Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3871
Much of Haki R. Madhubuti’s poetry was initially greeted by outright condemnation on the part of white critics whose standards of aesthetic judgment were antagonistic, to say the least, toward the nationalist assumptions inherent in much of the new black poetry of the 1960’s. Jascha Kessler, for example, in a...
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- Critical Essays
Much of Haki R. Madhubuti’s poetry was initially greeted by outright condemnation on the part of white critics whose standards of aesthetic judgment were antagonistic, to say the least, toward the nationalist assumptions inherent in much of the new black poetry of the 1960’s. Jascha Kessler, for example, in a review in Poetry (February, 1973), said that in “Lee all is converted to rant/ . . ./ [he] is outside poetry somewhere, exhorting, hectoring, cursing, making a lot of noise/ . . . you don’t have to be black for that/ . . ./ it’s hardly an excuse.” Madhubuti’s sociopolitical concerns, in short, were viewed as unfit for poetic rendering, and his urban, rap-style jazz rhythms and phrases in his poems were dismissed as simply disgruntled, militant ravings. Ironically, that sort of reception—and inability to move beyond the parameters of the New Criticism—supported exactly what the new black poets were claiming: White critical standards forced blacks to write as if they were white themselves and thereby denied them their own cultural heritage and suppressed their experience of oppression. Indeed, this is the dilemma in which the young Lee found himself; if he were to “succeed,” he would need (even as a poet) to obliterate his own identity as a black man.
The writings of Amiri Baraka, probably more than any other poet’s, as well as his independent studies in African culture (probably begun at the DuSable Museum), violently ruptured the assumption that accommodation to the dominant culture was the sole means by which blacks could survive in the United States. With the break from accommodationist thought, as Marlene Mosher suggests in New Directions from Don L. Lee (1975), Madhubuti began his struggle to create identity, unity, and power in a neo-African context that would preserve his heritage and experience while creating a possibility for the black community as a whole to free itself from the oppressive constraints of mainstream American culture. Madhubuti progressed from the accommodationist period through a reactive phase, then through a revolutionary program, to a prophetic vision. These four aspects of his poetry are distinct not only in the ideological content of his work, but also in the structure of the poems themselves. Once the prophetic vision had been embraced, it was necessary to begin a pragmatic clarification of that vision; the necessity to describe specifically the new Black Nation led, ironically, to an increasing devotion to prose, and thus Madhubuti’s poetry seemed nearly to disappear—at least in publication—after his book of poems, Book of Life. That the vision of his poetry should result in the suspension of his poetry writing in favor of concrete description was, for those who laud his poetry, a great loss. It is not, however, incomprehensible, for Madhubuti, in urging the embodiment of his poetic vision and in describing how to build that vision in realistic terms, is actually carrying out what he first proposed as the goal of his work: to construct an African mind and to create a Black Nation. One assumes, then, that his activities left little time for him to pursue his poetry. Fortunately, he began again to publish books of poems in 1984.
The period of accommodation in Madhubuti’s work is available only through autobiographical references found in the early poems of the reactive phase. This early “pre-poetic” time is, appropriately, marked by a lack of articulation. Without his own voice, there are no poems, no prose, no statements of any kind. To speak as oneself for one’s community was to react to that accommodation. Madhubuti’s “confession” of that period, therefore, is marked by bitterness, hatred, and condemnation of almost everything he associated with white America, including himself. Several poems in his first book, Think Black, are testimonial as well as vengeful; it is clear in these poems that Madhubuti had been “liberating” himself for several years, and only then was testifying to that personal struggle through accommodation. He was to say later, in “Black Sketches” (Don’t Cry, Scream), that he “became black” in 1963 and “everyone thought it unusual;/ even me.”
