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Madhubuti, Haki R. (Lee, Don L.)

Madhubuti, Haki R. (Lee, Don L.)

February 23, 1942

Born Don L. Lee in Little Rock, Arkansas, poet and essayist Haki Madhubuti was raised in Detroit, Michigan. His father deserted the family when Madhubuti was very young, and his mother died when he was sixteen. An unstable family life created hardship and forced Madhubuti to seek employment and overall self-reliance at an early age. Of the place of poetry in his childhood, Madhubuti commented that "poetry in my home was almost as strange as money."

In the late 1950s Madhubuti attended a vocational high school in Chicago. He joined the U.S. Army for three years beginning in 1960. From 1963 to 1967, while an apprentice curator at the DuSable Museum of African History, Madhubuti held jobs as a clerk in department stores and at the U.S. post office. During these years he also worked toward his associate degree at Chicago City College. Two decades later he received a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa.

With the publication of Think Black! (1967), Black Pride (1968), and Don't Cry, Scream (1969), Madhubuti quickly established himself as a leading poetic voice among his generation of black artists in America. His poetry generated critical acclaim, particularly among African-American commentators associated with the maturing Black Arts movement of the 1960s and early 1970s (the first major black artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance).

His early literary criticism, including in Dynamite Voices (1971), was one of the first overviews of the new black poetry of the 1960s. In this volume Madhubuti insists on the essential connection between the African-American experience and black art and concludes with a call to black nation building. In his own poetry Madhubuti makes extensive use of black cultural forms, such as street talk and jazz music. His poetry also draws its inspiration from the work of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), the most influential black arts practitioner of the 1960s.

Judging simply by sales within the black community, no black poet in the black arts movement was more popular than Madhubuti. In the last few years of the 1960s, for instance, Madhubuti's slim paperbound books of poetryeach issued by the black publishing house Broadside Presssold a remarkable one hundred thousand copies each without the benefit of a national distributor. His popularity and artistic promise made him a frequent writer-in-residence during this period at American universities such as Cornell and Howard.

In 1973 the poet rejected his "slave name" by changing it from Don L. Lee to the Swahili name Haki R. Madhubuti (which means "precise justice"). In the same year he published two collections, From Plan to Planet and Book of Life. These volumes of essays and poetry illustrate his commitment to black cultural nationalism, a philosophy that combines political activism with cultural preservation in the drive toward racial awareness and black unity.

Although his artistic production declined during the mid- to late 1970s, the publication of another volume of essays and poetry, Earthquakes and Sun Rise Missions (1984), renewed Madhubuti's advocacy of black nationalism. The poet's most recent collection, Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors (1987), speaks to the reader who loves and understands black vernacular.

Like his literary compatriots in the black arts movement, Madhubuti attempts to create an artistic form and content that best represents the black community, speaks to their needs, and promotes cultural institutions that serve the coming of the black nation. He eschews Western notions of individualism in favor of collective self-sufficiency among blacks within the United States and throughout the world.

In 1978, when the author published Enemies: The Clash of the Races a scathing critique of racism within white left as well as right political circlesMadhubuti was (what he calls) "whitelisted" and, as a result, lost anticipated income. Such experiences reinforced his commitment to black self-reliance. As founding editor of Third World Press and a founding member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) Writers Workshop (which includes black literary figures such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Carolyn Rodgers), Madhubuti continues to be active in Chicago-based organizations. He is also cofounder and director of the Institute of Positive Education in Chicago, an organization committed to black nation building through independent black institutions in areas such as education and publishing.

In 1990 Madhubuti published Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The Afrikan American Family in Transition, which addressed issues raised by the author's grass-roots activism over the previous quarter century. Essays in this collection speak specifically to black men, offering analyses and guidance on topics ranging from fatherhood to AIDS. The first printing of the book (7,500 copies) sold out within a month and reconfirmed Madhubuti's popularity within a sizable portion of the black literary community in America and elsewhere.

