Haki R. Madhubuti is a renowned African-American writer, poet, and educator. The author of twenty-four books, he became a major contributor to the black literary tradition beginning in the mid-1960s. He has received the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, as well as an American Book Award, and his books have sold over three million copies. A proponent of independent black institutions, Madhubuti is the founder, publisher, and chairman of the board of Third World Press, the oldest continually operating independent black publisher in the United States.
Haki Madhubuti was born Donald Luther Lee on February 23, 1942, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and raised in Detroit, Michigan; he has one sister. His father, James Lee, deserted the family when Lee was very young. His mother, Maxine (Graves) Lee, was an alcoholic and died when Lee was sixteen. Lee attended Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago. He received his associate’s degree from Chicago City College in 1966. He also attended Roosevelt University in Chicago (1966–1967) and the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA.
After the publication of his first two collections, Think Black (1967) and Black Pride (1968), which both contained autobiographical as well as activist elements, Lee devoted himself full time to teaching, publishing, and writing. In his early work especially, he is known for capturing African-American speech patterns and playing with aural effects by using extra vowels or consonants, phonetic spellings, and elisions. Lee was married briefly in 1963 to Johari Aminia and had a son. In 1967, Lee founded Third World Press. Later collections saw Lee gradually shift to more political subject matter and the use of standardized English. Carol Easton, a teacher, invited Madhubuti to read to her students, and they eventually married. They co-founded the Institute of Positive Education New Concept School in 1969.
In 1973, after traveling in Africa, Lee changed his name to Haki Madhubuti. “Haki” means “just,” while “Madhubuti” means “precise, accurate, and dependable.” Both names derive from the Swahili language. Madhubuti said that he wanted to arrive at a new definition of self. Book of Life (1973) was his first work to be published under his new name. Madhubuti continued to focus on political writing and activism and continued his development of a more technically controlled style, allowing concrete imagery to make political statements.
As an activist, Madhubuti has expressed the belief that it is the responsibility of the artist to expose injustice and the plight of the downtrodden. In 1998, Madhubuti cofounded the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a founder and chairman of the board of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and founder and director of the National Black Writers Retreat.
Madhubuti was the founder and Distinguished University Professor of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing and director of the MFA in creative writing program at Chicago State University. In 2006, he published the autobiographical novel Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life. He retired from teaching in 2011 but has continued publishing, including the 2016 book Taking Bullets: Black Boys and Men in Twenty-First Century America, Fighting Terrorism, Stopping Violence and Seeking Healing.
For additional information:
Gilyard, Keith. “GroundWork: New and Selected Poems of Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti from 1966–1996.” African American Review 33 (Spring 1999): 176.
Hamilton, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hudson, Theodore R. “Haki R. Madhubuti: Overview.” In Contemporary Poets. Edited by Thomas Riggs. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1995.
Kamp, Jim, ed. Reference Guide to American Literature. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
C. L. Bledsoe