Haki R. Madhubuti Critical Essays

Don Luther Lee


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.”

Think Black

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.

Black Pride

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...

(The entire section is 3871 words.)