Considering his groundbreaking work as a writer and publisher, Dr. Haki Madhubuti ranks as one of the most important individuals in American literary history. Dr. Madhubuti was born Don Luther Lee on February 23, 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Madhubuti rose to prominence in the late '60s writing on themes of Black consciousness under the name of Don L. Lee. His first volume of poems Think Black was published in 1967. In 1974 Dr. Haki Madhubuti adopted his current name, it's derived from Swahili and the phrase loosely translates to "precise justice." And that's as good of a description as anything I could come up with to describe the underlying philosophical value in all of Dr. Madhubuti's work. Whether he's writing in prose or poetry Madhubuti expresses an urgent need to extract some sense of justice, and order from a world that is too often lost in chaos, greed, hate and indifference.
Dr. Madhubuti will visit Indianapolis this Friday, December 11, where he'll participate in two public forums. Both are free and open to general attendance. At 2 p.m. Dr. Madhubuti will host a poetry workshop at the Indianapolis Public Library's East 38th Branch located at 5420 E. 38th Street. Later that evening, at 6 p.m., Dr. Madhubuti will be speaking at Martin University's Gathertorium located at 2171 Avondale Place.
I spoke with Dr. Madhubuti via phone from his offices in Chicago.
NUVO: Dr. Madhubuti, you founded Third World Press in the 1960s. Third World has published books by important authors ranging from Gwendolyn Brooks, to Sonia Sanchez, to Amiri Baraka. You've also published your own work on Third World including Black Men: The African American Family in Transition which has sold more than one million copies.
Third World has also published work from our great Indianapolis writer Mari Evans. I know your relationship with Mari Evans extends beyond publishing her work.
Haki Madhubuti: Oh yes, I met Mari Evans around 1970. It was just after she'd published I Am A Black Woman. That was one of the major books to come out of the Black Arts Movement and it really set the pace for all of us. She's such a fine poet and certainly one of the major poets of the United States. I'm surprised she hasn't been named Poet Laureate of the United States and I'm most certainly surprised that she hasn't been named Poet Laureate of the state of Indiana. She's a woman of immense talent - multiple talents too, as she's also a musician. Mari is a committed writer and poet, and she's committed to her hometown of Indianapolis. I've had the honor and pleasure to be a friend of hers for 40-some odd years.
NUVO: I also wanted to ask you about Etheridge Knight, another crucially important writer from here in Indianapolis. I know you didn't publish any of his work, but you had some connection to Knight?
Madhubuti: Etheridge and I go back a long way too. Obviously he's not with us anymore. I met Etheridge early in his career when he was just starting to write. I met him through Gwendolyn Brooks who helped him get his first book published. Once he came out of prison, we read together on a couple of programs here in Chicago.
Indianapolis should be honored to have produced both Mari Evans and Etheridge Knight. Etheridge was on top of his game and just as Gwendolyn Brooks, he will live within our mind and memory for his excellent work.
NUVO: One aspect of Third World Press' philosophy that particularly fascinates me is that you allow writers to keep all the profits from their work.
Madhubuti: That's correct. With my own work I just donate everything back to the press. We are a house that essentially exists for the writer and the poet. We're not a profit-making company. The whole premise was: how do we build independent Black institutions that do not prey on the Black community, but serve the Black community.
NUVO: You mentioned the Black Arts Movement a moment ago. You were a big part of the Black Arts Movement, can you tell us about your role?
Madhubuti: The movement started simultaneously around the country as a result of the assassination of Malcolm X. Malcolm was kind of a creative and innovative father for all of us. He kind of set the pace in terms of our thinking and politics. When he was assassinated we began to question our own relationship to the United States of America as well as to the world.
We had to redefine ourselves. We had to cease being negroes and become Black people. We were people of African ancestry, African-Americans. That was critical. Once you define yourself in the positive, you stop reacting to all the negative stuff out there. As a result of that we began to build.
So coming out of the '60s I and other people around the country decided we needed to have our own institutions and we needed to be able to build these institutions without the philosophical input of those outside of our community. My role in the Black Arts Movement was not only as one of the founders, but one of the builders of two or three institutions, as well as building institutional structures on university campuses. For over forty-two years I was in the academy teaching. That's how I made my living since I didn't take any resources out of Third World Press.
