Haki Madhubuti, the Book Publisher on the South Side
CHICAGO — In 1956, when Haki R. Madhubuti was 14 years old and living in Detroit, his mother gave him a firm order: Go down to the public library and check out “Black Boy” by Richard Wright, the seminal memoir on growing up African-American in the segregated South.
“I refused at first because I hated myself,” Dr. Madhubuti, a poet and book publisher who is now 75, said in an interview this week at his office on the South Side of Chicago. “I didn’t want to go to a white library and ask for that book. But she persisted.”
So he did what he was told, found the book on a shelf and was immediately rapt, reading nearly half of it in one sitting. After finishing the rest at home, he came back the next day and checked out everything Wright had ever written.
It was an intellectual awakening, Dr. Madhubuti said, the first leap on a path that took him from reading in the library to writing his own poetry to founding Third World Press, one of the oldest and most prestigious black presses in the country.
“All these ideas” were “jamming my head at such a young age,” he said, sitting in the art-filled converted rectory that he uses as an office. “For the first time in my life,” he recalled thinking, “there’s something positive: Now I’m a reader, I’m a thinker at another level.”
Dr. Madhubuti, tall and elegant in a dark suit with a white pouf of a pocket square, was in a reflective mood one afternoon this week. Third World Press has just turned 50, an anniversary that will be celebrated with a week of festivities in Chicago, beginning on Saturday with an appearance by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates and his father, W. Paul Coates, a publisher of Afrocentric books in Baltimore.
That half-century has been spent at the heart of black intellectual life in Chicago, far away from mainstream, and mostly white, publishing circles in Manhattan. Third World Press has released hundreds of books of poetry, nonfiction and memoir reflecting on the black experience in America, many written by people whose work would not have been accepted by bigger, corporate-owned publishers.
Third World Press published much of Gwendolyn Brooks’s later work; a best-selling guidebook of sorts for African-Americans called “The Covenant With Black America,” by Tavis Smiley, the columnist and commentator; and more than 20 of Dr. Madhubuti’s own books.
“He has told the hard truths,” said Nora Brooks Blakely, Ms. Brooks’s daughter. “He has addressed not only the relationships between blacks and other cultures here in this country and beyond, but he has also dealt with some of the more uneasy-making interrelationships between blacks: How blacks have seen each other, what expectations blacks have of other blacks, whether those are positive and uplifting or disparaging expectations.”
It was a teenage interaction in 1960 with an African-American stranger that helped lead Dr. Madhubuti to his own education and career as a poet, publisher and academic.
Going door to door selling magazines, Dr. Madhubuti — then known as Don L. Lee, his birth name — knocked at a home in Springfield, Ill.
A very sophisticated African-American man answered the door, he recalled, and invited him inside, offering him a sandwich and advice.
“He said, ‘Young man, the one thing no one can take away from you is an education,’” Dr. Madhubuti said. He urged him to enroll in community college. Then he gave him $20, which would be about $160 today, and sent him on his way.
“Tears came to my eyes,” he said. “That was the first time a black man had done anything for me.”
Dr. Madhubuti returned to Chicago determined to build something of his own.
He changed his name in 1974 to one that he felt better reflected his identity, then started Third World Press out of his basement apartment in Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side, printing chapbooks with a mimeograph machine and selling them on the street. Working from Chicago, rather than New York, was an ingredient to his early success, he said.
“Being in the middle of the continent was critical because we had access to both sides of the nation,” Dr. Madhubuti said. “I remember taking books out to the West Coast in a van and selling them. I would just travel with our inventory.”
These days, he publishes about two dozen books each year. After the recession in 2008, the press’s financial situation faltered, so Dr. Madhubuti converted it to a nonprofit, Third World Press Foundation, and now he is breaking even. He has tried to seize on the cultural moment in 2017, planning to release an anthology on the Trump era this fall.
The 50th anniversary has pushed Dr. Madhubuti to think about what will come next for Third World Press, which is a beloved cultural institution in Chicago but is not widely known elsewhere, even among publishing insiders.
Getting the word out about the books he publishes has become more difficult. A bookstore he used to operate in the South Side’s Chatham neighborhood has long closed, pushed out by a nearby Borders store, which didn’t last either. He has spent little time on self-promotion and has no team of marketers and publicists that other publishers consider essential.
“Publishing independently in America is very difficult,” said Chris Calhoun, a literary agent who recently sold Dr. Madhubuti’s and the press’s archive to the University of Illinois. “There aren’t many left. For a black independent to have survived, to have contributed to the culture as he has for 50 years now, is just a remarkable achievement.”
Dr. Madhubuti’s own plan is to begin another memoir, picking up after his first one, “YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life.” The weeklong festival, beginning Saturday, will draw Cornel West, Father Michael Pfleger and others.
“I’m going to use that time to reflect and put it out there that it may be time for me to move on,” Dr. Madhubuti said. “My problem now is that I need to write.”