Selected titles include: Don’t Cry, Scream! (1969), Tough Notes: A Healing Call For Creating Exceptional Black Men (2002), and Run Toward Fear (2004). His poetry and essays were published in more than 75 anthologies from 1997 to 2010. His recent releases are YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life, A Memoir (2006) and Liberation Narratives: New and Collected Poems 1966-2009 (2009). Madhubuti’s latest book of poems is Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks: The Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice (2011) and he is co-editor of the new anthology, By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented (2012) Professor Madhubuti founded Third World Press in 1967. He is also a founder of the Institute of Positive Education/New Concept School (1969), and a cofounder of Betty Shabazz International Charter School (1998), Barbara A. Sizemore Middle School (2005), and DuSable Leadership Academy (2005), all of which are in Chicago. An award-winning poet and recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, the American Book Award, an Illinois Arts Council Award, the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award and others, Madhubuti is also a founder and chairman of the board of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. In 2006, he was awarded the Literary Legacy Award from the National Black Writers Conference for creating and supporting Black literature and for building Black literary institutions. In 2007, he was named Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Magazine. In 2009, he was named one of the “Ebony Power 150: Most Influential Blacks in America” for education. In 2010, he was presented with the President’s Pacesetters Award from the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education, and was awarded the Ninth Annual Hurston/Wright Legacy prize in poetry for his book, Liberation Narratives. Two recent book-length critical studies on Madhubuti's literary works are Malcolm X and the Poetics of Haki Madhubuti by Regina Jennings and Art of Work: The Art and Life of Haki R. Madhubuti by Lita Hooper. A widely anthologized poet, Madhubuti is included in The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove. His distinguished teaching career includes faculty positions at Columbia College of Chicago, Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Howard University, Morgan State University, and the University of Iowa. He is the former University Distinguished Professor and a professor of English at Chicago State University, where he founded and was director-emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Professor Madhubuti served as the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University for 2010-11.
Haki R. Madhubuti Interview with John Hoppenthaler
I think that many Olympics viewers were shocked and outraged at the attention paid to Gabby Douglas’ appearance as opposed to the extraordinary achievement of her performances. Your poem here, “Gabby: All Around Gold,” speaks to this. A few things seem particularly notable about this poem. First, it shows a great deal of courage, most poets would say, to publish a poem so recently written. Many poets, myself included, would probably allow the poem to stew awhile, to be available for further revision, before making it public. However, a part of me wants to be brave enough to unleash my more overtly political poems quickly (if I’m lucky enough to find a journal willing to publish them speedily). A longish preface here to get to the question that’s been a hobbyhorse of mine; that is, does political poetry matter in today’s society. Does it make anything happen? Or do such poems just preach to the choir? And, if they do, is that enough? To use a political cliché of the day, does such a poem “energize the base,” and is this reason enough to posit such poems into the discourse?
It seems to me that the essence of your question has more to do with the nature of poetry and poets. Who is he/she who writes poetry? Why write poetry, and really, what is the need or what is the significance or non-significance of a poem? By extension, where do poets stand vis-a-vis the politics of poetry or any art form?
My history is relevant here. I came to poetry and writing via the voluminous consumption of literature, primarily Black poets and writers such as, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, W.E.B. DuBois, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Carter G. Woodson, Paul Robeson, Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks and others too numerous to list. Most of the poets/writers I read and studied were cultural and political writers. That is, they were raised in apartheid America and, therefore, were forced to meet each day with a war-face and a mentality demanding that they ready themselves for battle. They had to be ready to use a different set of words that were both protective of and defining for Black people—people of African ancestry—in a way that counteracted the culture of white supremacy that demeaned, rejected and dismissed Black people and people of African ancestry. This was/is no small matter. And I saw that to be a conscience and cultural-specific artist /poet that role is to be a corrector of record.
