Active Voice: Out of the Black Arts Movement Into the Classroom

Dec 1, 2008

Haki Madhubuti
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Poet. Publisher. Professor. Editor. Essayist. Activist. All these titles fit Haki Madhubuti, who is about to celebrate his 25th anniversary at Chicago State University, where he is a distinguished professor and the director emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing.

Brooks, the late poet laureate of Illinois, was a mentor to Madhubuti, who describes her as his “cultural mother.” He was at the Pulitzer Prize winner’s bedside, holding her hand, when she died in 2000 at 83. “I loved Gwendolyn Brooks. She was like a mother to me.” One of the professor’s current goals is to see that the new $40 million library at Chicago State be named for Brooks, who wrote in her introduction to a book of Madhubuti poetry: “He speaks to blacks hungry for what they themselves refer to as “real poetry.” 

Madhubuti, 66, is influential in his own right as a poet and as the publisher at Chicago-based Third World Press, says current Poet Laureate Kevin Stein. Madhubuti started the press in 1967 with $400 he gathered from poetry readings. Now housed in a former rectory in Chicago’s south side Grand Crossing neighborhood, Third World Press has printed more than 400 titles — 11 by Brooks and 28 by Madhubuti, including his Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The Afrikan Family in Transition, a book of essays that has sold more than 1 million copies.

“When you talk about him as poet, his own work is outstanding, of course, but he’s a guy who as an editor and a teacher has greatly affected poetry across the U.S., particularly poetry in Chicago and poetry of minorities in a very significant way. He’s a pretty interesting mix of talent,” Stein says of Madhubuti, who has received a National Book Award and recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“More importantly,” Stein says, “Haki has been involved from the beginnings with the black arts movement.” 

The black arts movement, generally pegged by literary critics as the decade between 1965 and 1975 (though Madhubuti contends it hasn’t ended), is closely associated with the civil rights and black power movements. It was during that period that Madhubuti — then writing under his birth name, Don L. Lee — had his first big success: The book of poems Don’t Cry, Scream, published in 1969, sold 50,000 copies. Madhubuti was featured in an article in Ebony magazine the same month the book was released that identified him as the first black poet-in-residence at an Ivy League university, Cornell in Ithaca, New York. “Of course the book just took off after that,” says Madhubuti.

The Ebony article featured some of the poems from the book. The following is an excerpt from the poem from which the book gets its title:

(for John Coltrane/ from a black poet/
in a basement apt. crying dry tears
of “you ain’t gone.”)

into the sixties
a trane
came/ out of the
fifties with a
golden boxcar
riding the rails
of novation.
                            driving some away,
                            (those paper readers who thought
                            manhood was something innate)

                            bring others in, 
                            the few who didn’t believe that the
                            world existed around established whi
                            teness & leonard bernstein)

music that ached.
murdered our minds (we reborn)
born into neoteric aberration
& suddenly you envy the 
BLIND man—
you know that he will
hear what you’ll never

                  your music is like 
                  my head — nappy black/
                  a good nasty feel with
                  tangled songs of: 
                            we-eeeeeeeeee                   sing
                            WE-EEEeeeeeeee                loud &
                            WE-EEEEEEE EEEEEEEEEE high 
                                                                      feeling …

Often his poems were about the civil rights and black power figures of the day: Malcolm spoke/ who listened, Re-Act for Action (for brother H. Rap Brown):

                  … re-act
                  NOW niggers
                  & you won’t have to
                  your/children’s graves…

“I became known as a street activist in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Madhubuti, whose poetry first got exposure when he read at rallies for organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (which H. Rap Brown led) or the Congress of Racial Equality. 

“I would and others [would] read poetry in the streets, bars and taverns or in community centers — whenever we could — during the movement at rallies and so forth.’’ Like other figures in the black power movement, he has long identified himself as a black nationalist, one who advocates for a separate black government. “That’s how I got known. That’s how I sold my books. I got known first by carrying the books with me and selling the books wherever I read.’” At those events he met such civil rights leaders as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and SNCC founders and Black Panther militants Stokely Carmichael and Brown.

As a publisher, Madhubuti printed the works of such poets of the black arts movement as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Mari Evans. His connections to the writers of the black arts movement helped him to draw such well-known poets to the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference at Chicago State. Other authors participating have included Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Nikki Giovanni and Cornel West.

“I did not realize at 21 that I was running on the same track as LeRoi Jones soon to be Amiri Baraka and that he and the black arts movement would help to define my mission in life,” Madhbuti writes in the epilogue to his memoir YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life. “It was this movement — its intellectual center; its passionate hunger for liberation and justice; its bonding of us to Africa, Africans and the best they had to offer; its rallying cry for independence, self-defense and self-reliance — became my life’s work.” 

Some of the other black arts movement writers have been slammed by critics as misogynist or homophobic, but Madhubuti is an unabashed feminist, says Heather Andrade, an English professor at Florida International University in Miami who has written about the poet. “There is a clear commitment to the empowerment of women, and that commitment was articulated early during the black arts movement and has persisted today.”

Much of Madhubuti’s writing is a call to black men to become good husbands and fathers. Andrade notes that in his book of essays, Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Exceptional Black Men, Madhubuti calls for “men to become actively engaged against rape and other kinds of abuses toward women.”

Madhubuti, who hosted a meeting at Third World Press for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, says of being a role model for black men: “I try to be. I have children. I have sons. I always wanted to be a good father. Trying to be a good father and a good husband, I graduated into being a good man.”

