Don L. Lee was ten years old when his mother, Maxine, took him and his younger sister to visit the minister of one of the largest black churches in Detroit. It was mid-20th-century America, and, abandoned years before by her husband, Maxine, a beautiful, vivacious woman, had been trying to keep the family afloat with the odds stacked against her.
Suddenly, with the minister, she was in luck. A man in his 50s with a kindly demeanor, he offered her a job as a janitor at the four-story, 12-unit building he owned next to his church—and free housing in a basement apartment. During the week, she’d be responsible for cleaning and dusting the public areas and hauling the garbage cans down the back stairs.
Oh, and one other thing—as the interview came to an end, the minister leaned over and whispered something to Maxine. “I knew what was going on,” her son tells me.
Thereafter, come Monday and Thursday afternoons, the minister would visit the family’s apartment “and she would service him,” says her son. She was what was known at the time as his “outside” woman, and to protect his reputation and dodge the ire of his wife, he ordered Maxine never again to set foot inside his church. The accommodation lasted 14 months until the minister’s sudden death.
Within a week, Maxine and her children were on the street.
And the arc of Maxine’s life was set. “My mother and the streets took to one another,” her son later wrote. She was a dreamer who “wrapped her body in clothes that refused to hide the nature of her desires. . . . Her clothes got in the way of men taking them off.”
Six years later, addicted to alcohol and drugs, working as a prostitute, she was beaten to death by a trick. “She was so battered,” her son says, “we couldn’t open the casket.”
It’s been six decades since Maxine’s murder, and somehow, out of the chaos of his childhood, the brutality of his surroundings, the oppression of his self-hatred, her son, Don L. Lee, later renamed Haki R. Madhubuti, forged a career on Chicago’s south side as one of the great voices of black poetry to emerge in the 20th century and one of the most significant advocates and theorists of black self-determination since Malcolm X.
Though you may never have heard of him.
If you’re African-American, you might not recognize the name Haki Madhubuti unless you move in literary and intellectual circles. But you’ve heard echoes of his poetry in the music of rap and hip-hop. And you’re familiar with the tension between those in the black community who favor the opportunities of integration and those who argue that blacks need to take control of their own lives, a gospel Madhubuti has preached for more than half a century.
If you’re white, it’s more likely his name won’t ring a bell.
For one thing, Madhubuti doesn’t fit the white stereotype of a “black leader.” He’s not leading protest marches or getting out the vote, he’s not a talking head on the news shows or a perennial candidate for office. He doesn’t devote his time to interacting with the mainstream culture, and as a result, he and his work have often been ignored by the news media.
He’s a different sort of black leader, one who is devoted to building black institutions and works almost exclusively for and with other African-Americans, a cheerleader for black pride and responsibility, a model and a mentor for generations of like thinkers.
In the late 1960s, when revolution was chic, Don L. Lee was a rising poetry star on the American scene, a writer in residence at Cornell University, where he was a colleague of Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet, and influential Vietnam war protester. He was being courted by Random House. And one of his shortest and most pointed poems, “The New Integrationist”—”I seek integration of Negroes with black people”—would soon appear in a New York Times review of two poetry collections.
“I could have been famous as Don L. Lee,” Madhubuti says to me as we walk down a stairwell at the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood while, outside, a late winter sun has turned the worn-down homes and cityscape across the street into blazing beauty. He’s what used to be called a long drink of water—six-foot-one and still thin at the age of 76, a vegan who exercises daily, meditates, and does yoga.
“I could have been famous, but this is what I chose to do.”
“This” is not just the Sizemore elementary school that he helped found, but also the overwhelmingly black and in most sections heavily poor south side. It’s the men, women, and children in historically segregated neighborhoods and suburbs—left behind by the integrationists and white society—who, Madhubuti has long argued, must band together to create black institutions to serve and nourish black people. It’s the black community across the nation—and across the world.
“Black businesswomen and -men who make a payroll every week—they’re the real revolutionaries,” he says.
