By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 16, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Chicago State University, the founder and publisher of Third World Press and the co-founder of four schools in Chicago. He is the author of 27 books, most recently “Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life: A Memoir,” about his growing up in Detroit’s Blackbottom and Chicago’s West Side, and has just published “The Covenant With Black America,” a project with broadcaster Tavis Smiley.
Q: On the cover of your book is a photo of your mother, Helen Maxine Graves Lee. The title is “Yellow Black.” Why?
A: You look at my mother and you see she was a very light-skinned black woman. (Theater director) Woodie King said she looked like Lena Horne. I think that’s close. In terms of beauty, I think she would give Lena Horne a run for her money, and that’s why she’s on the cover of the book.
In the 1960s I was involved in a lot of demonstrations with Dr. King when he came to Chicago _ primarily as a foot soldier. When we would march into the solid white communities like Bridgeport bordering the black community, they’d either call me half-breed, or somebody would say, “look at that yellow black man over there.” Yellow black, yellow black. It began to stick.
Q: Was being light-skinned a problem?
A: Being high yellow was always a problem, yes. What happened, early in the struggle in the 1960s, I would always be challenged by men in the struggle that were in some cases darker than I was but not as intellectually referenced. There was always the question, was I black enough, could I be trusted in the deepest of struggle? I decided I was going to have to outwork everybody in the black community, not tangential to it, not parallel to it, not in some academic university setting. I would really have to produce in the black community. That was my mission.
Q: Your mother died when you were 16. At her funeral, you write, “a family member asked why I stopped going to church. I said that it `affected my relationship with God.”’ Why?
A: I learned that very early because my mother in her life as a prostitute basically serviced ministers throughout Detroit and Michigan and the Midwest. Q: Did your alienation from church leave you feeling out in the cold spiritually?
A: I began to do a serious study of world religions. Who’s right? My answer is essentially they’re all right, that each culture creates a spiritual basis or force that will enable them to confront each day and within that spiritual path there are answers to life and death. I decided a long time ago I’m going to buy into all of them.
You ask what faith I am. I’m a pluralist. I have no deep fear about dying. I have no deep fear about what’s going to happen to me once I leave. In fact I’m battling with my wife now. She wants to bury me and I said, “I don’t want to be buried, just cremated and use my ashes to fertilize two trees _ a tree outside our home and a tree in front of Third World Press.” That’s it.
It seems to me that if there is a tomorrow, if there is a heaven or there is a hell, the basis of going to the best place is just do good work and try to be a good person and not take advantage of anybody and share what you have. That’s how I live. I made a lot of money in my life but all that money you can see in these public institutions. I drive a Toyota.
Q: You have never tried alcohol or drugs. Why?
A: I saw how alcohol and drugs impaired by mother. I never wanted to put myself in a position where men or women could take advantage of me. I saw many men in struggle getting high all the time, whether it was in the Nationalist movement or in the Black Panther Party. I never forget talking to Fred Hampton before he was murdered (by the Chicago police) and basically telling him he needed to get a hold of himself in no uncertain words.
Q: In your afterword to “The Covenant With Black America,” you describe that volume as an antidote to what you describe as a “learned dependency (that) has slowly invaded large portions of the Black community.” Why did that happen?
A: I think part of it was forced on us by the federal government. I also fault in large part black intellectuals. It’s one thing to talk bad about white people at (top) research universities, but all these professors need to do some pro bono work. Half these guys you can’t even talk to them unless you pay them $10,000, $15,000 and now they’re even asking more than that. My question is, what are you doing with your money other than buying a second or third home someplace, or hanging out on that yacht that you don’t want anybody to see? I’m at Chicago State University because that is where I’m supposed to be.
Q: At 18 you joined the Army. You write, “I’ll never forget my military training and the lessons learned. The trials won and lost prepared me for danger.” But now there is a war on you strongly oppose. Would you counsel young African-Americans to follow your example?
A: I wouldn’t suggest it at all now, not only because of the war but because of the other opportunities we fought for. I went into the military because it was the last-resort answer to unemployment for the poor black man who didn’t have any other opportunities.
Q: From poetry to rap, African-American culture places a premium on word play. Why?
A: You look at the best rappers, say Jay-Z or Kanye West. They come out of a community that essentially, the way you protected yourself was to be able to talk back. That’s how you avoided fighting. I was 6-1, 131 pounds, like a walking skeleton. The only way I could protect myself was to talk back to these guys, and help them do their homework.
Q: What is your take on Black History Month?
A: Black History Month, contrary to misinformed belief by people like Morgan Freeman, is needed. It’s sorely needed. Because what exists in the black community is still abysmal ignorance about our own history and our contribution to civilization and Black History Month is just a small step in repairing that.
I look at Black History Month as preventive health, and trying to repair hundreds of years of ignorance, hundreds of years of bastardized history and lies. If we teach our children to love themselves, understand themselves and layer themselves with deep knowledge, it is guaranteed they are not going to grow up to be drive-by shooters and guaranteed they are not going to grow up to be drug dealers.