Indeed, he has come a long way from his impoverished Detroit-area childhood, which was marred by his mother’s death in 1959 when he was just 16. In YellowBlack, he describes his mother, whose photo graces the book’s cover, as “being so beautiful that she not only stopped cars, she stopped buses.” He says he spared readers the details of her death because it was so “gruesome.”

“My mother was actually beaten to death,’’ he explains. “My mother was in the sex trade. She just got involved with the wrong person.” 

After her death, he went to Chicago to live with his estranged father, who, Madhubuti wrote in a poem, received him “with pleasure of a bad toothache.” That arrangement didn’t last. Madhubuti ended up seeking refuge in places like the YMCA for a place to sleep and working at a job selling magazines to keep himself fed. Poor and alone, he joined the U.S. Army in 1960. The day he started basic training, he had a harsh lesson: A drill sergeant ripped apart a book he’d brought on the bus, Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand, because it had been written by a black communist.

Madhubuti is not disparaging of the Army, though. “The army was the poor boy’s answer to unemployment, and it still is today.” The GI Bill gave him a way to pay for higher education, which eventually culminated in a masters of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa. He has since taught as a visiting scholar at such institutions as Howard University in Washington, D.C., the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Iowa. He’s also received three honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Spelman College in Atlanta.

“The greatest asset of any person is to develop this unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” says Madhubuti, who with his wife, Northwestern University education Professor Carol Lee, has established four schools, including the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago. A committee related to those schools in 1974 gave him his adopted name: Haki, which means justice, and Madhubuti, which translates into precise, accurate and dependable. The names come from the Kiswahili language, which is spoken in eastern Africa.

Madhubuti also founded the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of Black Descent and the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chicago State, which he says is the only such institution to be centered “around the literature that people of African descent brought into the world.”

“I am the only poet to come out of the black arts movement — I don’t like to say it — to develop these institutions.’”

A vegan who does yoga and cycles, he says he has no plans to retire from any of his roles. “I can’t afford to retire,’’ says Madhubuti, who takes no royalties nor a salary from his press. “We do good work at Chicago State; I love the university.”

Besides, he can’t truly retire from the aspect of his identity that is at his core:
“Poetry drives everything in my life, and that is what I am.”


His Poems:


By Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee)
        it was wild.
        bullet hit high.
                            (the throat-neck)
& from everywhere: 
                    the motel, from under bushes and cars,
                    from around corners and across streets, 
                    out of the garbage cans and from rat holes
                    in the earth

        they came running




        they came running

toward the King—
                                all of them
                                    fast and sure—
        as if

        the King

        was going to fire back. 

        they came running,

        fast and sure,

        in the wrong direction.

DON’T CRY, SCREAM, Broadside Press, Detroit, Mich., 1969


by Haki Madhubuti

was it Duke Ellington
who said that
music was his mistress?
she musta been
wore red, read poetry and prose
could swing naturally,
danced a lot and didn’t need
too much sleep.
Run Toward Fear: New Poems and a Poet’s Handbook. Third World Press, Chicago, Il.: 2004.


by Haki Madhubuti
It is the poets who run toward fear.
They are what we read,
think and speak,
fighting for greater possibilities
than the words of tabloids and broadsheets where
Texas and London compare notes 
as cries of 9/11 loudly emerge out of context
connected to dust on the throats of 
authority and might disguised 
as camouflaged revenge in the night
from small heads of an imperial
news speak.
Back page the greed of Enron, WorldCom
and Halliburton. Clustered
vampires needing fresh blood
rally against a mosquito whose flesh
is dark and oily, slippery and deadly
as our homeland colors are manipulated
between yellow, orange, red and re-election.

Run Toward Fear: New Poems and a Poet’s Handbook. Third World Press, Chicago, Il.: 2004.

Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State
Library: The Naming, June 6, 2003

        your ancestry is book country,
able bones crossing the atlantic ocean to discover
  white pages, protein and protégé in the midland.
in my first days of learning I remember eyeglasses that joined  
     your smile.
  I recall your fingers, long, thin, delicately brown and touchable,
  suited for turning book pages, appropriate for ink sculpturing
                 on paper.
           fingers connected to memory, a people, a culture,
    Chicago and this state.
using the language of 47th street, Springfield and Cambridge,
                 your poetry
  silences us with its narrative love-songs, ripe-sources
    and bone-truths.
  poems that governed the weather, invented eyes the colors
      of wheat, sky, coal,
cabbage, soybeans and yes, creating images out of empty
      pockets, and kitchenettes.
          art that reversed massacred thought, healthy words renouncing
          ignorance, providing a
landscape of glorious literature
emphasizing lineage, liberty and validation.
your discourse is of children, the four seasons:
  poetry that deciphers myths.
  your writing: the impulse to arrive at meaning, life-ringing
      idioms, bright-calm
all accenting wisdom that affirmed in us the kindness
      of your grand spirit,the friendliness of ideas, melodies and soap operas,
of water, sun and clean fire. your language is of
the necessity of carrot juice, broccoli and fattening chocolate,
of solitude, good pens and fine paper,
the labor of writers, poets, musicians and under-fed artists,
of librarians, libraries, books and break-even bookstores,
the support of printers, editors and struggling book publishers,
of book festivals, newspapers, magazines and twice-a-year
the requirement of contemplation, dialogue with others
      and reading on trains,
of legislators thinking outside the prism of dark suits
      and half-stories.

            our ancestry is book country and rich earth,
  galloping souls and skillful deal makers.
we are becoming the portrait of your right words.

Madhubuti, Haki R. Run Toward Fear: New Poems and a Poet’s Handbook. Chicago, IL: Third World Press, Inc., 2004.


Illinois Poet Laureate site


Illinois Issues, December 2008