Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Critical judgments about Madhubuti’s poetry vary. Those who praise him find value in “his distinct voice as a poet of the Black revolution,” in his “message of good news” to African Americans, and in the lack of an “ironic vision” that keeps his poems “straightforward” and “unpretentious.” Jascha Kessler speaks...

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Critical judgments about Madhubuti’s poetry vary. Those who praise him find value in “his distinct voice as a poet of the Black revolution,” in his “message of good news” to African Americans, and in the lack of an “ironic vision” that keeps his poems “straightforward” and “unpretentious.” Jascha Kessler speaks on the other side for those who judge Madhubuti’s writings harshly:I’ve not seen poetry in Don L. Lee. Anger, bombast, raw hatred, strident, aggrieved, perhaps charismatically crude religious and political canting, propaganda and racist nonsense, yes; and utterly unoriginal in form and style; humorless; cruel laughter bordering on the insane. . . . [I]n Lee all is converted to rant.

Helen Vendler may be right when she says that in Madhubuti’s work “the sardonic and savage turn-of-phrase long present in black speech as a survival tactic finds its best poet.” Jerry B. McAninch’s observation seems concurrently true: “There is no gray in Lee’s world, only black and white, and only black is beautiful.” Clearly, Madhubuti’s ambivalent prophecy that “blackpoems/ will change” finds corroboration in American social and literary history.

After letting it eat at his soul for over forty years, Madhubuti wrote YellowBlack in 2005 as a testimony to his transformation from Don L. Lee to Haki R. Madhubuti. Motivated by his father’s death, in the summer of 2003 Madhubuti began in earnest to write short sketches of the first twenty-one years of life experiences that prepared him for the life of a poet, writer, activist, publisher, editor, educator, husband, father, institution builder, and black man. YellowBlack is the fuel for the second volume of his memoirs. It is the story of his mother and children and the world that claimed them. It is a story of how a light-skinned black man born during the same years as the internment of the Japanese Americans in World War II would emerge into a black poet during the Black Arts movement and become deeply involved with human rights struggles. The book uses prose, prose poetry, free verse, and street riffs to recall valuable lessons from youth to adulthood. From the time he learns the resistance technique of urinating on the Matinee floor; to the lesson from Willie the boxer in the military that an opponent’s size is no match for a winning attitude; to his discovery of the importance of culture by a careful examination of Malcolm X, Madhubuti’s journey to adulthood is one of conflict, peace, and empowerment.

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