By Graham Meyer
When new acquaintances ask him what he does for a living, Haki Madhubuti replies, "I'm a poet." And indeed, his penchant for writing verse lies behind much that Madhubuti has accomplished in his 65 years—not least of which is Third World Press, the publishing house that has become a national home for African American writers.
Third World Press began in 1967 when Madhubuti—still using his birth name, Don L. Lee—used $400 from his poetry readings to buy a mimeograph machine. From a tiny basement apartment in Englewood, he started publishing chapbooks of verse by himself and two friends.
In the 40 years since then, Madhubuti (in Swahili, "haki" means "justice," and "madhubuti" means "accurate" or "precise") has cofounded four South Side schools and taught creative writing at several universities. As for Third World Press, it has grown into one of the largest black-owned publishing houses in the country.
"All of this happened because I'm a poet," says Madhubuti. "I started reading literature when I was 14 years old. I thought I was going to be a musician, but poetry was locked into my cranium and has been there ever since, so everything that I've achieved has been as a result of poetry."
Over the years, Third World Press has published hundreds of books, including ten by the late Gwendolyn Brooks, the former poet laureate of Illinois and a friend and mentor to Madhubuti. His third collection of verse, Don't Cry, Scream (published by Broadside Press in 1969 with an introduction by Brooks), established Madhubuti as a significant African American voice, and in 1990, his Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? sold more than a million copies. In 2006, Third World's Covenant with Black America, edited by Tavis Smiley, became the first book released by a black publisher to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
To encourage the economic well-being of Third World—housed today in a former South Side rectory—Madhubuti doesn't accept any salary or royalties from the press, living instead off his earnings as a teacher at Chicago State University, where he is a professor of English and the founder and director emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center. "I'm not looking for monetary return," says Madhubuti. "What I want is intellectual return, where our people and the people that read our books can grow, function, and take our rightful places in this country. What I'm concerned about is publishing the type of literature that will allow us to grow as a people—all of us. I see our development closely tied to whatever happens to black people."
But, Madhubuti insists, Third World seeks an audience that lies beyond the African American community. "Our books are not just published for black people," he says. "They are for everybody."