or five million people to work for me for free, I could build a country, too. This whole system of international capitalism or colonialism that certainly exists in Iraq now and Afghanistan–monopoly capitalism is basically taking a toll on people around the world. It certainly has taken its toll on us.

“But,” he said, “the point always is, what do you do about it?”

On Sept. 30-Oct. 7, the Third World Press Foundation will celebrate 50 years of “serious, serious struggle,” with keynotes, screenings, spoken word events and conversations that include a who’s who of black thought. Special guests include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Danny Glover, Cassandra Wilson, Karenga, Nikki Giovanni and musician Nicole Mitchell. Several Third World Press Foundation authors will be in attendance. 

  • Orlando coombs

    There are serious black businesses in our community. They just don’t have signs saying this is a serious black business. And nor should they cause we can’t be black for a living. But there are a large plethora of black owned businesses doing very well and big huge black owned corporations that most people don’t know about. Atlanta has tons of them. These businesses employ thousands. Are there poor blacks in Atlanta? Yes. But the poor you always among you. But to say we have no real serious businesses is just not true.