As he stood on the doorstep of mainstream fame a half century ago, a colorfully dressed, thick-bearded, big-Afroed, angry black man, feted at Cornell and praised to high heaven in an eight-page spread in Ebony magazine, Lee turned his back on what might have been. And became Haki Madhubuti.
Black empowerment had been his lodestar since his teenage years, and already he’d begun to put down roots among his fellow blacks in Chicago, even though, because of his light skin (his memoir is titled YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life), he never felt fully accepted.
“As an outsider within my own community, I was never black enough,” Madhubuti tells me. “I decided what I can do to deal with this is: I will outwork you and build something.”
In 1966, well before he’d gotten to Cornell, Don L. Lee had self-published his first book of acrid, street-accented free verse, Think Black, and hawked it on street corners. In its opening poem, he wrote: “America calling / negroes. / can you dance? / play foot / baseball? / nanny? / cook? / needed now, negroes / who can entertain / ONLY / others not / wanted / (& are considered extremely dangerous).”
A year later, in December 1967, he used the $400 honorarium from a reading he gave to buy a mimeograph machine and, with the help of poets Carolyn Rodgers and Johari Amini, establish his own publishing house in his basement apartment in West Englewood.
Over the next half century, Third World Press became the largest, most successful, and longest-operating black press in the U.S., bringing to print more than 300 books of all genres written by black writers about black issues for black readers, and shaping the debate over what it means to be black in America.
Indeed, last year at one of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Third World Press, Ta-Nehisi Coates, best-selling author of Between the World and Me and writer of the Black Panther comic books, told the audience, “There were numerous times throughout the course of my childhood and early adulthood . . . when books [written] by Brother Haki directly and published by Brother Haki were central to me.” Those books, he said, “made me possible.”
His father, W. Paul Coates—who was inspired by Madhubuti’s example and writings to establish his own black publishing house in the 1970s, Black Classic Press—asserts that, by providing a forum for black thinkers, Madhubuti’s impact on African-American culture has been “as significant as Motown.”
Madhubuti’s own books for Third World Press include essay collections and the aforementioned memoir YellowBlack, which novelist Ishmael Reed praises as “one of the great African-American autobiographies, on a par with [James Weldon’s] The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and [Booker T. Washington’s] Up From Slavery.” Then there are his books of poetry, such as his 2004 collection Run Toward Fear, whose poem “For the Consideration of Poets” opens with the lines, “where is the poetry of resistance, the poetry of honorable defiance?”
Those are words that sum up the work of the Third World Press and Madhubuti’s life and philosophy. He has no interest in writing confessional poetry and no respect for poetry produced “for art’s sake.”
From his beginnings as a published writer and as a publisher, he has lived by the credo of producing “art for the people’s sake”—political art, art that wrestles with white supremacy, art that’s knee-deep in what, back in the 1960s, was called “the struggle.”
“Where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion / not in the service of the state, bishops and priests, / not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises, / not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic clown talk?”
Madhubuti is still writing “the poetry of resistance, the poetry of honorable defiance,” and in one form or another, so are the authors he publishes.
All the rest is “clown talk.”
“I grew up a Negro. My self-hatred was off the charts.”
For five decades and more, Madhubuti has summarized his childhood this way. Yet it hardly tells the full story. The details, pieced together from many sources, including YellowBlack, portray an appallingly traumatic childhood.
In 1963, Madhubuti wrote a poem titled “The Self-Hatred of Don L. Lee” in which he focuses on the perverse pride he took in his light skin as a child. It begins: “I, / at one time, / loved / my / color— / it opened sMall / doors of / tokenism / &/ acceptance. / (doors called “the only one” & “our negro”).”
By that time, he’d grown to loathe that pride and how it reflected his shame at being black.
“You feel guilty about being black,” Madhubuti tells me as we sit in his book-filled, comfortably crowded office in the headquarters of Third World Press, at the northern edge of Chatham. “That’s what white oppression does. It makes the oppressed feel they’re the problem. The culture seasons you.”
Maxine Lee’s light skin and white features opened doors for her—the wrong doors.