Both the accommodationist period and the reactive phase are seen in Think Black, but the point of view is nearly always that of a reaction against accommodation. In “Understanding But Not Forgetting,” Madhubuti speaks of his family life and his “early escape/ period, trying to be white.” Among his images are those of an intellectual accommodationist who “still ain’t hip,” an uneducated grandmother “with wisdom that most philosophers would/ envy,” misery-filled weekends with “no family/ but money,” a twenty-two-year-old sister with “five children,” a mother involved in prostitution but “providing for her family,” and a cheating white newspaper distributor who kept “telling/ me what a good boy I was.” Reexamining his childhood and adolescence in this poem, Madhubuti concludes: “About positive images as a child—NONE,” and further that “About negative images as a child—all black.” In his attempt to understand his social conditioning and view it in the larger context of American culture, he is forced to conclude that education, democracy, religion, and even the “BLACK MIDDLE CLASS” (to which he has aspired) have failed him because of “the American System.” It is, in fact, those very outcasts of the black community itself—the grandmother and the prostitute-mother, who “read Richard Wright and Chester Himes/ . . ./ [the] bad books,” that offer examples of survival against overwhelming oppression.
Madhubuti had not, however, accomplished much more at that time than rejection of the value system that had created his anger and despair: The awareness of how to “think black” is vague. The last poem in the book, “Awareness,” is a chant of only three words: “BLACK PEOPLE THINK.” In the variations of syntactical arrangement of these words, however, one is left with the unmistakable impression that he will struggle to learn from those outcasts of mainstream society just what it does mean to “THINK BLACK.” These lessons are the heart of his second book, Black Pride, which is still reactive but nevertheless substantial in its discovery of identity. Although many of these poems remain confessional, there is an increase in the clarity of Madhubuti’s sociopolitical development. In the brief lead poem, “The New Integrationist,” he announces his intention to join “negroes/ with/ black/ people.” The one-word lines of the poem force the reader to contemplate not only the irony in his use of “integration,” but also the implications inherent in the labels “negro” and “black.” It is an appropriate keynote for the fulfillment of that vague awareness with which his first book ended.
Perhaps the growth in self-identity that characterizes Black Pride begins, paradoxically, most clearly in “The Self-Hatred of Don L. Lee.” The confessional stance of the poet first acknowledges a love of “my color” because it allowed him to move upward in the accommodationist period; it “opened sMall [sic]/ doors of/ tokenism.” After “struggling” through a reading list of the forerunners of cultural nationalism, Madhubuti then describes a breakthrough from “my blindness” to “pitchblack/ . . ./ awareness.” His “all/ black/ . . ./ inner/ self” is now his strength, the basis for his self-identity, and he rejects with “vehement/ hatred” his “light/ brown/ outer” self, that appearance that he had previously exploited by accepting the benefits of tokenism. While Madhubuti had escaped accommodation by this time, he had not yet ceased to react to it; instead of having skin too dark, he had skin too light. He was, as black oral tradition puts it, “color-struck.” He had, however, moved much deeper into the problem of establishing an identity based on dignity rather than denigration.
The growth of identity and black pride still remains, then, a function of what is not blackness instead of what is, or will become, Madhubuti’s new Black Nation. In several poems such as “The Primitive,” Madhubuti describes the loss of black values under American slavery and the subsequent efforts of blacks to imitate their oppressors who “raped our minds” with mainstream images from “Tv/ . . ./ Reader’s Digest/ . . ./ tarzan & jungle jim,” who offered “used cars & used homes/ reefers & napalm/ european history & promises” and who fostered “alien concepts/ of Whi-teness.” His message here is blunt: “this weapon called/ civilization/ . . ./ [acts] to drive us mad/ (like them).” For all his vindictive bitterness, however, Madhubuti addresses himself to the black community more than he does to white America—self-reliance for self-preservation emerges as the crucial issue. As he suggests in the final poem “No More Marching Now,” nonviolent protest and civil rights legislation have been undermined by white values; thus, “public/ housing” has become a euphemism for “concentration camps.” His charge is typically blunt: “you better wake up/ . . ./ before it’s too late.”
