He is like a quiet storm on the horizon, powerful, yet wrapped in a cloth of humility, Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti is a scholar, publisher, poet, writer, lecturer, activist, husband, and father. He is a proponent of independent Black institutions and the founder, publisher and chairman of the board of Third World Press, the oldest and largest independent Black-owned press in the U.S. which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. He started his now multi-million dollar publishing house in a modest basement apartment in Southside Chicago’s Englewood district with just $400 earned from poetry readings. Fueled by a dream to make his venture successful, Madhubuti purchased a mimeograph machine and soon he was making books.
Born Donald L. Lee, Madhubuti adopted his Swahili name after visiting Africa back in 1974. The once key member of the powerhouse Black Arts Movement felt the name change would help him achieve a greater sense of self-identification. Haki means “justice” and Madhubuti, “precise, accurate, and dependable.” Madhubuti, who holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and an honorary doctoral degree from DePaul University, always recognized how education is a very vital tool in mitigating most of the challenges faced in life. Married for nearly 45 years to Dr. Carol ‘Safisha’ D. Lee, an Edwina S. Tarry professor of education and social policy, learning sciences and African-American Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, the pair founded the Institute of Positive Education back in 1969 to ensure that young people are exposed to quality learning opportunities that build the breadth of skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world. Out of their educational investment came three South Side schools: New Concept School, The Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools, and Barbara A. Sizemore Academy.
As an author, Madhubuti’s 1969 controversial and powerful verse collection, Don’t Cry, Scream put him on the map. The latest of the over 20 books he’s authored which was co-edited with Lasana D. Kazembe, Not Our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America is a call-to-action for a progressive awakening, more critical thinking, and includes about 30 contributors who write about Number 45.
Dr. Madhubuti took time out of his busy schedule to share with 50BOLD some much-needed truthspeak for our people.
50BOLD: What inspired you to co-edit Not Our President?
Madhubuti: When Trump was elected, I feared for the worse and the worse has come about. He’s not only incompetent, corrupt, a white supremacist; he’s a sexist to the bone. I wrote an essay back in December that was published about 45. I decided, along with Dr. Lasana Kazembe that we should do a book.
At that point, we put out a national call for essays and they poured in. It was an act of urgency. And it was an act of love to show that there was a body of Black men and women, as well as others, who indicate to the clear majority (that they should be) against or need to be against his presidency.
50BOLD: What is your message of wisdom that you would like to deliver to Black youth right now?
Madhubuti: The major problem facing not only Black communities but the general population in the United States, and even the world, is ignorance. Early on in life, young people have to understand the critical importance of reading, study, of thinking, meditation. Learn to love learning. Learn to love oneself. Understand that in the western world, Black people are seen as the outsider, the bottom.
We have been fighting for our humanity ever since we arrived here. We ended up hating ourselves. The average Black person does not have a serious understanding of Black history. If you don’t know, you can’t do. If you don’t know who you are anybody can name you. And they have done that.
My responsibility to young writers is that you have to know what you are writing about. You just can’t be coming off the top of your head. And that requires study. That happened to me quite early. I started to read Richard Wright’s, Black Boy at age 14, and it carried me on this long journey.
50BOLD: What was the impetus for writing your book Taking Bullets?
Madhubuti: It came about as the result of the murder of young Black men across the country by vigilante whites as well as the so-called legal police departments. It was the 12-year-old boy Tamir Rice who was murdered in 2014 by the Cleveland policeman (Timothy Loehmann) who faced no charges. It was very clear to me that if Tamir Rice were white, he’d still be alive.
The subtitle of the book is Terrorism and Black Life in Twenty-first Century America: Confronting White Nationalism, Supremacy, Privilege, Plutocracy and Oligarchy. You are talking about the very rich–the Koch Brothers, the Gates family, Warren Buffet, the Walton family. If you take these four or five families together and combine their worth, it eclipses the wealth of over 80% of the population of this country, obscene!
Taking Bullets came about by trying to address the question of criminal wealth, as well as the killing of young Black men and women in this country by illegal forces. I felt I had to get this out and start a conversation.
50BOLD: As one of the architects of the Black Arts Movement, who were and are your inspirations?
Madhubuti: Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the majors. Dudley Randall would be another, Langston Hughes. They would all be considered precursors to the Black Arts Movement. I grew up reading Robert Hayden, Richard Wright, Chester Hines, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker. I grew up absorbing the poetry of Countee Cullen and Sterling A. Brown. The precursors of the Black Arts Movement — Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay, I can go on and on. These are people that instilled in me a serious understanding of why writing and literature is absolutely necessary. And having had the opportunity to meet some of them and interact with them was very important to me.
People don’t realize that the Black Arts Movement took off with the assassination of Malcolm X. When Malcolm was assassinated those of us who loved Malcolm and who cared a great deal for him began to re-evaluate our position in this country.