While her two children were home alone, Maxine was working nights at Sunnie Wilson’s Forest Club, a huge black-owned night club and entertainment complex. She had such a following there that she was voted Miss Barmaid of Detroit 1948. Even so, money was tight and got tighter all the time as she found herself sucked into dependency on booze and narcotics. For her son and daughter, it was hell.
To feed her habit and her family, Maxine was servicing a seemingly endless stream of black and white men of the cloth from virtually every religious faith as well as a host of other men similarly drawn to her, her son says. Not only did sex bring in money, but it also gave her the fleeting feeling of being cherished.
“Our talk [at home] was primarily about survival,” Madhubuti tells me. “About where to get money, how to pay the rent. There was no joy in my childhood at all, just trying to survive.”
The young Lee worked every job he could find, putting in four or more hours a day even during the school year, delivering newspapers, working in the school cafeteria, cleaning up a tavern where, at 12, he witnessed a murder for the first time.
The family’s apartment was an emotional desert for the young boy, and so was Detroit’s East Side. What was worse for someone who was thoughtful and naturally reserved, his was a life filled with a constant clamor. “I wanted quiet in my life more than love,” he writes in YellowBlack. “I had tired of noise.”
In addition, young Lee felt himself ostracized by many in the black community because of his mother’s prostitution and the family’s grinding poverty. One time, outfitted completely in resale-shop clothes, he attended a dance at the church next door, only to be ridiculed by the middle-class kids. “You know you’re poor,” he tells me, “when you’re wearing secondhand underwear.”
As time went on and his mother’s deterioration accelerated, roles were reversed. “I was her protector,” Madhubuti tells me. Mornings when he awoke to find that his mother hadn’t gotten home the night before, he’d go out into the streets to search local hotels and rooming houses for her.
Sometimes, Maxine would bring tricks home. In one case, her son says, “She had done something, and the man who was living with us started slapping her. I grabbed a butcher knife and said if he ever did that again, he would not live out the night. I was 12 or 13.”
Throughout his teenage years and young adulthood, anger and violence were always just beneath the surface. The turning point of Madhubuti’s life came when he was 14 and his mother sent him to the public library for a book. He doesn’t remember her being much of a reader, but for whatever reason, she asked him to stop in the library to pick up a copy of Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy.
Lee was ashamed of his blackness and ashamed that the title of the book his mother wanted included the word black. And the young teen knew in a vague way that Wright was a black man who was critical of white America, something he was sure the white librarian would know as well.
So when he found a copy of Black Boy, instead of checking it out, he skulked to a table where he started to read. And he couldn’t stop reading.
“Black Boy saved my life,” he tells me. “It slapped me on every page I read, especially in the misery I was experiencing. For the first time, I was reading literature that was not an insult to my personhood,” he tells me. “I was reading sentences and paragraphs about me, about us. He was dealing with ideas about us.”
Suddenly, he wasn’t so ashamed. He checked out the book and kept reading it through the night until he’d finished it. And he never looked back.
Black Boy launched Lee on an odyssey of reading every black thinker and writer he could get his hands on. The rest of Wright’s books, of course, but also DuBois and Langston Hughes and philosopher Alain Locke and historian Joel A. Rogers and singer Paul Robeson.
He had found a new family—everyone in the world who was black. At least, everyone who accepted their blackness and found pride in their African roots and communal culture, every black person who wasn’t a Negro. A few years later, in “Wake-Up Niggers,” a poem from his first book, Lee would sarcastically respond to middle-class blacks who say they’re part Indian by writing, “have you ever / heard tonto say, / ‘i’m part negro?’ / (in yr / mama’s dreams).”
Today, Madhubuti remains as radical as ever. He continues to preach the need to create black institutions to serve the black community—and to practice what he preaches.
Indeed, he’s trumpeted black self-realization so loudly and so long that he is sometimes accused of being “too black.” For someone whose light skin tone has always been problematic, this is an ironic charge to face.