Madhubuti teaches at Chicago State University. He published Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men in 2002, and Run Toward Fear in 2004.

See also Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Black Arts Movement; Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth; Literary Criticism, U.S.; Poetry, U.S.


Giddings, Paula. "From a Black Perspective: The Poetry of Don L. Lee." In Amistad 2, edited by John A. Williams and Charles F. Harris, pp. 296318. New York: Howard University Press, 1971.

"Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee)." In The Black Aesthetic Movement. Vol. 8 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series. Detroit: Gale, 1991, pp. 168225.

Llorens, David. "Black Don Lee." Ebony (March 1969): 7278, 80.

Melhem, D. H. "Interview with Haki R. Madhubuti." In Heroism in the New Black Poetry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 101130.

Turner, Darwin T. Afterword to Earthquakes and Sun Rise Missions, by Haki R. Madhubuti. Chicago: Third World Press, 1984, pp. 181189.

West, Hollie I. "The Poetry of Black Experience." Washington Post, April 1971, pp. H1, H6.

jeffrey louis decker (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Madhubuti, Haki R. 1942–

Haki R. Madhubuti 1942

Poet, publisher, educator

At a Glance

Back Again, Home

Uniquely Black Art

A Cultural Stabilizer

Seeking Ancestors

Selected writings


When Haki R. Madhubutis first and second volumes of poetry, Think Black! and Black Pride, were published by Dudley Randalls Broadside Press in 1968, they ushered in a new era in black poetry and aesthetical concerns. Often associated with the new poets of the late 1960sincluding Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge KnightMadhubuti, as Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon have recognized, set the style for other Broadside Press poets.

The new poets, according to Barksdale and Kinnamon, are committed in their poetry to the cause of political, social, and moral revolution, and all believe that poetry and other forms of artistic expression should serve the ends of revolution. All express a deep pride in Blackness, and all believe that poetry should be written from a racial perspective and should probe the full range of racial confrontation. To accomplish these ends, Barksdale and Kinnamon have explained that the new poets use a language of confrontation, a kind of ghetto folk speech containing irony, understatement, and satiric portraiture. As one of the leading practitioners of the this art, Madhubuti is one of the most representative voices of his time.

Madhubuti was born Don Luther Lee in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He and his sister Jacqueline were raised by their mother, Maxine Graves Lee, after their father, James Lee, abandoned the family. Living in extreme poverty, Madhubutis family was often on welfare, wearing secondhand clothes and residing in apartments where the utilities were rarely connected.

He began working when he was ten to help his mother, who, as D. H. Melhem, author of Heroism in the New Black Poetry, has explained, worked desperately to maintain her family. Maxine Lees struggle to survive eventually led her to prostitution and alcoholism. She died at age 35, when Madhubuti was 16 years old and Jacqueline, herself the mother of a year old baby, was 14. Madhubuti recalled, At her death, it was almost too hard to cry.

Melhem has attributed Madhubutis early love of literature and Black secular music, as well as a heightened racial consciousness, to his mothers influence. From the tragedy of his mothers death, however, he learned to see liquor, drugs, and religion as deliberate tools to control

At a Glance

Born Don Luther Lee, February 23, 1942, in Little Rock, AR; name legally changed to Haki R. Madhubuti, 1973; son of James L. and Maxine (Graves) Lee; married Johari Amini, 1963; married second wife, Safisha, 1974; children: (first marriage) pon; (second marriage) Laini Nzinga, Bomani Garvey, Akili Malcolm. Education: Attended Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University, and University of Illinois, Chicago; Chicago City College, A.A., 1966, University of Iowa, M.F.A, 1984.

DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, IL, apprentice curator, 1963-67; Montgomery Ward, Chicago, stock clerk, 1963-64; U.S. Post Office, Chicago, clerk, 1964-65; Speigels, Chicago, junior executive, 1965-66; Third World Press, Inc., Chicago, co-founder, publisher, editor, 1967. Traveled and lectured throughout Africa, late 1960searly 1970s; University of Illinois, Chicago, lecturer, 1969-71; Chicago State University, associate professor of English, 1984; Black Wholistic Retreat Foundation, director, 1984.

