Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe – Haki R. Madhubuti

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

A Poet’s Journey: An Interview with Haki R. Madhubuti

haki4Haki R. Madhubuti — publisher, editor, educator, and activist — has been a pivotal figure in the development of a strong Black literary tradition for more than fifty years. He has published more than 31 books (some under his former name, Don L. Lee) and is one of the world’s best-selling authors of poetry and non-fiction. His Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The African American Family in Transition (1990) has sold more than 1 million copies. His publications include Liberation Narratives: new and Collected Poems 1966-2009 (2009); Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks (2011) and By Any Means Necessary, Malcolm X (co-editor, 2012). His poetry and essays were published in more than eighty-five anthologies from 1997 to 2015. Two book-length critical studies on his literary works are Malcolm X and the Poetics of Haki Madhubuti by Regina Jennings (2006) and Art of Work: The Art and Life of Haki R. Madhubuti by Lita Hooper (2007). He is recipient of National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, the American Book Award, and the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, and the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award presented by Poets & Writers Magazine. In 2015, he was the first poet to receive a Life Time Achievement Award at the Juneteenth Book Festival Symposium at the Library of Congress. He was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation with a Lifetime Achievement Award and he received the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. For more about Dr. Madhubuti contact: twpress3@aol.com.


For over two decades Haki Madhubuti’s The Third World Press offices have been located on Chicago’s South Side in the Chatham neighborhood. They are housed in the former rectory of St. Francis de Paula Catholic Church, the center of what was once a largely Italian community and is now African-American. The New World Covenant Church now occupies the church building. The Third World Press and the church are economic and spiritual presences within this well-kept and welcoming community, which reflects the decency of its inhabitants and the minimalist lifestyle exemplified by St. Francis de Paola. It could be the subject of a Madhubuti poem.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Haki, your first book of poetry, Think Black! was published in 1966 when you still used the name Don L. Lee. Some may have thought the imperative tone of the poems echoed that of the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s, especially Ginsberg’s Howl. Did you have the Beat poets in mind when you wrote your earliest poems?

Haki Madhubuti: No. I was not influenced by Beat poets at all. I was influenced by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Melvin B. Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker. Especially Langston Hughes, whose anthology of poetry came out around that time that I began to write. And I was influenced by Black prose writers, primarily Richard Wright who was a poet also. In fact, the title of Ta-Nehisi’s book Between the World and Me comes from Richard Wright’s poem. That poem influenced me a great deal.

And as much as the poetry, music influenced me. I write about that in my autobiography Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life, where Louis Armstrong was a great influence on me. I did not care for his mannerisms, but his ability to compose and play that trumpet was just. . . . I could not understand how somebody could do that. I’m young, just twelve or thirteen years old. And I write about it in the book. The major point is that he pushed me to really get into music.

And after reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy at 14, what attached me to the literature was the sense that his ideas were not being exchanged in the Black community at the level that I received them from reading. I read Black Boy in less than 24 hours. Then I gave it to my mother and went back to the library to check out everything that Richard Wright had published.

The key point for me was that I was entering a new community. I was coming out of an oral and musical tradition and into a tradition that essentially used words and language. And it was fascinating. At such a young age, I was attached to this new language. And then through reading Wright’s book of essays White Man, Listen! I found an essay in there on African-American literature. That’s how I got into reading Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin B. Tolson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and others.


FWJ: You went to Dunbar High School in Chicago.

HM: Actually, I started high school in Detroit. When my mother was murdered, I was in a whirl. Critically poor. And my sister had her first child at fourteen. By the time she was twenty-seven, she had six children by five different fathers. Never married. That’s the kind of community I came out of. And so, when my mother passed, I came out here to live with a stranger who was my father. That lasted about six months until he started to put his hands on me, and I moved to the YMCA. I finished a two-year program at Dunbar in a year and a summer, and I came out and ended up in the military. On the way to basic training I was reading Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand. I had been introduced to him through the work of W. E. B. Dubois.

When I got to basic training, the drill sergeant saw the book with Paul Robeson’s big black magnificent face on the cover, snatched it out of my hand, and brought it to my face, and said, “What’s your Negro mind doing reading that black Communist?” Then he said, “All you women against the bus.” There were no women, only three Black men. All the others were Southerners. He held the book over his head and commenced to tear the pages out of the book and told me we should use it for toilet paper.