Although the first two volumes of Madhubuti’s poems exist in the tension between accommodation and reaction, they do show growth in the use of language as well as in identity and pride. His work, at times, suffers from clichéd rhetoric and easy catchphrases common to exhortation, but it also possesses a genuine delight in the playfulness of language even while it struggles forward in the midst of serious sociopolitical polemic. In his division of “white,” for example, where the one-syllable word is frequently cut into the two-syllable “whi-te” or the second syllable is dropped completely to the next line, Madhubuti demonstrates more than typographical scoring for the sound of his poem, for he displays the fragmentation between ideals and the implementation of those ideals in American culture. In contrast, “Black man” appears frequently as one word, “blackman,” sometimes capitalized and sometimes not—to emphasize the gradual dissolution of the individual’s ego, to suggest the necessity for unity in the community for which he strives. Capitalization, in a similar way, sometimes connotes pride in his use of “BLACK.” At other times, he uses derogatory puns, such as when “U.S.” becomes “u ass.” His models are street language, urban speech patterns, jazz improvisation, the narrative form of the toast, and the general inventiveness of an oral tradition that belongs wholly to black culture.
Don’t Cry, Scream
These early poems continue to develop both thematically and technically in Madhubuti’s next two books, Don’t Cry, Scream and We Walk the Way of the New World, in which he began to outline his revolutionary program. Mosher suggests that these works are consciously much less antiwhite and much more problack in their sociopolitical commitment. Madhubuti’s artistic commitment fused completely with his politics; as he says in the preface to Don’t Cry, Scream, “there is no neutral blackart.” Black poetry is seen as “culture building” rather than as a tool to criticize either white society or blacks who seek assimilation. In this programmatic work, the hate, bitterness, and invective of the earlier two books give way to music, humor, and a gentler insistence on change. The poems are more consciously crafted than previously, but they do not compromise their essentially urgent political fervor.
In perhaps the most widely anthologized poem by Madhubuti, “But He Was Cool or: he even stopped for green lights,” he humorously undermines the stance of black radicals who are far more concerned with the appearance of being a revolutionary than with a real commitment to working for change in the black community. His satire here is more implicit than explicit, for the reader views the “supercool/ ultrablack” radical in “a double-natural” hairstyle and “dashikis [that] were tailor made.” His imported beads are “triplehip,” and he introduces himself “in swahili” while saying “good-by in yoruba.” Madhubuti then becomes more explicit in his satire by dividing and modifying “intelligent” to read “ill tel li gent,” but he quickly moves back to implication by a rapidly delivered “bop” hyperbole that describes the radical as “cool cool ultracool/ . . ./ cool so cool cold cool/ . . . him was air conditioned cool” and concludes that he was “so cool him nicknamed refrigerator.” The dissonance of the last word with the “ice box cool” earlier in the delivery clashes not only in sound, but also in economic and political connotation. This radical is so busy acting the role of a revolutionary that he has been seduced by the very goals of Western culture that Madhubuti is rejecting: money, power, and sex. By his superficial use of gestures, the “radical” has taken himself even further away from an awareness of the real needs in the black community. In the aftermath of riots in “detroit, newark, [and] chicago,” the would-be revolutionary must still be informed that “to be black/ is/ to be/ very-hot.” Despite the humor, music, and wordplay in one of Madhubuti’s most consciously and carefully “aesthetic” poems, the message is still primarily political. Although the poem does react to the shallowness of the radical, it is worth noting that the poem is no longer essentially reactive in its tone; by the very act of informing the radical of his ignorance in the closure of the poem, the implication is established that even this caricature has the possibility of redemption in Madhubuti’s version of Black Nationalism.
