Trailblazing Publisher Talks Poetry, Black Literature
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
Every so often, you want to talk things over with someone who's not just smart, but wise.
That's why we created Wisdom Watch, an occasional feature where we ask some of our most respected elders to guide us through challenging and important issues.
Today, we talk with Haki Madhubuti, a star in the publishing world who made his mark early as a poet.
Professor HAKI MADHUBUTI (Founder, Chairman and Publisher, Third World Press): I am told that I was born on the night when sun and moon fought for recognition. My father played five-stud poker with men who did not like him while two midwives gently opened my mother's legs so I could slide head first into a world not ready for complicated questions or uncommon ideas from people with the deepest of color: black. The year was 1942.
CORLEY: "1942" is a poem, and Professor Madhubuti's latest book, a memoir about his early years as a poet, entitled, "Yellow Black." He founded Third World Press in 1967. It's considered the oldest, continuously operating independent black publisher in the country. Among its authors are Amiri Baraka, Gloria Naylor and Gwendolyn Brooks. We wanted to talk to Madhubuti about his vision, his mission and the future of the black press.
Welcome, professor, and congratulations on the 40th year of publishing.
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Oh, thank you very much. I'm really happy to be with you.
CORLEY: I'm glad you're here as well. So what was the mission of Third World Press, and why did you want to start a press for black writers?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: I did about two or three poetry readings back in the '60s and gained about $400, and started Third World Press with $400 and a used mimeograph machine in my basement apartment on south 8th in Chicago, about the size of a large conference table there I shared with all the animals.
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Prof. MADHUBUTI: And so that's how I started, but primarily to give a voice to the voiceless. You know, to give a voice to those poets and writers who essentially cannot get published any place else. I felt that it was probably my responsibility to use some of the money I earned in order to try to give back to the community that I'm a part of also.
CORLEY: Why did you choose the name Third World of Press?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, during that period, we were considered part of the community that had not been industrialized. And at that time, we were called Third World People. So we were kind of the people who were trying to essentially make our own names heard. And as a part of the Black Arts Movement, a part of our responsibility was to change the conversation. And we were able to do that. We ceased being Negroes and became Africans, men of African ancestry, women of African ancestry, African-Americans, and we began to essentially write our own stories.
And I think those stories, in the final analysis, can be called, you know, liberation narratives. That's what we were about during - at that period, and even today. And any people who will control their own culture imperatives are about writing their own narratives, living their own narratives. At the same time, they're going to those institutions that will keep those narratives alive, who are at the same time bringing new narratives in on a daily basis.
CORLEY: Well, I want to talk to you about what it was like in 1967 and have you tell me what it was like for you. Of course, the Vietnam War was growing on, and you served a stint in the Army. There were the Detroit race riots. Not too much longer after that, Thurgood Marshall confirmed as the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court. What was 1967 like for you?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Pretty much just what you described. I did have a military background. I went into the military in 1960, and I served in 1963. What you and your listening audience must understand that the military for many black people, and even poor whites to a certain extent, was a poor boy's, a poor girl's answer to unemployment. That's the only reason I went in. I was poor, did not have family. I was on my own, and I had very few options out here. And coming out of the military and finding mentors allowed me to move beyond what I thought I could do.
But on the way to basic training, I'll never forget this. I was reading Paul Robeson's "Here I Stand." This was 1960. And Paul Robeson, as well as W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes have been called before the House for un-American activities. And essentially, they had been betrayed by this country. Paul Robeson, economically, was ruined. W.E.B. Dubois had to leave the country, and ended up dying in Ghana. So for me, it was a time of struggle, trying to find a voice. And those mentors gave me the voice. Well, certainly, (unintelligible) survived Malcolm X.
And so the press came into existence because I felt then, as I do now, we need independent black institutions. And when you look at strong communities, whole communities, you find institutions where there's education, where there's health care, where there's, you know, industry and commerce. But all too often, when you look at the black community, you'll find one major institution, and that's basically the black church.
And so we felt that we needed to move beyond just the spiritual side of our development, but what about our development in terms of understand our history, our psychology, you know, the whole art? Art is critical and important to the development of any people. And so I felt that we need to develop a publishing company that would publish whole works from men and women in all these different genre. And over the last 40 years, we've been able to do that, and to do it rather successfully. We started from our basement apartment, and now, we own a half a block of Chicago.
CORLEY: I just wanted to ask you, you started off your literary career as a poet, and people knew you as Don L. Lee.
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Correct.
CORLEY: And you changed your name to Haki Madhubuti. Why?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well…
CORLEY: And what's it mean?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: As I became more conscious, and as I studied great historians from, you know, Chancellor Williams and (unintelligible) and others, and once I begin to travel to Africa, I began to question my own identity. What is Don mean? What is the L mean - Luther? What does Lee mean? Is Lee Asian or European?