Now, here I’m eighteen, and this man is tearing up my book. There’s nothing I can do. This rude awakening basically told me three things that lasted me all my life. One, I’m a Black man in America, and I’m not ever going to deny that. Two, I realize the importance of ideas. Ideas and the creators of ideas actually run the world. We all tap dance to somebody’s ideas. And third, I said to myself that I’m not going to leave this military and become an adult and dig ditches just for these people. It’s not going to happen. So I used those two years and ten months to continue to educate myself, reading close to a book a day and writing about a 250-word essay on each book I read. That’s when I began to read more poetry outside my community.

Later, while I was still in the military stationed at Fort Sheridan, I saw in the Defender the opening of the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, which eventually was to become The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. That original museum was in Margaret and Charlie Burroughs’s home. So I showed up one Saturday morning. A white man answered the door, and I asked myself, “Am I at the right place?”

His name was Eugene Feldman, a journalist and historian who was run out of the South for focusing on Black history. He took me in to see Margaret Burroughs who was seated at a slanted table working on a linoleum cut. She was a world-class artist. She said, “What do you want, boy?” I said, “Well, I’m just confused. I’m reading all this literature, and I have nobody to talk to.” She said, “Go talk with my husband.”

I went to the second floor. They had a pretty decent library up there, and he’s sitting at a table, writing. So we started talking. Charlie Burroughs was partially reared in the USSR and spoke Russian fluently. He introduced me to Left literature and to Marxist writers and to the Russian literary scene, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin and others. And that opened up another whole world for me in terms of the literature.

Margaret and Charlie Burroughs also influenced me to find out more about black institutions and people. Malcolm X influenced me to no end. In every book I’ve written, I’ve mentioned six or seven people that influenced me. Obviously, my mother. But also Malcolm X, Margaret and Charlie Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks, and a man by the name of Dudley Randall. Dudley Randall was a fine poet. He had the kind of attachment to the community that I have. And he started Broadside Press in his home, publishing single poems on broadsides.

After Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Dudley Randall came to Chicago to do an anthology with Margaret Burroughs on the life and legend and meaning of Malcolm X. This was ’66, and I had already published Think Black. I asked Dudley Randall if he would be interested in publishing my second book, which I called Black Pride. He had already published a book that he and Margaret Danner had written: Poem Counterpoem. He took my manuscript back to Detroit with him and later called to say he would be glad to publish it and asked if he could write an introduction. It shocked me, because I respected his poetry and I didn’t see myself as a “real” poet. But Randall’s acceptance caused me to pursue poetry seriously. I went to Detroit to sign a contract with him, which just ended up being a handshake. And when I saw Broadside Press was in his home, I said, “I got this.” I did a poetry reading back in ’66. I got $400, and with it I started the Third World Press, which was in my basement apartment. I wasn’t thinking too far ahead, just wondering how I could start the Press.


FWJ: You eventually got an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Could you tell us about that?

HM: I didn’t go to Iowa until the early 80s. What happened was that I started teaching at the university level in my middle twenties. Gwendolyn Brooks had begun to influence me and was later to become my cultural mother.


FWJ:   How did you begin to call her that?

HM: My mother left me so early. And there was always this longing for somebody who would tell you the truth about yourself, but in a loving way. And I met Gwendolyn Brooks in about ’66 or ’67 down at a church in Woodlawn. She was teaching members of the Blackstone Rangers — teenage boys and girls — poetry writing. This was during the period when I’m working with Martin Luther King when he was living in Chicago. He was having all the marches, and I was a foot soldier. He was living on the West Side. I was one of the cofounders of OBAC Writers Workshop with Hoyt Fuller and others. So I and two or three other poets decided to go and visit Gwendolyn Brooks one Saturday morning in the summer. And I walked into this church community room that had a portable black board and a small table. There were these young people sitting around the table and this petite woman at the blackboard writing. We immediately saw the love that she had for these kids. She was for real. I had just grown up with people just trying to hustle us, to take advantage of us. You could hear in her voice and see in her mannerisms the way she respected these young people. And I thought I needed to be here. I was the only one of the poets who came back every week just to sit in. And when I published Think Black, I gave it to her. And then Dudley Randall came out maybe a month after that with Black Pride, and I introduced her to him.