People ask me why do you still do this. I love black people. There is no other answer. Nobody is getting rich here. It’s about loving one’s people and that’s what we have to do. I’m the only poet that has come out of the tradition that has never published a book with white people. I’m the only poet who has never had a white publicist to push my work. Why? Because I have always felt that we need to be at the forefront of pushing and doing the work for ourselves.
50BOLD: Why is it so necessary to build independent Black businesses?
Madhubuti: The major Black institutions in our community are the Black churches. They are not only major institutions, they’re major businesses. When your spiritual institution is the major business in your community, you are in serious trouble because when you think of other flourishing rich, well-off communities, the spiritual institution is a spiritual institution. It’s not a business.
In their communities you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got Target, you’ve got Sam’s Club. You have actual businesses. In my community, whether it’s beauty shops or barber shops, we don’t have these homegrown businesses on the same level as our enemy. And when our children come out of these colleges with a serious knowledge-base, they look for jobs outside our community. You don’t see the same thing among the Irish, among Jews, among the Italians. They build businesses. We build churches. That’s a damn problem!
We are the only people who give 95% of our resources and money to people who have oppressed us all our lives. At some point, we need to try to build institutional structures, that we own and control. So coming out of the Black Arts Movement, I knew that we had to build independent Black institutions. I’m out here in Chicago. We own a half a block in Chicago. We have three schools. So when I go out and talk to people, I’m not talking theory, this is practice, this is what we do.
50BOLD: If you could tell your younger writing self, anything, what would it be?
Madhubuti: People look at me and say the yellow Black man had it made and all that bullshit. No! The poverty that I, my sister and my mother grew up in is much worse than poverty today. My mother Maxine had to sell her body to take care of my sister and me; she was dead at the age of 34. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world and I write about this in YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life: A Memoir.
My mother would stand on the corner going to wherever and not only would cars stop to offer her a ride, buses would stop too. My mother’s beauty was off-the-chart but she was uneducated. She came out of the south. My father left when I was not quite 2-years-old. My sister was just being born. My father was a criminal; he was a hustler.
We ended up in Detroit and attended the largest Black church. Sitting in the front pew, the minister could not get through his damn sermon without looking at my mama. The guy was just mumbling. After we got out of service, the minister stood by the door, greeted my mother, then whispered something in her ear. And less than a week later, we were in one of his apartment buildings. This was not only one of the largest Black churches, they also owned a lot of real estate. My mother became his ‘outside woman.’ I saw how he basically pulled her into the sex trade; once he got tired of her and left, other ministers and people stepped in.
Mama began working at bars in Detroit. On one of these dates, a guy killed her. My sister Jackie had her first child at age 14, a second child at 16, a third at 18. By the time Jackie was 27, she had six children by five different fathers.
So I would tell my younger self…”Don’t tell me about poverty! I want to hear nothing about your problems. We all have problems. You can’t continue to use your earlier life as an excuse for not being progressive!”
50BOLD: You have said the European culture has had a negative impact on us. How so?
Madhubuti: We move towards the embracing of a culture that works for us instead of against us. I can walk into your home without even knowing you, and tell you exactly where you are culturally and this is going to define you intellectually.
When I walk in, the first thing I want to see, is it clean? And number two, when I walk into your living room, I want to see what’s on your wall. Are they reflective of your people and your family?
Then, I’m going to your bookcase, if you’ve got a damn bookcase! Is the literature you are reading about the best that we produce as writers, historians, political scientists, social scientists, poets?
Then, I’m going into your music collection. Are you listening to great black music or are you listening to booty call music? Listening to this ignorant ass rap? Anytime every other word is n****r this and n****r that and bitch this and bitch that, you are in serious trouble! And then I’ll go into your children’s room. What’s on their walls: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Darth Vader? And we wonder why we are in trouble? Like I said earlier, if you don’t know who you are, anybody can name you.
50BOLD: What’s one thing about you that people would be surprised to know?
Madhubuti: I am a vegan, this is a real anomaly in the Black community. A vegan, he or she, they don’t eat dairy products, plus no flesh.
Secondly, I’ve also been married for nearly 45 years. The major thing with my wife and I is that I married a woman smarter than me and have no problems stating this. My wife was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences last year. My wife is in the National Academy of Education. My wife has an endowed chair at Northwestern University which is one of the top 20 universities in the damn world.
My wife and I don’t argue but if we have to debate, I’m going to win within the first five minutes. After that, she comes with logic and statistics and everything else and she’s throwing me out of the park. And I told my sons to marry smarter women and they did and so their marriages are going to last.
50BOLD: How do you want people to remember you?
Madhubuti: I’d want folks to say…”He was a decent poet, He was a half-way decent writer. He tried to do what was good, correct and right with integrity and honesty. He never ever abused or misused his station in life with anyone. And when he found out about it he’d say, I’m sorry, I apologize. Is there anything I can do to make it better?” I’d want my children to say… “He was a good father.” I’d want my wife to say…“He was a good husband, he provided for us, he loved us and he did that which was in our best interest.”