At seventy-nine years old, Haki R. Madhubuti appears almost spry. He’s still lean—no doubt a credit to his near-sacred curation of the types of food and drink he puts in his body, as well as a vigorous walking routine. His face, while showing the most obvious signs of age, gives no indication of fatigue or surrender. He still looks hip, with his cultivated facial hair and stylish cap. He’s animated. Passionate. Ready, you get the sense, to fight. He used to be Don L. Lee, of course, but that’s a half-century ago, when his ascent as a poet and activist and educator was noticed and chronicled by the likes of Ebony magazine.
Some call him professor, as befits a man who held distinguished academic posts at Columbia College of Chicago, Cornell University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Howard University, Morgan State University and the University of Iowa. Madhubuti served longest at Chicago State University, where he founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing; founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference; cofounded the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent; and founded and directed the first MFA program at a Black university. He stepped down from his last position, as DePaul University’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett Professor more than five years ago, a retirement that includes almost no time off from his responsibilities as a writer, publisher of Third World Press (founded 1967), cofounder of the Institute of Positive Education and its New Concept School (1969), and cofounder of Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools and Barbara A. Sizemore Academy.
I’ve heard him called Baba Haki, an honorific that acknowledges his status as an elder and a wise man, bowing to his role in shaping his community. I’ve always known him as Haki. We met more than a decade ago, when I asked him to serve on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s inaugural selection committee. He agreed. Right away, he took it upon himself to advise, using phrases like “You’re gonna have to,” “The money has to come from somewhere,” “One thing you must do,” and “That’s absolutely necessary.” I needed and welcomed his advice, and was grateful that his support extended beyond agreeing to the one big favor I had asked of him. Haki naturally, without hesitation, performed the role of stakeholder. In the years since, Haki has agreed to help every time—EVERY—time I’ve asked: as a presenter at our first induction ceremony, a panelist at the Associated Writers Program conference in Chicago, a star attraction at a reception following our Gwendolyn Brooks’ Bronzeville literary tour, a reader at an Armistice Day event, a presenter at the Fuller Award celebrating Angela Jackson and on and on.
Given how much in demand Haki continues to be, I doubt there are any free spaces on his calendar. Yet, he continues to publish at a rapid rate. His latest book, “Taught By Women: Poems as Resistance Language, New and Selected,” is his thirty-seventh, which doesn’t include the hundred-plus anthologies and journals in which his poetry and essays have appeared over the last two decades alone. His book, “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The African American Family in Transition,” has more than one million copies in print.
“Taught By Women” pays homage to an array of women who have influenced him and contributed to his five-decade career of publishing Black writers and contributing to a strong Black literary tradition. We met over Zoom to discuss this latest title. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Your career started with the 1966 publication of the verse collection, “Think Black.” The earliest of the poems in “Taught by Women” were written a quarter century after your career launched and the more recent a full four decades later. Does this collection embody a perspective different than that of your younger self?
I learned from the streets. I always say, “I grew up around pimps and hos slamming Cadillac doors.” My life has always been work, from the West Side of Chicago as a pre-teen and teenager looking for metal in the alleys—just going through alleys with a cart—to shining shoes, to setting pins in bowling alleys when they did that, to anything I could find. I never had it easy. And so, learning to work early on in life to pay rent, pay gas and lights, and so forth, was normal. I never, at one level, in my early days, could understand how people can have all these problems when they have a regular paycheck and got a nice home; I could not understand that, but obviously I do now. My [poetry] emphasizes work, but also the life of regular people. Everything I’ve written in the past, and present, deals with all these elements, from culture to politics to science and technology, it all winds up in a poem somehow.
You start off the fifth stanza of “Liberation Narratives” with the line, “if poetry is to have meaning/it must mean something.” Your poetry, specifically the poems in this new collection, are never frivolous, always intent on piercing important, often difficult, issues—issues confronted in society, at home, in various communities, and importantly of character and how it relates to the way one sees and interacts with the world. How does poetry in general and your poetry in particular work to get at meaning?
All my poetry for the most part is serious. One of the criticisms of me, early on, was that I never smile. I never drank, I never smoked. To be honest, I never had a childhood. I grew up dirt poor—any time one wears used underwear, they’re poor. My mother was in the sex trade. My father was not there. Christmases and holidays, they weren’t Christmases and holidays to me.