When she finished with the workshop at the church, she moved it to her home, which is not far from where we are now. At that time we had started Third World Press. Gwen and I became very close. We had our bouts; and we had our arguments about everything from language, organization of poems, and craft. But it was not just me. It was all of us, all the OBAC poets who came to the workshop. And I guess during that period — two or three years — Gwen and I had only one big argument around language. And I got up and just walked out of her home. There were about two weeks we didn’t speak, but then met for lunch. Now I have two commissioned portraits of her, one at my home and the other here at the Press. We just became very close. And that’s how my teaching career began.

Gwen had been a teacher at Columbia College in Chicago where Mike Alexandroff was the president. When she was offered a job at New York University, she introduced me to him, and he asked me if I could come teach the course that she had been teaching even though I just had an associate of arts degree. Gwen was invited to Fisk University in 1967 to the annual African-American writers’ conference, which Fisk hosted and John Oliver Killens served as director. She recommended me for the next year. Although I had just published two books, I had published poetry all over the place, including being the first Black poet to have a poem published in the New York Times on the editorial page. It was a poem about the brothers who raised their fists at the Olympics in Mexico. So I went to Fisk and read my poetry and got a standing ovation, just like a rock star. And I got two job offers, one from Talladega and one from Cornell. I wanted to go to Talladega because it was a Black school. There I gave the same lecture on literature I’d given at Fisk. And the white people who ran the university said, “No. You’re not coming here.” You know, my poetry was rough, like, “Let’s go to war.” There was no way they were going to let me come there.

I went to Cornell and did the same reading. And I got the job, but they didn’t want to accredit the course because I did not have a graduate degree. So I told them I’m not moving across this damned country to go and teach a non-credit course. It’s not going to happen. So the students are upset. This is ’68, and they are protesting. Then the chairman of the department called me up and asked me to please come so they could talk to me about this.

So I got I got there and met with five professors, including the chair and two other senior professors, all white men. They wanted to quiz me on Black literature. This didn’t scare me. I had learned the literature by teaching myself. One professor’s first question was about Native Son. The second guy asked me about Black Boy. The chair asked about Invisible Man. Then the next guy asked about Invisible Man and got back to Native Son. I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve got this.” Then the second guy comes asks another question about Invisible Man. I answer it and then ask him a question about Shadow and Act, Ellison’s book of essays. He hadn’t read it. The next guy came back with another question about Black Boy. Then I asked him about Uncle Tom’s Children. He said, “You mean Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I said, “No, I’m talking about a book of short stories by Richard Wright.” He shut up. The chair said, “Welcome. Your course will be accredited.”

At Cornell my office was right next to Daniel Berrigan’s, the activist priest against the Viet Nam War. He was a poet himself, and we read each other’s work and commented on it. It was a good association. While I’m there, the students, including some of mine, took over the administration building with weapons. Cornell hit the front page, because we were all fighting for Black studies at that time. And as a result of that and as a result of my being the first Black poet at an Ivy League university, Ebony decided to do a feature piece on me. I had written Don’t Cry, Scream, and when it came out in 1969, the piece in Ebony hit at the same time. Don’t Cry, Scream sold 75,000 copies. No other poet sold that many copies, but it did not hit the New York Times best-seller list. It just happened within the context of the Black community.

In Yellow Black I write about the fact that I used to lie about going to Howard University where I worked my way through by selling magazine subscriptions. I’d never even been to D.C. But I had read Sterling A. Brown and writers and scholars who were there. And I always wanted to go there. It was the capstone of a Black education. Out of the blue I got a call from Dr. Andrew Billingsley who told me that Howard had started an institute for the arts and humanities and was bringing in Stephen Henderson and John Killens. They wanted me to be poet-in-residence. So after he flew me out there, I told him, “You know, Dr. Billingsley, I used to lie about going here.” He said, “Well, OK. We can bring you in at a full professor’s salary as writer-in-residence.”

But I had one condition. That was to be able to commute between D.C. and Chicago. We had two storefronts where we were trying to build the press, and we had founded two schools on the South Side of Chicago. I said, “I cannot leave Chicago. My library is about10,000 volumes, and I can’t take this library across the country.” And he said, “It’s not going to happen.” So I got up and walked out. But before I got out the door, the secretary called me and pulled me back in.


The full interview with Haki Madhubuti is available in the spring 2016 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our store.



James Ballowe, an FWJ founding editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. Northern Illinois University Press published his biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, in 2009. In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published his anthology Christmas in Illinois. This is his twelfth interview of an Illinois poet for FWJ. Learn more about him:



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