Don Luther Lee Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Haki R. Madhubuti (who changed his name from Don Luther Lee to his Swahili name in 1973), was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved to Chicago with his parents Jimmy and Maxine Lee midway through his childhood. After graduating from high school, Madhubuti continued his education at Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. His formal education has been tempered, however, by a wide range of jobs that have increased his rapport with varied classes and individuals within the black community. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1960 to 1963, Madhubuti returned to Chicago to begin an apprenticeship as curator of the DuSable Museum of African History, which he continued until 1967. Meanwhile, he worked as a stock department clerk for Montgomery Ward (1963 to 1964), a post office clerk (1964 to 1965), and a junior executive for Spiegel’s (1965 to 1966). By the end of 1967, Madhubuti’s reputation as a poet and as a spokesperson for the new black poetry of the 1960’s had grown sufficiently to enable him to support himself through publishing and teaching alone.

In 1968-1969, Madhubuti was writer-in-residence at Cornell University. Similar positions followed at Northeastern Illinois State College (1969-1970) and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (1969-1971), where he combined poet-in-residencies with teaching black literature. From 1970 to 1975, Madhubuti taught at Howard University, except for a year at Morgan State College where he was writer-in-residence for 1972-1973. The extensive popular reception of his poetry and the increasing frequency of his social essays made him a favorite if controversial reader and lecturer with black college students across the country. His influence and popularity also enabled him to found, in Chicago, the Institute of Positive Education/New Concept School in 1971. The institute published Black Books Bulletin, for which Madhubuti served as editor and director from 1971 to 1991. He is also the founder, publisher, and chairman of the board of Third World Press, one of the United States’s largest and most successful independent African American book publishers, in operation since 1971. In conjunction with his publishing roles, Madhubuti is also a professor of English and director emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University. Madhubuti has also held important executive positions with a number of Pan-African organizations such as the Congress of African People. Madhubuti’s publishing, editing, teaching, and writing continue to maintain his stature within the Black Nationalist movement.