Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As he approached his fiftieth year, Haki R. Madhubuti drew on his experiences as an engaged artist, a practicing poet, a social activist, and an African American to gather into the form of a book a series of interlinked essays directly addressed to the most serious problems afflicting the African American community. Writing partly in response and as a complement to the strong voices of such African American women essayists as June Jordan, Bell Hooks, and Maya Angelou, among others, partly as a speaker for a social group underrepresented and often “voiceless,” and partly as a concerned citizen confronting a national crisis, Madhubuti combined in his essays the powerful language of a poet and the perceptions of an intellectual activist in a campaign for social justice and communal pride. In Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Afrikan American Families in Transition: Essays in Discovery, Solution, and Hope, Madhubuti cast himself in one of the most ancient and most important roles for a poet, that of cultural storehouse of his people. As he put it, “I’m a poet in the Afrikan griot tradition, a keeper of the culture’s secrets, history, short and tall tales, a rememberer.” His essays are a teaching text, a source of wisdom, insight, and inspiration built on the considered experience of the author. The structure of the book is developed through the construction of a foundation of knowledge that is based on the study of a wide variety of writers covering an international perspective; Madhubuti concentrates this material into an individual voice.

To avoid the dangerously narrow viewpoint of an exclusively personal essayist, Madhubuti permits his own singular being to emerge gradually through his language and ideas, with a minimum of specific biographic detail. The only essay that offers information about Madhubuti’s life is entitled “Never Without a Book”; the piece is designed to show how important books have been for him and, by extension, to support his essential argument that the book is the most powerful weapon that a people might utilize in a struggle to preserve its cultural heritage. He recalls that from the age of thirteen, when his mother introduced him to Richard Wright’s Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), “seldom has there been a day that I’ve been without a book.” He comments that for a poor boy living in Detroit on “unforgiving urban streets,” books “represented revelation and intellectual liberation,” the twin centers of soul and mind. Like many other street...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)