We’re born to who we are. I chose to work around my own people. I’m not writing anything that I’m not serious about, in terms of having an impact on the readers. Very few love poems, quote-unquote. Most of my work is cultural, it’s political; I don’t write confessional poetry, but I do write political poetry. Because I believe in this country. Alright. And I think that one’s belief in one’s nation also comes with the ability to want to criticize that which is not right, just, correct and good. In the context of history. And in the context of having some integrity around how we work and function in the country. How can I make this human? That’s what I’m trying to think, all the time.
“Taught By Women,” the title, foreshadows a deep and abiding appreciation and respect for women—the front and back covers, in fact, display the names of almost 200 women, many whom appear in the coming poems and dedications. There are powerful poems about your mother, Helen Maxine Graves Lee; your cultural mother, Gwendolyn Brooks; and your wife, Safisha. The arrangement of the poems takes on an almost memoirish aspect. How do you move from these personal experiences to more global ideas about women?
When I first met Gwendolyn Brooks, she was in a church on the South Side of Chicago, in Woodlawn, teaching Blackstone Rangers to write poetry, working with the great entertainer, cultural activist and pre-rapper, Oscar Brown Jr. I gave her a copy of “Think Black,” and “Think Black,” the first cover, it’s all white with Africa in the middle. This is 1967, you know. And she took it and put it on her heart. And she said, “Thank you, young man, I’m gonna read this.” And we parted. Within two weeks, she had moved the workshop to her home at 7428 South Evans Avenue. And we started meeting at her home. But my point is that she recognized the unfinished Don Lee, to become Haki Madhubuti.
My life has always been involved in not only writing, but also in social justice and building independent Black institutions, in trying to be of service to the people I love. All my life, I, my wife—you know, we’ve been together fifty years, fifty years. Children doing well and so forth. But we built these institutional structures because that’s my service, that’s our service. And so, what you get with “Taught by Women,” it’s almost like that history at one level, okay. Because all these women, I’ve had some contact with. And, they’ve impressed me. That’s why their names are on the book. “Taught by Women” is a culmination of my saying to all these women, even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, thank you, that you did not do this for me, you did this for us, you did it for the nation. I was able to concentrate in a very serious and deep manner on women. Even if you look at the cover and inside covers, I can name each one of [those women] and tell you without looking how they influenced my life. It’s about women. It’s evolutionary, revolutionary, a Black man writing about women. I’m as honest as possible.
In “Art: A Comment,” you begin, “the summer & winter beauty/of a people’s culture rides/heroically in their arts.” So many of these poems (there is a whole section on “Language Keepers” and “Language Creators”) articulate an urgent and necessary relationship between art and life, so much so that you rank its importance above nearly all else. What do these poems, as a whole, mean to tell us about the role art plays in forging and maintaining meaningful existences for us individually and for our larger communities?
Art is central to everything we do. It is critical. When you come to Third World Press, you see art. When you come to my home, you see art. What I will say to young people, and I say this all the time, is that I can walk into your home and tell exactly where you are culturally and politically. The first thing I notice is, is it clean? Then I’m going to your bookshelf, if you got a bookshelf. I’m looking on your wall to see if your walls got images and pictures of your family and Black visual artwork. And then I’m looking at your record collection, your streaming music. What are you listening to? And then I go to your late-night viewing. What are you seeing on DVD? What are you streaming? The children’s room: what’s on their walls? These are the key things that define you.
Art plays a significant role, much more than anything else. I write about not only literary influences, but music influences, also visual art influences, and try to do it in a poetic prose manner, you know.
There are references to hundreds and hundreds of important Black people. Black thinkers. Black artists. Black educators. Black activists. Many of these people appear over and over, in different ways, in different poems. Let’s take just one poem, “He Never Saw the Bullets Coming.” In that poem, there are references to W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Elijah Muhammad and Bobby Hutton. That is a poem you wrote recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton. It occurred to me that in order for readers to fully participate in the poem, they must know or educate themselves on all the references. What is your expectation for or challenge to the reader?
[My mother] was not an educated woman. Even though she had demanded that I go to the Detroit Public Library and check out “Black Boy.” And I refused because I hated myself. I hated my circumstances. I hated my life. I hated my color. I hated everything. And she demanded that I go check out Richard Wright. I went to the library, found the book on the shelf myself. I’m beginning to read it, and for the first time in my life, I was reading literature that was not an insult to my person. I just turned fourteen years old. And it changed my life. I read “Black Boy” in less than twenty-four hours, went back to the library and checked out everything Richard Wright had published. And one of the key books, very few people know about, “White Man, Listen!,” it’s a book of essays. And in that book, there was a very important essay called, “The Literature of the Negro.” And he listed all these writers, these Black writers. That’s when I came in contact with Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes… You know what I’m saying? Here I am, being smacked in the face. “Wake up, Negro, because there’s another world out here, which you know nothing about.” And so, that’s the starting point. I’m in my library now at home; I got, what?, about 50,000 volumes down here. We built our home around the library. I didn’t respect until I started reading. So I’m always going to give homage to those who’ve helped me realize that Black is human and humanizing always requires homework and deep study to do justice to who we really are.