And as I began to accept more of my African side, I asked for a name. And the name Haki Madhubuti was given to me. Haki means just to justice, and Madhubuti means precise act or dependable, from the key Swahili languages spoken, you know, in places like Tanzanian, Kenya and so forth. And I feel that I'm a man, a black man, a man of African ancestry, and that I think that people who are aware of their own cultural heritage essentially have names that reflect that heritage.
CORLEY: I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin.
We're talking with Dr. Haki Madhubuti, poet, professor and founder of Third World Press, the black publishing company which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Well, you had a number of authors, as I mentioned earlier, who have been a part of Third World Press. And you were able to woo one Gwendolyn Brooks.
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Ms. GWENDOLYN BROOKS (Author): We real cool. The pool players seven at the golden shovel. We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon.
CORLEY: That's poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She died in 2000. But you've had a special relationship with her for years. Brooks, of course, was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. How significant was it to become her publisher?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: She was, for me, kind of the earth opening up. I met her in 1967, '68 in a church on the South Side Chicago, teaching the Blackstone Rangers - how - many members of the Blackstone Rangers how to write poetry. And I and another poet walked in, and I never left. And we became family, because essentially, she was a woman who was beyond and ahead of her time. She was a woman that was an example for all of us. And also, this year would be Gwendolyn Brooks' 90th birthday. So as we celebrate 40 years, we also celebrate Gwen Brooks' 90th birthday. And we published 10 books of hers.
Prof. MADHUBUTI: And what we're doing in order to keep her name alive and her dream and visions alive, we are commissioning scholars and activists and writers across the country to do work on Gwendolyn Brooks' work. And so, it's part of my mission as cultural son, but also as a man who understands the importance of art, because art essentially saved my life. If I had not read Richard Wright's "Black Boy" at the age of 14, I would not be here today talking to you, because, you know, I grew up in apartheid America. I grew up hating myself.
My mother was in the sex trade. My sister had her first child at 14, second child at 16, third child at 18. By the time she was 27, she had six children and never married. I didn't get my first suit until my mother's funeral. I was 16 years old. So we grew up in deep, deep poverty. But reading Richard Wright began to allow me to come out of my shell and see that there was another world, and to see that a man from Mississippi via Tennessee come up to Chicago could be a great writer.
CORLEY: Professor, black authors often say they have to fight the battle with publishing companies to get over the impression that the black people don't read. I was wondering how you thought Third World has been able to help dispel that concept.
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, we do several things. I don't know if I mentioned earlier, but we have Third World Press Foundation. And the foundation's about working to help institutions - whether they're schools or whether they're shelters or whether they're halfway homes or whether they're aftercare - in building libraries and fostering reading among, you know, our people. If a brother or sister or even others outside of our culture are incarcerated, any person has to do was just write us, and we will send that person books, you see, free - no charge. It is clear that you have to be able to read. You cannot function in a technologically scientifically advanced society if you cannot read and read well and then articulate your thoughts, you know, be able to analyze words and put words to paper.
CORLEY: Well, Third World Press has obviously put out a lot of books to help people get to that level. It also was the first black-owned publishing house to have a book on The New York Times Best Seller List, that would have been "The Covenant with Black America." When you see that success, what do you think the biggest challenge is for black authors today?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: I think the major challenge always is to be able to write your story or your narrative and to publish it in the way that you put it on paper. All too often, editors who are (unintelligible) our story try to make changes that they feel best reflect what they understand about the story. And the biggest challenge for black publishers, including myself and others, are basically trying to find the kind of resources to continue to publish. And there's just so much out there, and so many men and women who are writing and have stories to tell. We just do not have the capacity to publish all the men and women who wish to be published at this time.
CORLEY: And looking back, is there anything different that you would have done with Third World Press? I know you're on your 40th anniversary now, probably looking forward to many years more, but is there anything different you would have done?
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, I think I would have probably expanded the business side. I mean my degrees are basically English, or in writing. I was never really worried about or concerned about the money. In the early days, I would give away more books than I would sell. And so it's much more than just a business, but it's a mission. And the mission is how do we become a whole people, and how do we begin to essentially tell our narrative, while at the same time move toward a level of success in this country and in the world? And we can do that. I know we can do that.
CORLEY: Professor Haki Madhubuti is the founder and president of Third World Press, and he joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. You can find the link to Third World Press at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Professor Madhubuti, thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations on your 40th anniversary.
Prof. MADHUBUTI: Thank you very much, Cheryl.
CORLEY: And to hear Haki Madhubuti read his entire poem, "1942", go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.