Throughout Don’t Cry, Scream, Madhubuti begins to embrace a wider range of sensibilities in the black community while continuing to denounce those who would betray the needs of black people. In “Black Sketches,” he describes Republican Senator Ed Brooke from Massachusetts (then a self-proclaimed liberal advocate of civil rights) as “slashing/ his wrist/ because somebody/ called him/ black,” and portrays the conservative (relative to Madhubuti) Roy Wilkins as the token figure on the television show, “the mod squad.” He is relentless in his attack on black leaders who work within mainstream politics. In another poem, however, “Blackrunners/ blackmen or run into blackness,” Madhubuti celebrates the Olympic medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their Black Power salutes in 1968 during the awards ceremony. One could hardly describe their gesture as revolutionary, but Madhubuti accepts and praises their symbolic act as a sign of solidarity with his own sense of revolutionary change. In other poems, he is equally open to the role of black women, intellectuals, and Vietnam veterans. By the final poem of the volume, he is even willing to concede that the “negroes” whom he has denounced in earlier work may also be receptive to his political message. In “A Message All Blackpeople Can Dig (& a few negroes too),” Madhubuti announces that “the realpeople” must “move together/ hands on weapons & families” in order to bring new meanings “to/ . . ./ the blackness,/ to US.” While not exactly greeting antagonists with open arms (the parenthetical shift to the lower case in the title is quite intentional), his emphasis has changed from the coarse invective found in Think Black to a moral, political force that proceeds in “a righteous direction.” Not even whites are specifically attacked here; the enemy is now perceived as “the whi-timind,” attitudes and actions from “unpeople” who perpetuate racism and oppression. The message, in short, is now much closer to black humanim than it ever has been before: “blackpeople/ are moving, moving to return this earth into the hands of/ human beings.”
We Walk the Way of the New World
The seeds for a revolutionary humanism planted at the close of Don’t Cry, Scream blossom in We Walk the Way of the New World. The flowers are armed to be sure, but in signaling this change, the author’s introduction, “Louder but Softer,” proclaims that the “cultural nihilism” of the 1960’s must give way to the “New World of black consciousness” in which education and self-definition (in the context of the community) will create not noisy, pseudorevolutionaries but self-confident leaders who pursue “real” skills—“doctors, lawyers, teachers, historians, writers”—for ensuring the survival and development of African American culture. Madhubuti’s scope and purpose in this book is no less committed than it has been before, but it is far more embracing, compassionate, and visionary. His concern is the establishment of “an ongoing process aimed at an ultimate definition of our being.” The tone of urgency (“We’re talking about our children, a survival of a people”) remains constant and clear, but its directions have moved completely “from negative to positive.” While the ideas are not new in We Walk the Way of the New World, they do form Madhubuti’s most consciously articulated and poetically designed program: Of the three sections that shape the book, “Black Woman Poems,” “African Poems,” and “New World Poems,” he says, “Each part is a part of the other: Blackwoman is African and Africa is Blackwoman and they both represent the New World.” What is new in the fourth volume, then, is the degree of structural unity and, to a certain extent, a greater clarity in describing the specific meaning of Nguzo Saba, a black value system: “design yr own neighborhoods/ . . . teach yr own children/ . . . but/ build yr own loop/ . . ./ feed yr own people/ . . ./ [and] protect yr own communities.”
The unifying metaphor for the book is the pilgrimage into the New World. Arming the heroic, Everyman figure “blackman” (unnamed because he is potentially any black man in the service of community rather than in pursuit of individual, egotistical goals) with a knowledge of the contrasts between black women who are positive role-models (with their love tied inextricably to black consciousness) and black women who aspire to imitate white middle-class, suburban women, Madhubuti then distinguishes the values of precolonial Africa from those that have become “contaminated” by Western industrialization. Here his emphasis is on rural communalism, loving family life, and conserving natural resources. By the final section, “blackman” has ceased to function as a depersonalized hero and is embodied in the individuality (having derived such from the community) of real black men, women, and children. This section largely recapitulates the themes and messages of earlier work, but it does so in an affirmative tone of self-asserted action within kawaida, African reason and tradition. In the long apocalyptic poem “For Black People,” Madhubuti dramatically represents a movement of the entire race from a capitalistic state of self-defeating inactivity to a socialistic economy in which mutual love and respect result in an ecologically sound, peacefully shared world of all races (although the “few whi-te communities/ . . . were closely watched”). The movement of the poem, symphonic in its structure, is, in fact, the culmination of Madhubuti’s sociopolitical growth and artistic vision to this point.
