Born Donald Luther Lee in Little Rock, Arkansas, the poet adopted the Swahili name Haki R. Madhubuti after traveling to Africa in 1974. As he shared in a 2006 interview, he sensed that “a new African name would help me in arriving at a final definition of self.” Haki means “justice” and Madhubuti means “precise, accurate, and dependable.”
Madhubuti received an MFA from the University of Iowa and served in the army from 1960 to 1963. A member of the Black Arts Movement, Madhubuti has published more than 20 books of poetry, nonfiction, and critical essays, and his work has been widely anthologized. Influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks, Madhubuti writes experimental, free-verse, politically charged poetry with a staccato rhythm. Over the span of his career, his poetry has shifted its focus from the personal to the political. Early work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) informs his activist poetics. Said Madhubuti in a 2006 interview, “If an artist, or any person, actually understands the condition of the Black world, it will be a dereliction of duty to not write about that world and expose the injustices that exist in it—injustices imposed upon the weak by white, Black and other cultures.”
His collections of poetry include Don’t Cry, Scream (1969) and Groundwork: Selected Poems of Haki R. Madhubuti / Don L. Lee (1996). He has also published Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s (1971) and Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? (1990), and edited Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology (1996).
Recognizing the lack of resources and forums for black writers, Madhubuti has founded and led numerous institutions and organizations dedicated to serving that need. In 1967, Johari Amini, Carolyn Rodgers, and Madhubuti founded Third World Press, with the mission of “provid[ing] quality literature that primarily focuses on issues, themes, and critique related to an African American public.” Madhubuti co-founded the quarterly Black Books Bulletin with Larry Neal, the Institute of Positive Education (1969), the New Concept School (1972), the Betty Shabazz International Charter School (Chicago, 1998), the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, and the National Black Writers Retreat.
Madhubuti has won an American Book Award, the Kuumba Workshop Black Liberation Award, the Broadside Press Outstanding Poet’s Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in both 1969 and 1982) and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For the Consideration of Poets
where is the poetry of resistance,
the poetry of honorable defiance
unafraid of lies from career politicians and business men,
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 service of beautiful people and late night promises,
not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic
Haki Madhubuti, “For the Consideration of Poets” from Run Toward Fear © 2004 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Run Toward Fear (Third World Press, 2004)
she doesn’t wear
& she knew that walt disney
was/is making a fortune off
false-eyelashes and that time magazine is the
authority on the knee/grow.
her makeup is total-real.
a negro english instructor called her:
“a fine negro poet.”
a whi-te critic said:
“she’s a credit to the negro race.”
somebody else called her;
“a pure negro writer.”
johnnie mae, who’s a senior in high school said:
“she and Langston are the only negro poets we’ve
read in school and i understand her.”
pee wee used to carry one of her poems around in his
the one about being cool. that was befo pee wee
was cooled by a cop’s warning shot.
into the sixties
a word was born . . . . . . . . BLACK
& with black came poets
& from the poet’s ball points came:
black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblack was
black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack super
black blackblack yellowblack niggerblack blackwhi-te-
blackthanyoueverbes ¼ black unblack coldblack clear
black my momma’s blackerthanyourmomma pimpleblack
black so black we can’t even see you black on black in
black by black technically black mantanblack winter
black coolblack 360degreesblack coalblack midnight
black black when it’s convenient rustyblack moonblack
black starblack summerblack electronblack spaceman
black shoeshineblack jimshoeblack underwearblack ugly
black auntjimammablack, uncleben’srice black
black blackisbeautifulblack i justdiscoveredblack negro
and everywhere the
lady “negro poet”
appeared the poets were there.
they listened & questioned
& went home feeling uncomfortable/unsound & so-
they read/re-read/wrote & rewrote
& came back the next time to tell the
lady “negro poet”
how beautiful she was/is & how she helped them
& she came back with:
how necessary they were and how they’ve helped her.
the poets walked & as space filled the vacuum between
them & the
lady “negro poet”
u could hear one of the blackpoets say:
“bro, they been calling that sister by the wrong name.”
Haki Madhubuti, “Gwendolyn Brooks” from Don’t Cry, Scream © 1969 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Don’t Cry Scream (Third World Press, 1969)
Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power
Who has the moral high ground?
Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse
on small corners in northwest, d.c.
boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out
with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.
across the planet in a land where civilization was born
the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives
in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people.
their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba
or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not
cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way
of making murder commonplace and not news
unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.
modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies
by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water
the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot
into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile,
we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.
Haki Madhubuti, “Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power” from Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems © 1969 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems (Third World Press, 1998)
Gwendolyn Brooks: America in the Wintertime
in this moment of orangutans, wolves, and scavengers,
of high heat redesigning the north & south poles
and the wanderings of new tribes in limousines,
with the confirmations of liars, thieves, and get-over artists,
in the wilderness of pennsylvania avenue,
standing rock, misspelled executive orders
on yellow paper with crooked signatures.
where are the kind language makers among us?
at a time of extreme climate damage,
deciphering fake news, alternative truths, and me-ism
you saw the twenty-first century and left us
not on your own accord or permission.
you have fought and fought most of the twentieth century
creating an army of poets who learned
and loved language and stories
of complicated rivers, seas, and oceans.
where is the kind green nourishment of kale and wheatgrass?
you thought, wrote, and lived poetry,
knew that terror is also language based
on denial, first-ism, and rich cowards.
you were honey and yes to us,
never ran from Black as in bones, Africa,
blood and questioning yesterdays and tomorrows.
we never saw you dance but you had rhythm,
you were a warrior before the war,
creating earth language, uncommon signs and melodies,
and did not sing the songs of career slaves.
keenly aware of tubman, douglass, wells-barnett, du bois,
and the oversized consciousness and commitment of never-quit people
religiously taking note of the bloodlust enemies of kindness
we hear your last words:
if you see me as your enemy
you have no
Source: Poetry (June 2017)