Co-founder of Institute of Positive Education and New Concept Development Center. Past writer-ir-residence at Cornell University, Northeastern Illinois State College, Howard University, and Central State University. Military service : Served in U.S. Army, 1960-63.

Member: African Liberation Day Support Committee, Congress of African People, Organization of Black American Culture, Writers Workshop.

Awards: National Endowment for the Humanities grants, 1969 and 1982; Kuumba Workshop Black Liberation Award, 1973; Broadside Press Outstanding Poets Award, 1975; DuSable Museum Award for Excellence in Poetry, 1984; National Council of Teachers of English Award, 1988; Sidney R. Yates Arts Advocacy Award, 1988; African Heritage Studies Association citation, 1988.

Addresses: Office Third World Press, 7822 South Dobson, Chicago, IL 60619.

populations, explained Melhem. After his mothers death, Madhubuti moved to Chicago to live with an aunt.

Back Again, Home

Madhubuti joined the army when he was 18. He explained, This was the first time in my life I didnt have to worry about where I was going to be the next day, or what I was going to eat. The Army was an education for me. I read a lot and mingled with whites for the first time. He later told Melhem that he read an average of a book a day. In 1963 Madhubuti returned to Chicago and worked at various jobs. He was an apprentice curator at the DuSable Museum of African American History, a stock department clerk for Montgomery Ward, a post office clerk, and a junior executive for Spiegels.

In 1966 Madhubuti quit his job with Spiegels and returned to school in order to write poetry full time. He described this experience in the first poem he wrote, Back Again, Home (confessions of an ex-executive). The last stanza reads: He resigned, wewonderwhy; /let his hair grow a mustache too, / out of a jobbroke and hungry, / friends are coming backbring food, / not quiet now-trying to speak, / what did he say? / Back Again, / Black Again, / Home.

In 1967 Madhubuti had a thousand copies of Think Black!, his first collection of poetry, privately printed. In an article by Brent Staples, Madhubuti recalled, I started selling at the B stop along 63rd [in Chicago]. I sold 600 copies in a week. It scared me a littlepeople were actually reading me. The following year, after joining Gwendotyn Brookss workshop and meeting Dudley Randall and others, Randalls Broadside Press published his second book of poetry, Black Pride, as well as an enlarged edition of Think Black!.

Think Black! has been called autobiographical in tone. In the introduction, Madhubuti states his belief that black art will elevate and enlighten our people and lead them toward an awareness of self, i.e., their blackness. Madhubuti also discusses his vision of the black poet as a culture stabilizer: bringing back old values, and introducing new ones. The source of Madhubutis poetic visionblackness, Africanness, and the retrieval of old values-manifests itself in his poetic exploration of all facets of black life: black pride, black identity, black beauty, black women, black heroes, black education, black loue, as well as black revolution, claimed Catherine Daniels Hurst.

Madhubuti executes his vision by breaking with a Western poetic tradition and drawing on an aesthetics that is unique to black cultural life: street language and dialect, orality, and music. Gwendolyn Brooks has suggested that around a black audience he puts warm healing arms, and Paula Giddings has added that he uses the language of the black communities. It is the language we spoke when we left the white schools and/or teachersthe language we spoke when we got home.

Madhubutis second collection of poetry, Black Pride, is dedicated to brothers Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and John Coltrane: All innovators in their own way. Like Think Black!, Black Pride continues, as Marlene Mosher has purported, to reject the European frame of reference that the American Establishment has foisted upon him and to establish a more positive (for him, a Black man) Afrikan frame of reference.

