Haki R. Madhubuti: Taught by Women: Poems as Resistance Language, New and Selected (Third World Press, 2020)

Taught by Women is the now 80-year-old poet, publisher, and public intellectual Haki R. Madhubuti’s tribute to mostly Black, but also white women – family, writers, musicians, artists, activists, politicians, scholars, educators, athletes, and others – who have affected his life. 

Why women? In a short introductory statement Madhubuti writes: “Taught by Women is my acknowledgement and thank you to over half the world’s population, who remain too often property, raped, honor killed, diminished, enslaved, lynched, dismissed, excluded, lied to, abused, sexualized, sex trafficked, devalued, demeaned, executed, imprisoned, forgotten, forced into unwanted marriages, mis-educated, undereducated, beheaded and bodily disfigured.”    

In what amounts to a visual tribute, the book’s front, back and inside covers list some 375 women, organizations, institutions, and movements (you better make your own count!), their names written in red, green, and blue on a yellow background, the book thus becoming not only a book of “poems as resistance language,” but also a book of poems in celebration of the achievements of women.          

If a reader of this website you will recognize names like Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Naomi Long Madgett, Paule Marshall, Ann Petry, Phillis Wheatley, Augusta Savage, and Nikki Giovanni (see Index). In any case, if you ‘google’ any of the 375 women a.o. (like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, to name just one of several white women mentioned) or movements like Black Lives Matter or #Me Too and Tarana Burke, like me you will likely learn something new about African American history and culture. And about Haki R. Madhubuti’s wide-ranging interests and intellectual curiosity: “What hasn’t he read?” – Gwendolyn Brooks.    

Gwendolyn Brooks. The very first name on the covers is that of his mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. (See the Reading Black article A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun by Angela Jackson).

Elsewhere Madhubuti talks about first meeting Brooks in 1967, giving her a copy of Think Black, his first small book of poems – at 25 he was still writing as Don L. Lee –, and her response: “Thank you, young man, I’m gonna read this.” And she did read the “unfinished” Don L. Lee’s poetry, inviting him to join her poetry workshop that had moved to her home on Chicago’s South Side.

Gwendolyn Brooks from 1968 (most of the poems “new and selected” collected here are not dated) is the first – and maybe the finest – of the poems in which he pays homage to what critics white and Black had called “a fine negro poet.” In response, Madhubuti offers 14 lines of brilliant musical riffs on the word black: “into the sixties/ a word was born ..... BLACK/ & with black came poets/ & from the poet’s ball points came:/ black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack been black was/ black daybeforeyesterday …”  And after meeting with and listening to the “lady negro poet/ u could hear one of the blackpoets say:/ “bro, they been callin that sister by the wrong name.” 

Around the same time, l968, Gwendolyn Brooks put a young poet named Don L. Lee in one of her major poems, the long narrative poem In the Mecca.  

Resistance and celebrations. Haki Madhubuti includes long critical essays on the early poetry of Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez, and shorter essays in appreciation of other writers. And most of the poems are dedicated to one or several of the women named on the covers, and others (or men).

If you don’t know who you are, anybody can name you,” Madhubuti warns. And naming so many  names is clearly meant to remind his readers of the importance of educating themselves about ‘the Black experience’ in America and some of its key figures, especially African American women.  

In The Good Fight, an interview with Donald G. Evans, director of the  Chicago Literary Hall of  Fame (Newcity Lit, March 1, 2021), Madhubuti talks about his mother, Helen Maxine Graves Lee:

“My mother was not an educated woman. Even though she had demanded that I go to the Detroit Public Library and check out Black Boy. And I refused because I hated myself. I hated my circumstances. I hated my life. I hated my color … And she demanded that I go check out Richard Wright … I’m beginning to read it, and for the first time in my life I was reading literature that was not an insult to my person. I (had) just turned fourteen … And it changed my life.” It was the beginning of his lifelong commitment to the arts, particularly poetry, music, and paintings.  

Maxine and Jimmy Lee is the first of eight poems for his mother, “a woman who worked and died in the sex trade of 1950s.” She was 34. About Big Momma, at 68 “finally retired    pensionless/ from cleaning somebody else’s house,” Luther, her weekly visitor, tells us: “she’s somewhat confused about all this blackness,” even as she will remind Luther: “we’ve always shopped at the colored stores.” The Damage We Do begins: “he loved his women/ week & small, so that he would not tire/ of/ beating them.” Of course, there are so many other poems here that you should read.       