“Can a person be too white?” he says to me. “I’m not anti-white; I’m anti-evil. A good majority of white people are suffering like we are.”
Third World Press has survived five decades of financial challenges (including a near collapse during the 2008 recession, after which it was remade as a nonprofit), and so has another of his major undertakings: the Institute of Positive Education, a community group that he and his wife began with a group of friends in 1969.
The group’s main focus today is on its two elementary schools—one named for Barbara Sizemore, the first African-American woman to head the public school system in a major city (Washington, D.C.), and the other for Betty Shabazz, civil rights advocate and widow of Malcolm X—and its New Concept Development Center for prekindergarten children, at 7825 S. Ellis. The schools offer an Afrocentric curriculum and, over the decades, have educated thousands of black students—including a preschooler named Kanye West.
Throughout his career, Madhubuti has been honored as a publisher, educator, and theorist. Nonetheless, Madhubuti tells me, “I see myself primarily as a poet, because none of this would have happened if I wasn’t a poet.”
Don L. Lee began writing poems in high school, but if spotted by a friend, he’d say they were lyrics for a song. He played trumpet at house parties and in school bands. He was a good enough horn player to be offered a college scholarship, one he couldn’t accept because he couldn’t cover the other costs. “I was decent,” he tells me. “I could read music, but I couldn’t improvise.”
That musical background as well as his deep love of jazz, particularly the work of John Coltrane, has always been evident in his poetry, such as “Gwendolyn Brooks,” the first of many poems he would write about his literary mentor and surrogate mother.
The 1969 poem opens with Lee quoting from various reviewers describing Brooks, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, as “a fine negro poet” and “a credit to the negro race.” It concludes, though, that she is as much a black poet as the young writers coming out of the Black Arts Movement, learning from them as they learn from her.
In between is a jazz-flavored riff about what comes from the ballpoint pens of such poets, beginning with these five lines: “black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblack was / black daybeforeyesterday blacker than ultrablack super / black blackblack yellowblack niggerblack blackwhi-te-man / blackerthanyoueverbes ¼ black unblack coldblack clear / black my momma’s blackerthanyourmomma pimpleblack fall / so black we can’t even see you black on black.”
Lee displays in “Gwendolyn Brooks” and many of his poems a deep faith in blackness —black culture, black beauty, black unity. That faith as well as a jazzy swagger is also on display in Madhubuti’s 1996 poem “The B Network.”
In its final lines, the poem urges black men to work toward a new beginning “while be-boppin to be better than the test, / brotherman. / better yet write the exam.”
All of Madhubuti’s poems send a message. They exhort blacks to be strong and united and to take responsibility for their own lives. And many describe specific approaches to a better life, such as his 2004 prose poem “Art,” which he often reads in public, especially to young people.
In the second of the poem’s three sections, every line ends with the word “art.” This permits Madhubuti to turn the section into a call-and-response chant, with the audience joining him for the word “art” at the end of those lines: “Magnify your children’s mind with art, / jumpstart their questions with art, / introduce your children to the cultures of the world through art, / energize their young feet, spirits and souls with art, / infuse the values important to civil culture via art, / keep them curious, political and creative with art.”
Madhubuti often says that art saved his life. But it wasn’t art as in Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Rembrandt. It was black art—Richard Wright’s Black Boy, black literature, black music, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
He was saved because art provided him with the vehicle with which to embrace all of his black brothers and sisters as his family, a family that has its flaws and horror stories but a family that, unlike Maxine’s, also has brought him hope.
For one of our interviews, I bring along a couple dozen photos of Madhubuti throughout his career, from him as a tall, thin soldier in dress uniform to the poet wearing a khaki jacket and reading his work in Washington Park to the publishing executive with a receding hairline.
He pages through them one by one, not saying much.
When he finishes, I ask him what he’s thinking.
“What comes to mind is I’m still alive,” he says.
“I’m still published, still have people across the country who care about me, and we have been a part of something that’s lasted 50 years.”
And counting. v
An expanded version of this story is at Patrick T. Reardon’s website here.