Mosher has also asserted that, because of Madhubutis anti-White, anti-Western bias, his first volumes of poetry, Think Biack! and Black Pride, were extremely negative works. Eugene E. Miller has interjected an even more critical voice into the assessments of Madhubutis first volumes, calling his poems obvious, flat, and literal and questioning whether they tell us something significant about the human condition and eternal verities.

Uniquely Black Art

With the 1969 publication of Dont Cry, Scream and the 1970 volume, We Walk the Way of the New World, Madhubuti shifted the focus of his poetry from what Mosher described as anti-(White) to pro-(Black). This better enabled him, Mosher suggested, to draw from both his own inner strength and the combined strength of other struggling Black poets. The title poem, dedicated to John Coltrane, the great tenor saxophonist, signals that this and Madhubutis subsequent volumes draw significantly on rhythms from a black American musical tradition. Melhem observed that beginning with Dont Cry, Scream, Madhubutis poetry resembles performance with its jazzy rhetoric of urgency.

This observation is echoed by C. W. E. Bigsby, who noted in his book The Second Black Renaissance Madhubutis increasing concern for incorporating jazz rhythms and the styling of poems for performance, the text lapsing into exultant screams and jazz scats. Madhubuti himself has explained that Black music is our most advanced form of Black art. In spite of the debilitating conditions of slavery and its aftermath, Black music endured and grew as a communicative language, as a sustaining spiritual force, as entertainment, and as a creative extension of our African selves. To understand art which is uniquely black, we must start with the art form that has been least distorted, a form that has so far resisted being molded into a pure product of European-American culture.

According to Mosher, Madhubutis fourth volume of poetry, We Walk the Way of the New World, mark[s] the culmination of [Don L.] Lees poetic career. She has further asserted that, with this volume, Lee has become a revolutionary Black poet in the fullest sense of the term. Mosher praised the title poem in particular, noting parallels between the poems movement and Madhubutis own program of action in which Black people move from accommodation or inaction (run[ning] the danger-course) through reaction (having [run] the dangercourse) and finally into action in the New World.

In 1971 Madhubuti published selected poems and five new poems in Directionscore, and in 1973 he published Book of Life, the first book to be published under his new Swahili name. Book of Life also marks a technical departure from his earlier works: Part II contains a long prose poem composed of 92 numbered stanzas which use standard English to convey values and principles that he learned from his research in African and African American culture.

A Cultural Stabilizer

Madhubutis interest in retrieving black cultural values and introducing new ones moved him in directions beyond the realm of poetic expression. He and other members of Gwendolyn Brookss 1967 workshop conceived the idea of founding Third World Press, Inc. to publish works of black writers, including Amiri Baraka and Brooks, and to fight against what Madhubuti called brain mismanagement.

Madhubuti continues as publisher and editor for Third World Press and for the social and literary journal Black Books Bulletin, which he founded in 1972. His interest in education led him and others to found the Institute of Positive Education in 1969 with Madhubuti as director. In 1972 the Institute established the New Concept Development Center, an elementary school created for inculcating many of the Institutes nation-building ideas. In an interview with Donnarae MacCann, Madhubuti elaborated on his goals for educating black children, stressing the importance of steering them away from white encultur-ation and his desire to develop an understanding of their own cultural heritage: My generation learned from that Western tradition, but we were not given the tradition that spoke best to our insides.

He explained to Melhem that his involvement in institution-building was due largely to his belief that institutions were more enduring than singular persons. With the exception of the church, Madhubuti told Melhem, strong institutions are missing among our people and consequently, he envisions building institutions as his job. During the seventies, Madhubuti also turned his attention to writing social essays and literary criticism, including Dynamite Voices /(1971), From Plan to Planet (1973), and Enemies: The Clash of Races (1978).

In addition to pursuing his literary career, Madhubuti began traveling extensively throughout the late sixties and early seventies. In 1969 he participated in the First Pan-African Festival in Algiers, and in 1974 he attended the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In 1976 the Senegalese government invited him to participate in Encounter: African World Alternatives, and three years later he went to Israel to learn more about a group called Original Hebrew Israelites (Black Jews). According to Melhem, Madhubuti has also presented his work at more than a thousand colleges, universities, and community centers in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America and the United States.

