On a wooden podium inside DePaul University's Cortelyou Commons, the man's voice rose a few decibels. “Introduce your children to the cultures of the world through …”
“Art!” The crowd of more than 100 yelled.
Some might mistake this call-and-response oration for a sermon. But the man with a gray mustache, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit with a yellow vest and red-and-cream striped tie, isn't a preacher. He is Haki Madhubuti, 68-year-old poet, publisher, educator and seminal figure of the Black Arts Movement. And the occasion Wednesday evening, featuring poet, educator and activist Nikki Giovanni, was Madhubuti's introduction to DePaul University as its Ida B. Wells-Barnett professor for the 2010-2011 academic year.
“I'm totally thrilled to be here with you today, celebrating with my old and dear friend Haki,” Giovanni said to the audience, which included the grandsons of journalist and civil rights activist Wells-Barnett, Benjamin Duster, 83, and Donald Duster, 78. “Everything is an opportunity. And this is an opportunity for Haki. It's an opportunity for DePaul. It's an opportunity for everybody to grow.”
While at DePaul, Madhubuti plans to hold faculty and public lectures on Wells-Barnett's legacy, and teach two courses on art and race and the Black Arts Movement to the present.
The celebratory scene Wednesday was a world away from the controversy surrounding Madhubuti's retirement from Chicago State University this summer after 26 years of teaching. During that time, he recruited the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks and established Chicago State's Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, annual Gwendolyn Brooks writing conference, master of fine arts in creative writing program and International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.
In a recent interview at Third World Press — one of the oldest independent black-owned presses, founded in 1967 by Madhubuti — he shook his head at the memory of feeling “forced out” of Chicago State.
“This all started when the board of trustees decided to politicize the selection of the new president,” Madhubuti says, seated near a wall that includes an oil painting of the poet when he was known as Don L. Lee, complete with Afro and Ankh jewelry.
In an open letter last June, Madhubuti criticized the selection process that led to Chicago State tapping current President Wayne Watson. Consequently, Madhubuti said, Watson demanded that he teach additional courses during the middle of the school year — a time when he taught one course and helmed the annual writers conference, as well as led the Brooks Center.
“So that means that essentially, I can't write,” Madhubuti said. “And I'm not going to take it. Not at my age and not what I've contributed to the university, so I just totally retired.”
In an e-mailed statement, Watson declined to comment on specific questions about his interactions with Madhubuti. “Chicago State University has great respect for the work of Dr. Haki Madhubuti,” he said. “We appreciate his contributions … during his 26 years at our institution. His decision to retire … was a personal one. We wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Though he felt miserable at the time of the Chicago State tussle, in retrospect, Madhubuti says, “it was supposed to happen, because at this time in my life, I need to be someplace where people appreciate me.”
Chuck Suchar, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at DePaul, explained why a search committee chose Madhubuti: “We found someone that was reflective of the contributions that Ida B. Wells made during her lifetime.” Suchar added that Madhubuti “has been extremely sensitive to the issues that reflect the African-American community and larger community as well.”
Jacqueline Bryant, former chair of the English department at Chicago State, who retired last month, agreed. “When you sit back and you think about the lives that he has made an impact on, it's just amazing.”
Madhubuti has published more than 28 books of his poetry and nonfiction (including best-selling “Don't Cry, Scream” and “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Afrikan American Families in Transition: Essays in Discovery, Solution, and Hope”); published such literary giants as Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, his “cultural mother” Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as emerging black writers; and co-founded four South Side charter schools serving 1,000 children with wife Carol D. Lee, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University. His accomplishments can be traced to his impoverished upbringing — born in Little Rock, Ark., and raised in Detroit — by a mother involved in sex trade who was “a reader.” She asked him to check out “Black Boy” from a Detroit library when he was 13 years old.
“This was the first time in my life that I was not reading literature that was an insult to my own personhood. Sentences in the paragraphs, chapters, about me, that essentially gave me a different type of insight into my own history, which is critical,” he said. “So I read ‘Black Boy' in less than 24 hours … went back to the library and checked out everything Richard Wright had published.”
He says he took this thirst for reading with him to the Army, where he served from 1960 to 1963, reading nearly one book a day and writing a 250-word essay on each book. “That was my entry into writing,” Madhubuti says. “Because I was trying to save myself.”
He continues his self-discipline today.
A strict vegan, Madhubuti clocks nearly 100 miles a week cycling and rises at 4 a.m. to write for three hours when working on a project.
“He's like a ninja, because he really is one of the, if not most, disciplined person that I know,” said Kevin Coval, poet and artistic director of Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival, whom Madhubuti mentors.
Perhaps some of that discipline will rub off on students at DePaul.
“I think if America has any great promise, it's because of young people. So, that's what I see happening with my life now — that I use these whatever years I have left to continue to work with young people,” Madhubuti said, adding that he's “not going to disappoint” — and doesn't want others to disappoint.
“Because I'll be on them like black on coal and white on rice, all right?” He chuckles.
Madhubuti will be leading public lectures in the fall, winter and spring. They are free and open to the public. Check dates on DePaul's African and Black Diaspora's Web site: las.depaul.edu/abds/