I grew up around “pimps and whore’s slamming Cadillac doors on the streets of Detroit’s Black-bottom and Chicago’s Westside.” I was dropped into a culture of Black inferiority and white answers. If I was to eat regularly, I had to learn a hustle/occupation—I chose poetry, music and visual art. In fact, it was art that helped to awaken my young soul, mainly poetry:
in this universe
the magic the beauty the willful art of explaining
the world & you
the timeless the unread the unstoppable fixation
with language & ideas
the visionary the satisfiable equalizer screaming for
the vitality of dreams interrupting false calm
demanding fairness and a new new world are the
poets and their poems.
Poetry is the wellspring of tradition, the bleeding
connector to yesterdays and the free passport to
poems bind people to language, link generations to
each other and introduce cultures to cultures.
Poetry, if given the eye and ear, can bring memories,
issue in laughter, rain in beauty and cure ignorance.
Language in the context of the working poem can
raise the mindset of entire civilizations, speak to
two-year-olds and render some of us wise.
This selection is excerpted from my poem “Poetry,” that if read in its entirety defines poetry and poetry writing first and foremost as a cultural act, and an act of political and emotional resistance.
I view Gabby Douglas as a cultural daughter. Therefore, I had been dealing with the negative impact of three white supremacist descriptions/definition of Black people all of my life: color, hair and speech. For Black women the criticism of hair is a very sensitive and emotional affair. The attack against her hair leaped into my heart because such hateful words had been directed toward our physical appearance since our forced migration to this land. All conscious fathers move without hesitation to protect their children whether they are biological or cultural.
But the poem is about more than the undue attention paid to Gabby’s hair and opens up into a wider political/cultural concern. That is, the poem is also a profile in courage and determination; the poem insists that these qualities, as exemplified in Douglas, serve as “a dagger / into the doubts of experienced coordinators and / self-hating negroes who questioned her / ‘confidence and focus’ and the naturalness of her hair.” Do you sense, as the poem seems to suggest, that we are now at a point where a general malaise and/or ennui, or perhaps even backsliding, has interrupted social progress?
I have been studying and writing poetry for over fifty years. I have been teaching poetry writing—at the university level—for over thirty-five years. All art is cultural and political. All life is political; that is what the Occupy Movement was about. Mainly a good and active number of people representing the 99 percent finally realized that the 1 percent refused to share or act fairly in the area of economics and politics. Art—whether it’s poetry, music, visual, dance, theatre, etc.—represents the fuel driving the human engine.
Social progress in the nation is in the stop zone. The election of President Obama has brought out the best and worse in the land. The current presidential race is obscene and directed toward the low information citizens. According to Senator Mitch McConnell, almost on day one of Obama’s election, his role was to work toward this president’s failure, thus stopping any re-election.
Any serious participant in the electoral process must read It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. They detail the nation’s breakdown in self-governance and the rise of “hostage taking” and dysfunctional government advocated by the Tea Party Movement. Money has flooded the electoral process as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens’ United Decision and as a result, has put true democracy on life-support.
Not to move too far from our discourse on the power and necessity of poetry. However, the times mandate that we put the role of art in its proper political context. Two books, Robert Draper’s Do Not Ask What Good We Do and Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal both offer insight into the Obama presidency with all the baggage a new African American male brings to the most powerful position in the nation. Both authors write about the eventful dinner of January 20, 2009 where top republican house members, senators and elders of the Republican Party met to initiate the downfall of the new Black president. Some would call this treason. I call it the same old racial politics that a culture of white supremacy demands, thereby confirming the Republicans during Obama’s first term as “the party of No.”
In this climate the role of the artist and especially the poet takes on added responsibility. We must understand that poetry is the most democratic of the art forms. Most people think that they can write poetry. Whether that is true or not is another question. However, we, poets, work with language and it is the intention of most poets to be read and listened to. It is the poets who run toward fear; they are the few who feed off of language and its core meaning. One cannot earn a living in America by writing poetry. We teach, wait tables, drive cabs, work on loading docks, walk dogs and whatever that allows for time to write and pursue justice and art.