In 1973, influenced by his travels in Africa, Don L. Lee officially accepted the Swahili name Haki R. Madhubuti. The name was given to me by people at the Institute [of Positive Education]our Naming Committee, explained Madhubuti. People who wish to change their names submit reasons why, and a biographical sketch either written by them or by somebody else, and then generally the committee looks into the persons background, and names are given according to how the name might fit the current personalities and what they feel the people are. So the names have not only a spirit behind them, we feel, but also a literal meaning which, if understood properly, will give direction to those who take the name. And so I honestly try to live up to the name that was given to me, so that it would be in the context of both spirit and literal meaning. Melhem reported that Haki R. Madhubuti translates from Swahili as justice, awakening, strong; also precise/accurate.

The years 1984 and 1987 saw the publication of two more volumes of poetry, Earthquakes and Sun Rise Missions and Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors. These two volumes are more international in scope than Madhubutis earlier poetry. Melhem found in these works an increased awareness of the Third World and the Pan-African relation to freedom struggles outside the United States. She asserted that the amalgamation of poetry and prose that characterizes Earthquakes tends to liberate both the style and the message.

Seeking Ancestors

The final poem of Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors, Seeking Ancestors, illustrates Madhubutis international awareness. Divided into five parts, the poem was written for the First Annual Egyptian Studies Conference in Los Angeles in 1984. Regarding this piece, Melhem observed, The poet begins with an emotion-filled prophetic vision of the United States. Next, he identifies a proud African cultural heritage; he cites needs and recalls ancestry. He concludes with a dual quest: for the lost records of a people, and for the rise of Black artists and intellectuals to / recall the memory / to / recall the tradition & meaning / to rename the bringers / genius.

Paula Giddings has also discovered a certain maturity in Madhubutis more recent poetry, noting in particular a movement from the frequent use of i in his first volumes to the inevitable movement to you, and eventually to the consummation of the we and the us in his later works: WERE an Africanpeople / hard-softness burning black, /the earths magic color our veins. / an Africanpeople are we / burning blacker softly, softer. As Madhubuti himself has said, These are the stages which are a necessary part of the growth. You start by being very involved with yourself, and then you grow and become a part of the community. So your work moves from that of the personal to that of being an active part of the people. And then you move to a point where you feel that sense of oneness with the community.

Since the late 1980s, Madhubuti has turned to an increased focus on the life of black men, writing Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Afrikan American Families in Transition, Essays in Discovery, Solutions, Hope (1990) and editing Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of the Blackmans Guide to Understanding the Black Woman (1990) and Why L. A. Happened: Implications of the 92 Los Angeles Rebellion (1993). These works explore what Madhubuti considers one of the major problems of black contemporary lifethe absence of fathers and a strong famity life to nurture the younger generation.

Since his first publication in 1967, Haki R. Madhubuti has exerted a strong influence on American cultural life writing poetry and prose, building institutions, publishing, lecturing, teaching, and performing his poetry throughout the world. During this time, his confident hope and optimism for black people and what they will eventually accomplish, as R. Roderick Palmer has phrased it, remains his primary motivation. This is perhaps most evident in Madhubutis A Message All Blackpeople Can Dig (& a few negroes too), where he writes Well move together /discover new stars: /are moving, moving to return / this earth into the hands of / human beings.

Selected writings


Think Black!, privately printed, 1967, Broadside Press, 1968.

Black Pride, Broadside Press, 1968.

Dont Cry, Scream, Broadside Press, 1969, with introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press, 1992.

We Walk the Way of the New World, Broadside Press, 1970.

Directionscore: Selected and New Poems, Broadside Press, 1971.

Book of Life, Third World Press, 1973.

Earthquakes and Sun Rise Missions: Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973-1983, Third World Press, 1984.

Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors, Lotus Press, 1987.