For me it's always been about service. How do you serve a community that in many cases is not even sure of itself?
NUVO: I've heard you say that encountering the work of Richard Wright at age fourteen saved your life. What about Wright's writing had such a profound influence on you at that young age?
Madhubuti: You must understand that most Black people grew up on what some people call plantations. But I call them slave labor camps. Even though we were not held by chains, there continued to be slave labor camps. The chains had been put on our minds. When you control a person's mind, nine times out of ten you also control their body. So growing up in urban Detroit and urban Chicago I really hated myself.
My mother was a reader. She wasn't necessarily an educated person, but she was self-taught. During the '50s Richard Wright was riding high and his name was mentioned everywhere. Two of his major works were Native Son and Black Boy, which was more autobiographical. My mother asked me to go to the library and check out Black Boy. I refused at first because I hated myself. I didn't want to go to a white library and ask a white librarian for a book with Black in the title authored by a Black writer who was critical of white America.
Anyway, I went. I found the book on the shelf and pulled it to my chest. I walked to the young people's section of the library and set down and began to read. For the first time in my life I was reading literature that was not an insult to my own personhood. I was reading sentences and paragraphs that spoke about me and spoke directly to my own experiences.
I read Black Boy in less than 24 hours. I then gave it to my mother and went back to the library to check out everything Richard Wright had published at that time. So I was on my way. What Richard Wright taught me was to think critically and question the world critically. If I had not found him I don't know where my life would be.
NUVO: You made a pair of amazing LPs that combined spiritual jazz with spoken word, Medasi in 1984 and Rise Vision Comin in 1976. How did those albums come into existence?
Madhubuti: I used to teach at Howard University and there was an amazing group of young men and women who came to my classes. Many of them were musicians. If you read my memoir then you'll see I used to be a trumpet player. I was always in love with the music. Louis Armstrong was my favorite musician and that's why I picked up the trumpet in the first place.
But soon after I started playing and getting lessons I began to realize that I could never touch what he was doing. Then came along this tall, Black, creative and very serious trumpet player by the name of Miles Davis who came out of East St. Louis. So Miles was more my man, because essentially he was cool. He was ready to take on the world on his own terms. Miles, when he played the trumpet the women would gravitate toward him like he was a free shoe store. So I saw that and said "I want to play me some trumpet." But after I picked it up I realized it was not my forte.
So music was critical in terms of my whole life. When I got to Howard I had all these younger musicians around me and I was writing my poetry, so we decided to hook up and make these two albums.
Rise Vision Comin sold over 30,000 copies without any serious advertising. Since Rise Vision Comin did so well we recorded a second one called Medasi, which sold well also. We've kept both of the albums in play and they're still available as CDs at Third World Press.
These musicians were really phenomenal. Most of them were students at Howard. Some of them are still playing like the piano player Geri Allen. She was just getting started at that time. We would go around for Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and Virginia and read poetry and play music. It was a great, great time to be into music and poetry.
NUVO: I wanted to ask you about your relationship with the late-great songwriter Gil Scott-Heron. You published a collection of Gil's work in 1990 titled So Far, So Good. But your connection to Gil is deeper than that, correct?
Madhubuti: Evidently I had influenced Gil early on. If you look at his first book there's a poem about me. We connected later on in the seventies. Obviously he had achieved fame far beyond me and almost any other poet. By the time he was in his early twenties or late teens he had published two novels. He was really brilliant. The only thing that really ruined his life was drugs. From that point on everything was really a question mark.
If you look at all those records he put out in the '70s and '80s, they were masterpieces. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," everyone and their mama is using that expression now. His work was brilliant. It just shows you the kind of creativity that comes comes from this community.
So Gil and I hooked up again back in the '80s when I had moved to Chicago State University. I was creating institutions at Chicago State and we had the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Creative Writing and Black Literature. Out of that center I was able to bring Gwendolyn Brooks for her last ten years to teach at Chicago State. She didn't want to do that, but I talked her into it. We had the Gwendolyn Brooks' writers conferences as well as the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and the first MFA program for writing at a predominantly Black university. During that period where we were having these conferences I think I brought Gil Scott-Heron in twice. I also brought him in to help do a fundraiser for our art institutions.