Two lines from your poem “Justice as the Purest Motivation, dedicated to Derrick Bell, might as well serve to describe your own place in poetry: metaphor and direct action, poetry and prose, / he drew the line and crossed it, pushing us ever forward . . . .” Looking back at your career, at the age of seventy, of what are you most proud? What might you have differently, both as an activist and as a poet? What do you observe about the arc of your poetry from an aesthetic standpoint?
I have little doubt in my mind that I could have been “famous and successful” as the poet Don L. Lee. In its first year of publication, my third book Don’t Cry, Scream! sold seventy-five thousand copies. I was the first Black poet-in-residence at an Ivy League university—Cornell. When Ebony Magazine published a feature article on me, I was suddenly known nationally and my life took off in directions I could not imagine. I came back to earth when I decided that authenticity and integrity were more important than minor fame and money. After several visits to Africa and my continued interaction with the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks and my involvement in street struggle, I decided to change my name and move with greater purpose in building independent Black institutions that would serve my community. Third World Press is the best known of these institutional structures but I also was the co-founder of four African-centered schools in Chicago. Our schools are pre-school to High School serving over 1,000 students a day in the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. I have also founded progressive institutions at the University where I worked for over twenty-six years. As an activist poet, I am at peace with my life and do not feel in any way that I’ve wasted time. I also have a brilliant wife, Dr. Carol D. Lee (she has an endowed chair at Northwestern University) and six wonderful children who are making their own way in this difficult world.
I’d like to ask a question about the Black Arts Movement. Like any game-changing historical moment, the approximately fifteen year span most literary critics afford the movement has been now viewed through nearly every possible lens. Like most exhaustively analyzed things, scrutiny always finds what it is looking for, chinks and inconsistencies. And so the Black Arts Movement has been given the credit it so richly deserves for its far-reaching legacy. It has been credited for spurring political engagement via art; for jump-starting independent publishing efforts for black writers (your own Third World Press the most prominent of these); for innovating poetic language by insisting that “Black English” is acceptable for use in the making of poetry; for empathizing the traditional role of orality and performance (perhaps an early stoking today’s popularity of spoken word poetry); as well as for furthering the Harlem Renaissance’s incorporation of various rhythmic structures via traditional black musical forms. On the other hand, the movement has had its critics, from within and without the black community, who have insisted that the movement was sexist, homophobic, and even racist. In retrospect, how do you address such charges today?
The Black Arts Movement (BAM) changed all of the participant’s lives significantly. The major BAM poets—Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Askia Toure’, Larry Neal, Mari Evans, Marvin X, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Julia Fields, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Long Madgett, Eugene Redmond, Angela Jackson, Kalamu ya Salaam, Quincy Troupe, Sterling Plumpp, Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn M. Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Fred Hord, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Ishmael Reed, Don L. Lee and others—altered the poetry landscape in America. Its legacy is still being assessed. Two recent books that look at BAM with a critical eye and offer valuable observations are: The Black Arts Movement by James Edward Smethurst and The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry by Howard Rambsy II. Also, we must always reference two classic books, Understanding The New Black Poetry by Stephen Henderson and DRUMVOICES: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry by Eugene B. Redmond as well as the key journals Negro Digest / Black World and The Journal of Black Poetry. BAM was the leading cultural, political and arts movement to grow out of the national Black community of the late 1960s into the middle 1970s. We were young, often angry, conditioned in a culture of white supremacy, in a hurry and did not settle for injustice of any kind. Did we make mistakes? Yes. They were, however, few, unintentional and unavoidable because the urgency of the time and the deadly forces we faced.
