Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

The range of Haki R. Madhubuti (MAH-dew-buh-tee) as a writer and pioneering publisher justifies the admiring description of him as a “black man of letters.” Born in Arkansas as Don Luther Lee, he was reared by his mother in a Detroit ghetto, where he learned about “pimps, whores and Cadillac...

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The range of Haki R. Madhubuti (MAH-dew-buh-tee) as a writer and pioneering publisher justifies the admiring description of him as a “black man of letters.” Born in Arkansas as Don Luther Lee, he was reared by his mother in a Detroit ghetto, where he learned about “pimps, whores and Cadillac doors” from the city’s streets. His mother worked as a cashier, maid, janitor, and, eventually, prostitute, dying of a drug overdose when Madhubuti was fifteen. He then moved to Chicago to live with relatives; he recalled his teenage years there in the mid-1950’s as a time when he was “very poor and very frightened” but also a time when he discovered Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography Black Boy—the first book he had read, he later commented, that was “talking about me” without being demeaning.{$S[A]Lee, Don L.;Madhubuti, Haki R.}

Unable to find work after graduating from high school in 1960, Madhubuti joined the Army. After a brief marriage, he enrolled in Wilson Junior College upon his discharge in 1963. While studying at Chicago Technical College, he began to do volunteer work in the DuSable Museum, where he met people who were active in the Black Arts and Black Liberation movements of the 1960’s. In 1966, he self-published his first book of poetry, Saint Black, a forty-page paperback. He produced seven hundred copies, which he sold on street corners during the Chicago rush hour. He had been encouraged by Gwendolyn Brooks, whom he met while she was teaching at Wilson Junior College, and his initial venture led to a contract with Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit. Madhubuti’s third book from Broadside, Don’t Cry, Scream—its title taken from a poem expressing Madhubuti’s reaction to the death of the great jazz musician John Coltrane—was very successful, catapulting Madhubuti into a place of prominence in contemporary American poetry.

As Brooks put it, Madhubuti’s poetry brought a “blackening” to the English language. His employment of the vernacular of the black community, its rhythms, images, and syntax—which he combined with a contemporary sense of postmodern American poetics—led to a book of poetry that was new and exciting at the time of its publication and that remains vital and engaging. Encouraged by the success of Don’t Cry, Scream, Madhubuti decided that it was imperative to form a company that would be capable of providing an adequate forum for African American writers. To this end, he established (in his basement) the Third World Press with an initial investment of $400. This visionary gesture succeeded, and Madhubuti continued to work as a publisher and editor in succeeding decades, his mission still one of “correcting history” by killing the rat of racism “with a pen: writing and publishing.”

In accordance with his feeling that he did not “know what the name Don L. Lee meant,” he chose to call himself by the Swahili name Haki (“just”) Madhubuti (“precise, accurate, dependable”) after 1973. During the 1970’s, he was writer-in-residence at Cornell University, Northeastern Illinois State College, and Howard University. He was increasingly involved with the Black Arts movement and was also an active participant in many cross-cultural and international meetings and organizations. In 1974, he married Safisha Hall and began a collaboration that included an extended family as well as artistic and cultural endeavors such as the founding of the Institute of Positive Education for urban black children.

Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions demonstrated Madhubuti’s ability to work in a lyric vein while indicating that the fire and energy of his earlier collections had not diminished. Madhubuti’s prominence as a crucial figure in the African American world was further affirmed by a series of honors and awards during the 1980’s, a time when he completed work for a M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa in 1984 and accepted a professorship at Chicago State University. In 1990, he published a unique hybrid, Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? It combined essays, charts, tributes to black activists and artists, and poems in a powerful, candid, and illuminating examination of the current state of the African American community. The book won the American Book Award in 1991 and had sold more than 300,000 copies by the mid-1990’s, although it had been almost ignored by mainstream reviewers and academics.

Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption celebrated the achievements of African Americans while casting a sharp critical eye on failures in the black community and in the social system of the United States. Madhubuti’s skills with language are employed most effectively in the book’s fourth section, an optimistic, spiritually moving series of statements drawn almost as sermons from a wise, experienced poet/preacher.

In 1998, Madhubuti produced Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems, a collection drawn from his poetry and prose that was designed to capture and celebrate the essence of marital love, family meditations, caring, commitment, and friendships. Each poem offers words of encouragement and advice to new couples or words of tribute to the lives that have influenced Madhubuti. Heartlove addresses crucial questions about building partnerships and the struggle to preserve community.

As an educator, activist, artist, and seer, Madhubuti remains one of the most important members of the black cultural community.

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