We were close. But you couldn't talk to him about the drug problem. He would not listen and he was always in denial. I being older than Gil and coming out of a family of addicted folk - I understood what was going on. In order to maintain our relationship I'd always greet him and ask how he was doing. He was a good man and brilliant in terms of the work that he left us. He left us too soon obviously.
NUVO: You mentioned that you were an early influence on Gil Scott-Heron. You also had an influence on the Last Poets. Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets are often credited as being the godfathers of rap music. In that sense I wonder if you felt a direct connection with hip-hop culture?
Madhubuti: Absolutely, many of my students coming through Chicago State and elsewhere have grown up with hip-hop. My own children, too.
NUVO: I wanted to give you a chance to talk about your latest book Taking Bullets: Black Life in Twenty-first Century America, Fighting Terrorism, Stopping Violence and Seeking Healing.
Madhubuti: This book came about as a result of Trayvon Martin being murdered. Then what really set me off was the murder of the young brother Tamir Rice in Cleveland. He was 12-years-old and shot to death by a white Cleveland police officer within three or four seconds of running up on him. The murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Walter Scott - it becomes like a mantra, these young boys, teenagers and men being killed by these Neanderthal cops. All of them got the same excuse: "I feared for my life." And of course that's accepted, but it ceased being accepted once cel phones started taking pictures. That has been a liberating tool.
I'm 73-years-old, so the question is, "What do I do?" I can understand hashtag #blacklivesmatter and I write about that in the book. I'm very grateful for it because it's doing what we did in the '60s. A critical point is that what's happening now and continues to happen is not much different than what happened in the '60s. What I wanted to make very clear is that what happened in Baltimore and what happened in Ferguson and other parts of the United States - the people who give us the evening news called these riots. These are not riots. These are rebellions and uprisings caused by centuries of horrible treatment.
The question for me, and I write about this in the book is, "Why do white people hate us so much? Why do they treat us this way? What did we do?" We didn't come here on our own will. We were raped from Africa and transported around the Western world, sprinkled around the Western world to build nations for white people. But we end up being the most hated people in this country. The only people here who have suffered greater than us are the Native Americans, the First Nations people. They were almost wiped out.
In the book I deal with the question of whiteness and white privilege. I deal with the police and the prison industrial complex. But just as important I deal with what very few Black writers have dealt with in the past, which is the United States of Empire. Many of us do not realize that we are dealing with the last known empire and empire does not take prisoners.
What's happening today where you have ignorant people like Donald Trump and the right wing presidential candidates coming out with all this blame and hatred for Muslims, we have to realize 9/11 or what happened in Paris is really what's called blowback. It's blowback as a result of what the West has done for centuries to other non-white people, especially in the Middle East. Anyway Kyle, I can go on and on. The book is a major piece of work and I try to put this whole struggle we're involved with in some kind of context.
NUVO: I did want to ask a specific question on one of the themes you touched on, particularly regarding Donald Trump. You've been observing and commenting on the social conditions of the United States for decades. Do you feel like we're at a point now where this sort-of white supremacist philosophy is reaching heights it hasn't been at for decades?
Madhubuti: Absolutely I do. But on the other hand I do feel optimistic and the reason for that Kyle is the young people. I worked in the academy for forty-two years. Even though you find a lot of privileged white children who don't want to do anything except join sororities and fraternities and act up. But when you look at Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements you see a lot of young white kids out there, just as we saw in the '60s. I'm optimistic that young people are standing up. When you get Black, brown, white, Asian and Native American young people coming together then we have great possibilities to turn this whole mess around.
We're going through a very difficult time. I have children and I'm very concerned. But we only do what we're taught to do.
Let me end up with a poem. You know I'm a poet right?
NUVO: Yeah, of course!
Madhubuti: I'm going to read a poem that's never been read before. I just finished it and it's titled "More Powerful Than God."
"More powerful than Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Bhuddism, Sikhism and love. More powerful than ancestor veneration, evolutionism, decency, creationism, monotheism, freedom, atheism, philosophy, science and fear. More powerful than spirituality, sociology, Marxism, secularism, Zionism, nationalism, climate change, democracy, humanism and the lives of children…
And reigns as the God of colony politicians, without a close second. And untouchable is the National Rifle Association."
[Editor's note: A portion of this poem was excerpted from full reading during call.]
Thank you to Dona Stokes Lucas and Sibeko Jywanza for coordinating this interview.