The subtext in almost all of these poems is Black empowerment. White people control the narrative, make the laws, dispense their own form of justice. The reality of slavery impacts nearly every aspect of contemporary society. In “Grandfathers: They Speak Through Me,” you write, “as a man, i chose poetry, love and extended family./ i selected black independence, institution building and the cherry eyes of children as my mission.” Talk a little about the ways, through your poetry, you express the idea of self-determination in the face of so much social injustice.
Any people will control their own cultural imperatives about the healthy replication of themselves and their people. My basic understanding, and I believe this, is that people were born to who we are, who we want to be, and who we will be, okay? I chose to work among my own people. You don’t see me out there talking about coalition this and coalition that. I will work with white people and people outside of my culture that I feel are doing good work, and are serious. All this other stuff is fluff to me, as far as I’m concerned.
I’m not talking about your cars and your house and your suits and, you know, all this other stuff, but what you believe. There’s a profound difference between freedom and liberation. You can earn your liberation; you got to fight somebody, you know, verbally, politically, physically or whatever the case may be.
If you don’t know who you are, anybody can name you. That’s it. And if you do not know who you are, you’re gonna take almost anything somebody gives to you. And the point is, how do you begin to determine the cost of liberation? So, one, if I own myself and understand culturally who I am. And that means identity. That means, my purpose in life. And that means how am I going to achieve that purpose in life? And in doing that, I, along with other people, will be about doing what any whole people do, raising healthy children and building healthy institutional structures for those children to mature in. And those institutional structures will be there for other people to see. Third World Press, it actually exists. Barbara Ann Sizemore [Academy], the Betty Shabazz [International Charter] School, they actually exist. Black people actually built that. And these were built not on grants, not on foundation money, but on sweat and tears from Black people in Chicago, Illinois, around the country and internationally.
Children and the people entrusted with their development receive a great deal of attention in this collection. How does your love of children and lifelong commitment to the young infiltrate this collect?
It was very conscious, because one of [my] major influences was Barbara Sizemore.
If the world loses elephants, dolphins, polar bears, and so forth… I’m a vegan. I’ve been a vegan for forty years, you know. I don’t eat no meat, don’t drink no milk and cheese and all this other stuff. I don’t push that on anybody, but the poems say that. I prize life itself. Okay? Giraffes and salmon and coral reefs and insects and worms and organic farmers and compost and green tea and workers who use their hands to build and repair stuff, North and South poles, teachers, people of faith, engineers, wheatgrass, carrot juice, oatmeal, seven-grain bread. Okay. If the world loses you, I’m talking about the people, and water. Yes, precious you and the daily tastes of life, it finally means that we lost butterflies yesterday and failed our children.
We built these institutional structures. We’re the only ones coming out of the Black Arts Movement that still have these schools. We service over 500 children a day, an African-centered education. I’ve never taken a salary from our schools, never taken a salary from Third World Press; my wife and I, we were able to take care of ourselves rather than drawing from the institutions. And we still do that. That’s our commitment. Yes, I love children. And so, what we have is cultural families, where these cultural families are looking after all these babies and our children. I see all children as my children, doesn’t matter what color.
What continues to energize these overworked bones are children of all cultures, who, for the most part, have not been captured by the many demons, daggers and multiple predators that populate this Earth. The absolute necessity in me to listen to young people, their laughter, tears, loud silences and demanding questions that are critical to my wellness.
Finally, I know you’re not done—there will be many books to come. Yet, I sense this book is more important, more urgent, in part because it reads like a capstone to an incredible life and career. Is this book different than the ones that preceded it?
I’m trying to bring some damn order to some of this work. There’s a lot of it. I’m thinking about this all the time. All the time. All the time. People say, “This was like the second book of your autobiography.” In a sense, it encapsulates a life. The very first poem Gwendolyn Brooks published on me is in “In the Mecca.” And the last line of that poem reads, “new music, screaming in the sun.” And that’s my working title for the second part of my memoir, primarily because she’s a part of it. In the first part, I had not met her yet.
What I wanted to try to do with this book is let people know where I am today and that I’m still in for the good fight. Always do that which is good, just and right, with a sense of humility and integrity. That’s it, Don, know what I’m saying? I’m on it, man, and I’m going to be on it.
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.