Black Arts for a Black Audience

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Haki R. Madhubuti (who changed his name from Don L. Lee in 1973) is a militant African American poet, critic, publisher, editor, and spokesperson—the most vocal and best known of the Chicago school of Black Arts writers who emerged in the late 1960’s, and the one of them who has managed to remain in the spotlight as a literary figure.

The focus of Madhubuti’s literary career shifted in the mid-1970’s from writing small books of poetry to lecturing, literary criticism, editing, and publishing, but his advocacy of a separatist, didactic literature—by African Americans, for African Americans, and about the African American experience—has been consistent. Strong denunciation of “whi-te” values and living patterns—and of “Negroes” who choose to adopt them—is axiomatic, especially in Madhubuti’s earlier poems.

Madhubuti’s work as editor and publisher began early, in 1967; from the first, it complemented his work as poet, giving him a platform from which to promote his own works and those of others who share his vision.

Madhubuti was born Don L. Lee on February 23, 1942, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Jimmy L. Lee and Maxine Graves Lee. He attended Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago. After service in the U.S. Army from 1960 to 1963, he returned to Chicago to attend City College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. While in college, Lee worked as an apprentice curator at a museum of African American history while holding jobs as a clerk and as a junior executive for a Chicago corporation.

Early Success

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lee’s quickly established reputation as a radical poet—and his work after 1967 as editor and publisher at Third World Press in Chicago—brought him early “establishment” recognition that moved him out of the business world and into academia: After teaching at Columbia College in Chicago in 1968, Lee held writer-in-residence posts and lectureships at a number of academic institutions. His career was advanced by a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969 and the Kuumba Workshop Black Liberation Award in 1973. He has edited Black Books Bulletin and worked as contributing editor of Black Scholar, Colorlines, GRIOT, and The Zora Neale Hurston Forum. He has also been an executive councilman of the Congress of African People; in 1991, he was made president of the African American Book Centers in Chicago. In 1991, Madhubuti was named Author of the Year for Illinois by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English; he also received the American Book Award in that year. Haki R. Madhubuti has been active in the Black Men’s Movement and has served on the National Commission on Crime and Justice. He has given more than a thousand readings and workshops at colleges, universities, and community centers in the United States and many foreign countries, and his work has been a staple in anthologies of African American poetry since the late 1960’s.

As poet, Madhubuti epitomizes the young African Americans of...

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A Poetic Call to Action

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“Re-act for Action,” also from Think Black, is, like many of Madhubuti’s poems, a series of imperatives to readers. The poem, which uses parallel structure and varied repetition, looks irregular and lively on the page, heightened now and then by visually emphatic capitals such as “BAM BAM BAM” or “re-act/ NOW niggers/ & you won’t have to/ act/ false-actions/ at/ your/ children’s graves.” This poem and “The Primitive” both attack “alien concepts/ of whi-teness” that are antagonistic to Madhubuti’s program: “nigger toms,” “tony curtis & twiggy,” “whi-te actors,” “faggot actions,” “pig-actions,” “T. V. & straight hair,/ Reader’s Digest & bleaching creams,” “reefers & napalm,/ european history & promises.” “The Primitive” charges whites with having taken black people from Africa and “raped our minds” with Christianity, capitalism, and “civilization.” “Re-act for Action” calls on black people to love one another. Some of its lines also suggest violent racial revolt: “re-act to whi-te actions:/ with real acts of blk/action./ BAM BAM BAM.” Madhubuti’s basic theme, conflict, and agenda, then, are set in his early poems: Conventional social roles inhibit the “natural” life of African Americans, who should “love” brothers and sisters while hating “whi-te actions.”

A preface by the noted African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose patronage...

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In Praise of Black Leaders

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In We Walk the Way of the New World, Madhubuti opens with a prose essay and speaks as a black critic. The poet encourages “initiation” rather than “imitation,” praising pioneering African Americans who have “helped create a New Consciousness”—from W. E. B. Du Bois to the “prophet of Islam” Malcolm X and the poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Poems in the volume include several that Dudley Randall picks as representative: “One Sided Shoot-out” is a topical memorial for Black Panthers killed by the police. The poem “Big Momma” ends with this cadence: “at sixty-eight/ she moves freely, is often right/ and when there is food/ eats joyously with her own/ real teeth.” Such lyrical understatement is mostly obscured by more prosaic material. The poem “We Walk the Way of the New World” opens “we run the dangercourse” and proceeds with aphoristic advice such as “the breakfast of champions is: blackeyed peas & rice” and “watch yr/every movement.”

In Dynamite Voices (1971), Madhubuti self-consciously assumes the role of black critic by proceeding to discuss fourteen individual writers. Generally, Madhubuti says, the language of the new black poetry moves “in the direction of actual music” and uses street diction and “its own syntax.” An exploration of the various nuances of “muthafucka” expands his point that “black language . . . is not recorded in a dictionary.” Among the poets whom...

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Turning Inward

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1996, Third World Press published Madhubuti’s GroundWork. While not an autobiography, GroundWork represents a significant portion of Madhubuti’s journey from a boy into a young black man fighting for a meaningful life and empowerment. The book is an unfolding cultural journey through poetry covering the years 1966-1996, which for Madhubuti was an intensely profound period of personal and political struggle. From his birth in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942 to his transformation into a poet committed to the liberation of African people, GroundWork chronicles his unapologetic commitment to blackness in the political and historical context of the African American experience.

In 1998, Madhubuti published Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems. Capturing the essence of what Madhubuti calls “loveships,” Heartlove is about the music of bonding and the drumming of young hearts into a family. It is about memories, poets, bonding, family, internal and external peace, and sustaining long-term relationships through the words and deeds of obligation. Madhubuti organized the book of more than fifty poems into three sections: “Wedding Poems,” “Quality Love,” and “Extended Families.” Within the framework of these categories, he explores myriad topics ranging from the enchanted beat of the dark-rooted, anchored African trees to the cultural gifts of mothers as preventative medicine.

In addition, in...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “A Further Pioneer.” Introduction to Don’t Cry, Scream, by Don L. Lee. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969. Influential preface to Madhubuti’s third collection of poems by Brooks, a well-known poet herself, who likes Madhubuti’s poems’ sharp-tongued beauty and their focus on black life. Brooks calls Madhubuti a pioneer and “positive prophet.”

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Well-indexed book that discusses Madhubuti in the context of the “new” black poetry of the 1960’s. Includes one of Madhubuti’s essays on that topic along with a brief biography.

Madhubuti, Haki R. Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of A Poet’s Life—A Memoir. Chicago: Third World Press, 2005. Multigeneric, experimental memoir that both expresses and recounts Madhubuti’s growth as a poet and an African American man.

Palmer, R. Roderick. “The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni.” In Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Discusses Madhubuti as a “protest poet” who wants readers to “discover blackness.” Quotes heavily from his poems to show how they comment on a variety of subjects, including topical events, women’s liberation, and education.

Randall, Dudley. “Broadside Press: A Personal Chronicle.” In The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd B. Barbour. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970. A poet and editor, Randall clarifies the important relationship between Madhubuti’s career and the rise of independent black presses in the 1960’s. An essay by Madhubuti also appears in the collection.

Turner, Darwin T. Afterword to Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions: Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973-1983, by Haki R. Madhubuti. Chicago: Third World Press, 1984. An admiring tribute to Madhubuti that summarizes the poet’s career, comments on his themes and techniques, and notes the evolution of an “older, quieter voice” in his later works.