For Black People (and Negroes Too), Third World Press, 1968.

(Author of introduction) To Blackness: A Definition in Thought, Kansas City Black Writers Workshop, 1970.

Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s, Broadside Press, 1971.

(Editor with P. L. Brown and F. Ward) To Gwen With Love, Johnson Publishing, 1971.

(Author of introduction) Marion Nicolas, Life Styles, Broadside Press, 1971.

The Need for an African Education (pamphlet), Institute of Positive Education, 1971.

Kwanzaa, Third World Press, 1972.

From Plan to Planet Life Studies: The Need for Afrikan Minds and Institutions, Broadside Press, 1973, Third World Press, 1992.

(With Gwendolyn Brooks, Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Dudley Randall) A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Broadside Press, 1975.

(With Jawanza Kunjufu) Black People and the Coming Depression (pamphlet), Institute of Positive Education, 1975.

Enemies: The Clash of Races, Third World Press, 1978.

(Editor) Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks, Third World Press, 1987.

Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Afrikan American Families in Transition, Essays in Discovery, Solutions, Hope, Third World Press, 1990.

(Editor) Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays Exploring the Negative Impact of the Blackmans Guide to Understanding the Black Woman, Third World Press, 1990.

(Editor) Why L.A. Happened: Implications of the 92 Los Angeles Rebellion, Third World Press, 1993.

Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption; Blacks Seeking a Culture of Enlightened Empowerment, Third Worid Press, 1994.

Works published prior to 1973 where written under the name Don L. Lee.

Contributing editor, Black Scholar and First World; publisher, editor, contributor, Black Books Bulletin, 1972; contributor to more than one hundred anthologies; contributor to numerous magazines and literary journals, including Black World, Negro Digest, Journal of Black Poetry, Essence, Journal of Black History, and Chicago Defender.

Recordings, released under the name Don L. Lee, include Rappin& Readin, Broadside Voices, 1970; and Rise, Vision, Coming (with the Afrikan Liberation Arts Ensemble), Institute of Positive Education, 1976.



Barksdale, Richard, and Keneth Kinnamon, editors, Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, Macmillan, 1972.

Bigsby, C. W. E., The Black American Writer, Volume I: Poetry and Drama, Penguin, 1969.

Bigsby, C. W. E., The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, Greenwood Press, 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.

Gibson, Donald B., editor, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Henderson, Stephen, Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Morrow, 1973.

Melhem, D. H., Heroism in the New Black Poetry, University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Mosher, Marlene, New Directions from Don L. Lee, Exposition, 1975.

Vendler, Helen, Part of Nature, Part of Us, Howard University Press, 1980.

Williams, Sherley Anne, Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature, Dial, 1972.


American Scholar, Spring 1973, p. 330.

Amistad, 1971, pp. 297-317.

Black Collegian, February-March 1971, pp. 33-34.

Black Enterprise, May 1993, p. 14.

Black World, November 1970, pp. 17-18; April 1971, pp. 84-87; June 1972, pp. 35-48.

Booklist, March 15, 1993, p. 1283.

Chicago Journal, February 27, 1980, p. 6.

Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1987, sec. 5, p. 3.

CLA Journal, September 1971, pp. 25-36.

College English, May 1973, pp. 1094-1102.

Dollars & Sense, January 1993, pp. 61-62.

Ebony, March 1969, p. 72.

Essence, June 1990, p. 44; July 1991, p. 92.

Journal of Black Studies, December 1979, pp. 13966.

Journal of Negro History, April 1971, pp. 15355.

Library Journal, November 15, 1990, p. 48.

National Observer, July 14, 1969, p. 28.

Negro Digest, June 1968, pp. 5152.

New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1974, p. 3.

Poetry, February 1973, pp. 29293.

Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1993, p. 22.

Washington Post, June 6, 1971, p. K5; December 26, 1971, p. Fl; March 28, 1993, p. 5.

Mary Katherine Wainwright

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