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Nation & World

'Yellow Black': Autobiography of a Poet

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

For nearly 40 years, Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press has published some of America's most important writers. Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka have found voices there as has Madhubuti himself. The Chicago writer's latest work is an autobiography called "Yellow Black: The First Twenty One Years of A Poet's Life." We talked about the book's title.

Mr. HAKI MADHUBUTI ("Yellow Black"): "Yellow Black"--as you know, I'm light skinned. I ca...

GORDON: Yeah, us yellow folk know about it, but tell those who may not know, Haki, what it is.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: I came up through in the black arts movement, and during that movement, we were all trying to be as black as possible. And I was often called yellow black as was my mother who was a very beautiful woman. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as I, and we ended up going up south to Detroit, Michigan, as Juan Killens(ph) would say, before I was one years old. My father ended up leaving. It was a very difficult process, not having a high school education, and she ended up with the beauty that she had going to the streets. She and a friend began to primarily deal with black ministers as well as other ministers. My mother worked in the sex trade, but, see, being high yellow, she was the closest woman to white that dark and black men could date without getting killed at that time. She would often tell me how much especially dark-skinned black men hated themselves. And that hatred also turned into physical violence against her, but she was the one, Ed, who introduced me to libraries. My mother actually would go to Detroit Public Library to check out Richard Wright's "Black Boy." So I found the book on the shelf, put it up to my chest and walked in on people section's of the library and soon I began to read. And for the first time in my 14 years on Earth, I was reading literature that was not an insult to my own personhood and that was the beginning of this journey that I've been on for the last 45, 50 years.

GORDON: Haki, I want to talk to you a bit about the importance of literature and art in your life and what it meant, but I want to take you to writing this part. How difficult was it to really revisit some very painful moments for you?

Mr. MADHUBUTI: It was very difficult in many ways because, you know, I'm 63, Ed, and I started writing the book three years ago when I turned 60 primarily because my father passed. And we were never close. And my mother was a woman who never had a chance. I remember the first time we went to one of the very large churches in Detroit, Michigan. And Reverend Wright was the pastor. And before she got out the church, he was at the front door meeting her and whispering in her ear, and, of course, that same week we moved into his building in a basement apartment where she was supposed to become the janitor. Essentially she was his outside woman. He visited her twice a week, generally on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

And I'll never forget him telling her never to come back to his church. As that went on, about a year and a half after the relationship, he was running for the presidency of a National Baptist Convention. Somehow fell off the podium, hit his head and he died. And a week after that, my mother was put out. We were put out the apartment by his family. Eventually she moved into drugs and alcohol. It was not only difficult for me but for my sister because my sister became pregnant at 14 years old, one of the major gang members in Detroit. And once she was impregnated at 14, it seems that every other year, she would have a child and each by a different man for the most part.

For me, to find libraries and begin to devour books was a way out of the condition which I was living in on a day-to-day basis and I watched my mother deteriorate, but books, music and eventually visual art saved my life.

GORDON: Was there anyone else in your life that gave you the fortitude to make it through conditions that many of us quite frankly would not have seen our way through?

Mr. MADHUBUTI: When I finished high school, I couldn't find a job. I joined this magazine-selling group traveling across Illinois into Missouri, stopping in small towns, selling subscriptions to the magazines of the day, you know, Ebony, Jet, Life. And my lie was I was working my way through Howard University. Obviously I'd never been to DC, never been to Howard University, but I had read Alain Locke. I had read Sterling A. Brown. I had read E. Franklin Frazier, "Black Bourgeoise" and so forth. And so I knew a little bit about some of the professors that worked in Howard. I knew a little bit about the city.

I got into Springfield, Illinois. I knocked on this door, went into my spiel, `I'm working my way through Howard University.' Well, an elderly black man answered the door who was a Howard University Law School graduate. Now brother didn't jump into my chest because he knew I was lying after, say, maybe a minute or two minutes. He asked me if I was hungry and obviously I looked hungry. Asked his wife to fix me a sandwich and give me something to drink. He bought a subscription to Jet and Ebony and maybe Life. He said, `Young man, I know you're not telling me the truth, but I want to tell you something. What's coming online across this nation now'--and this is 1960--`are community colleges, two-year colleges, for men and women without major resources and you should look into them.' And I thanked him. I said, `Yes, sir, I will.'

And as I got up to leave, Ed, he called me--I was going toward the door. He called, he said, `Son, wait a minute.' And I kept moving because I didn't think he was talking to me. No one ever called me `son' before and so I turned toward him and he went into his wallet and put out a 20-dollar bill and he folded it in quarters and said, `Here, take this and put it in your wallet and use it for emergencies.' And as I looked at this man, he had bought the subscription, he had fed me and tears began to come down my eyes because that's the first time that kind of kindness had been shown to me. And that has kind of shaped my life all of my life.

GORDON: When you look at all of what you've gone through in your life and you look at the idea that the story you just told of reading, learning about Howard University, almost, I would bet, fantasizing in your own way, making yourself believe it, and then later on in 2003 being honored at that university with your own day, to some degree, I would think that you have to appreciate the fortitude that you found within yourself to make it.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: Yes, but again, I found mentors. I mean, El-Hazz Malik El Shabazz, Malcolm X, Margaret Burroughs and Charlie Burroughs who were founders of the DuSable Museum right here in Chicago and then, of course, my cultural mother for over 33 years Gwendolyn Brooks. These persons spent time with me and told me in no uncertain terms that you can be a writer, you can be a good writer, you can be a great writer, but just as important, reading this literature, I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped feeling inferior. And what the literature does, it empowers you. And so my mentors, this reading, this community, this struggle in this country which is a daily struggle each and every day and, of course, Katrina proved that in terms of what's happening with our people down in New Orleans, that very little has changed. But we, I, you and others, who have this knowledge must be in a position all the time to give back.

GORDON: Well, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. The book is titled "Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of A Poet's Life," a memoir by Haki Madhubuti, and as always, man, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.