Book of Life
With Book of Life, Madhubuti introduces little new thought, but his ideas are expressed in a much more reserved political tone and poetic structure. His role is that of the visionary prophet, the wise sage offering advice to the young children who must inevitably carry on the struggle to build the New World that he has described. Indeed, the book’s cover shows a photograph of his own son in the center of a star, and the volume is dedicated to him “and his sons, and their sons.” Throughout the book, photographs of Madhubuti sitting or fishing with his son testify to his affirmation of the future. His introduction still affirms “black world unity” and looks to kawaida as the source of this new African frame of reference, but only six new poems speak explicitly to the political dimensions of his vision. The second section, captioned after the title of the book, is composed of ninety-two meditations that echo Laozi’s Dao De Jing (c. third century b.c.e.). The language is simple but profound; the tone is quiet but urgent; the intended audience seems to be his son, but the community overhears him; the poetics are nearly devoid of device from any cultural context, but the force of the didacticism is sincere and genuine. Madhubuti, thinking of black poets who talk “about going to the Bahamas to write the next book,” denounces those “poets [who] have become the traitors.” It may well be that his sense of betrayal by black artists whom he had expected to assist him in his struggle for the New World and his own growing quietism combined to bring an end to his poetry—at least since the 1973 publication of this work. He seems to have followed his own proverb in Book of Life: “best teachers/ seldom teach/ they be and do.”
Madhubuti demonstrated an astonishingly rapid growth in his poetry and thought—in only six years. With that sort of energy and commitment, it is not surprising that he should do what he has asked of others, shunning the success of the “traitors”: to be and do whatever is necessary for the building of the New World. For Madhubuti, that necessity has meant a turning away from publishing poetry and a turning toward the education of the future generation. One might quite easily dismiss Madhubuti as a dreamer or a madman, but then one would need to recall such visionaries as William Blake, who was dismissed too much too soon.
Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions and Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors
In the 1980’s the growth in Madhubuti’s poetry is clearly evident. A sizable portion of his later poems teach through the impact of artful language, rather than sounding merely teacherly. In Madhubuti’s two poetry collections of the 1980’s, Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions: Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973-1983 and Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors, represent some of his strongest writing as he trusts that his keen observation will yield a bold enough political statement.
For example, in “The Shape of Things to Come,” written about an earthquake in Naples, Italy, he observes: “quicker than one can pronounce free enterprise/ like well-oiled rumors or elastic lawyers smelling money/ plastic coffins appear and are sold/ at dusk behind the vatican on the white market./ in Italy in the christian month of eighty/ in the bottom of unimaginable catastrophe/ the profit motive endures as children replenish the earth/ in wretched abundance.”
Poems from these volumes, such as “Abortion,”“Winterman,” “The Changing Seasons of Life,” “White on Black Crime,” and “Killing Memory” all reflect his increased technical control and subtle political commentary. Poems collected here also show that ideologically, Madhubuti no longer continues to fight all the old battles. Christianity gets a break now, as do some white individuals. He has not, however, wavered in his fundamental commitment to black liberation and in his belief that cultural awareness can ignite and help sustain progressive political struggle. The love in him and for his mission has not diminished. If anything, it has grown.
Ten years after the publication of his previous volume of poetry, Madhubuti produced Heartlove, an elegant collection drawn solely from Madhubuti’s poetry and prose and designed to capture and celebrate the essence of love in marriage, family meditations, caring, commitment, and friendships. Acting as a poetic script for the cast of a wedding—minister, bride and groom, the maid of honor, and the best man—Madhubuti counsels, “rise with the wisdom of grandmothers, rise understanding that creation is on-going, immensely appealing and acceptable to fools and geniuses, and those of us in between.”
Each poem offers words of encouragement and advice to new couples or words of tribute to the lives that have influenced Madhubuti’s. From “Wedding Poems” to “Quality of Love” to “Extended Families,” Heartlove addresses crucial questions about building partnerships and the struggle to preserve community.