“went to catch/ my/ 2020 tax refund/ &/ the check bounched,/ insufficient funds.” For the most part, Haki R. Madhubuti’s poetry is quite serious. But not always. Blackgirl Learning ends: “she said that her man/ worshipped her./ he wasn’t there./ she told me that he had other things to do:// learning to walk straight.” And there is the lovely and playful poem on his and Safisha Madhubuti’s daughter, Laini: “she assigned herself a capacious journey./ new york city is a frightening certainty./ i cried when she returned / whole & enlarged & well./ still avoiding vegetables & housework.”   

And let us share an anecdote told by poet and literary critic Harryette Mullen in her book of essays and interviews, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be (see Index).

Harryette Mullen at the time was a student at the University of Texas, in Houston: “I remember when Haki R. Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) came. I had come from my English class to the reading with my Shakespeare book. I didn’t have any of his books and I couldn’t buy any because I was too broke, but I got him to sign my collected works of Shakespeare. He laughed; that is how is was.”

The male crime. In the essay On Becoming an Anti-Rapist and the poem Rape: The Male Crime (printed separately, but incorporated also in the text of the essay) Haki R. Madhubuti argues that “… if men were raped at the frequency of women, rape would be a federal crime rivaling that of murder and bank robbery,” the crime of rape excused with arguments like ‘boys will be boys’ or by ’blaming the victim’, women put on trial as if they had planed and executed their own rapes.       

Rape is an act of violence, and superior physical power always lurks behind rape, Madhubuti notes, as he discusses some of the places and situations where women – or children – are at risk: war, the military, prisons, the home, the streets, children exposed to incest and child pornography, and runaway children sentenced to foster care or poorly supervised orphanages.         

The problem is international, as exemplified by Thailand’s neo-colonial sex tourism, and poor people in poor countries giving children up for adoption to rich people in more affluent societies.

The poem asks us to recall “that all women are someone’s/ mother, sister, wife or daughter.” Both poem and essay end with these words: “No! means No!/ even when her signals suggest yes.”        

While rape is “the male crime” against women, homophobia victimizes both men and women. In the poem Liberation Narratives IV Madhubuti has this to say on a subject that had troubled BAM, the Black Arts Movement, from the beginning:

“in the 21st century parts of the world/ began to mature and finally/ understood why/ janet loved women/ and/ robert loved men./ they were born that way./ enough said.”   

A poet’s legacy. Taught by Women opens with tree pages of Praise for Haki R. Madhubuti’s Work from poets like Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Alexander. Other praisesingers include Studs Terkel, Keith Gilyard, Cornel West, and Madhubuti biographers Lita Hooper and Regina Jennings.

Literary critic Houston A. Baker, Jr. writes: “His work remains dedicated to social critic, honest and lyrical analysis of inequality, calls for commitment, tenderness, resolution, community, and love.”

“English, French, and American canons are often verse endorsed by literary critics and scholarly promulgators of so-called universal standards of poetic form and excellence. These self-fashioning “gate-keepers” have sought to ignore or minimize Haki’s indisputable formative role in creating space, techniques, audiences, and publishing venues for new forms of Black poetic articulation.”

Especially moving is the tribute by Amiri Baraka: “… we have argued, marched and fought with both friends and enemies and we have remained, with legendary bumps and shudders, comrades in struggle. Despite the fact that we have not agreed on an encyclopedia of things in the world.”  

HAKI R. MADHUBUTI is the author of 14 volumes of poetry, three cd-recordings of his poetry,  11 books of non-fiction, including the bestselling Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The African American Family in Transition (TWP, 1990/91) and YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life (TWP, 2005/06), and editor or co-editor of another 11 volumes.  

He is working on the second volume of his autobiography, New Music Screaming in the Sun.

UFI // 22 March 2022       

Note: The name Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and his Third World Press appear in a number of articles on this website, most extensively perhaps in the Reading Black article Visionary Women Writers of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement by Carmen L. Phelps – see Index.