I’d like to move forward in literary time a bit and talk a bit about the post-BAM era. A couple of years ago, I happened upon a notice for the 2010 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and saw that you and Rita Dove were to be honored as co-winners. My thoughts turned immediately to Rita’s poem “Upon Meeting Don. L. Lee in a Dream.” I mean, I couldn’t help it; I certainly remembered that the poem was not flattering to you! Clearly, the post-BAM younger poets had to confront what all young poets have to confront; that is, they had to come to terms with what came before and how to deal with this confrontation in poetry (if at all). These poets realized that they owed your generation a debt of gratitude for doing great and dangerous work that made their own poetic paths that much more probable, yet they realized, too, that, as is always the case, the artist must, in some way, kill off his or her literary parents in order to move ahead with agendas they themselves have chosen. Arnold Rampersad, writing about Dove specifically and her fellow post-BAM poets generally, describes the impulse in this way: “Instead of an obsession with the theme of race, one finds an eagerness, perhaps even an anxiety, to transcend—if not actually to repudiate—black cultural nationalism in the name of more inclusive sensibility.” I did some research and discovered that Rita has commented upon that poem in interviews, but I couldn’t find anywhere where you’ve commented upon it. In an interview with Charles Rowell, for instance, she expresses that “I’ve never meant for that poem to be interpreted as an angry retort or rejection. It’s an allegorical rendering of what happens when two artistic generations collide. It’s not meant to be patronizing, and though the arrogance of youth may color some of the interactions in the allegory, I’m simply declaring that I found a different path, one determined by my very own aesthetic sensibilities.” And in an interview with Jericho Brown, Dove says, “ My poetic voice was quiet; I wanted to write about backyards and birds and a young girls’ unspoken yearning; would such topics be accepted as part of the Struggle , could they even be heard?”
I’ve always wondered about how you felt about the poem when you first read it .
I consider Rita Dove to be one of the finest poets we have produced in the nation. We have never talked. This is crucial because we know each other only by the poems and essays published. As she has stated “my poetic voice was quiet;” I, most certainly accept and respect this, however, my voice has been one of a fighting nature, ready for battle—see the recent Gabby poem—I write because I cannot tolerate injustice and as a result of my feelings and values I am often misunderstood and taken to tasks by the more acceptable voices.
When I read Rita Dove’s poem “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee in a Dream” I viewed it as a piece of impressionist art. I did not leave her poem thinking that I needed to answer it. I will continue to buy her books and as a family of poets—we are very small—wish her well. I do hope that we will become closer as the years capture our youth.
You’ve had as astonishing, full, and important career as a man of letters and activist as anyone. Your many achievements and honors and activities speak for themselves. Obviously, you are still writing poetry, but what remains on your wish list? What things will occupy you as you move ahead?
Finally, I feel that poets (artist in general) are the freest people in the world, intellectually, culturally and politically. Internationally, it is the artist who challenges authority, cultural and political backwardness. One cannot read Robert Hayden, June Jordan, Daniel Berrigan, Mahmoud Darwish, Muriel Rukeyser, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry, Robert Bly, Sascha Feinstein, Ana Castillo, Octavio Paz, Aime Cesaire, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Luis Rodriquez, Ntozake Shange, Toi Derricotte, Nicolas Guillen, Martin Espada, the poets of BAM and thousands of un-names poets who all helped to re-order the landscape and not get fired up. I remain a core member of the league of “trouble makers” and truth carriers:
where is the poetry of resistance
the poetry of honorable defiance
unafraid of the lies from career politicians and businesses
not respectful of journalist who write
official speak void of educated thought
without double search or sub surface questions
that war talk demands?
where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion
not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,
not in the services of influence, incompetence and academic clown talk?
for another love of flying, pole-walking
and dancing on white floors.
not just a leap from virginia beach to des moines
it was climate change and evolution,
tidal waves, volcanoes and prayers
to embrace an extended family of
iowans and a coach from china.
this took heart, soul, silent music and strength
as she conquered a sport
not taught on the playgrounds & gyms of
natural headed black people: she exploded a dagger
into the doubts of experienced coordinators and
self-hating negroes who questioned her
"confidence and focus" and the naturalness of her hair.
she, in rejecting self-hatred, self-doubt & can't do-ness
flew as a champion into the world's living rooms
confirming talent, smiles & hair that
captured a first, gold, a sport & our hearts.