“Helen Maxine,” Haki Madhubuti’s poem dedicated to his mother, may not be the exact center but it’s certainly the heart of “Taught by Women,” his latest book of poetry. “I accidently walked in on my mother and a customer having sex, she was covered by his body. I, at an early age, knew she was working,” Haki wrote. Whenever his mother was at work, he and his sister were told to go elsewhere and while she was occupied in her trade, “I consumed Black literature and dreamed of better days,” his poem continues.
In the closing stanza of a poem that poignantly recounts his early years and his mother’s “weekends of lost memory, sagging body, and unending cries of a lost life,” Haki wrote, “Without knowing it, at 14, I was searching for a healthy lifestyle and eventually I was to find it in the literature I consumed.” That consumption was not only his salvation but one he has shared most prolifically with the world for more than a half century. A vanishing few of us remember when he first burst on the scene with a poetry that spoke truth to power when he was known as Don L. Lee. He changed his name in the mid ’70s, choosing one that paralleled our quest for freedom, justice and total liberation.
Embracing the cover of “Taught by Women” is a roll call of women, living and dead, sung and unsung, and a rainbow of colors who have played a significant role in the man he has become, that man still “dreaming of better days.” Even before you ask, why women? Haki has posed the question: “…It is my acknowledgment and thank you to over half the world’s population who remain, too often property, raped, killed, diminished, enslaved, lynched, dismissed, excluded, lied to, abused, sexualized, sex trafficked, devalued, demeaned, executed, imprisoned, forgotten, forced into unwanted marriages, miseducated, undereducated, beheaded, and bodily disfigured.” As the book’s subtitle indicates it’s “poetry of resistance” and “a poetry of honorable defiance.”
Defiance and resistance have been watchwords for Haki and the 30 plus books of his own, and for the countless number of other writers seeking a publishing platform with integrity, his Third World Press has been indispensable. But his salute to women isn’t done without citing a few Black men, many of whom get poems dedicated in this volume, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Fred Hampton, Anderson Thompson, John Thompson, John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian. Nor is the book entirely poetry, and Haki has penned several extended tributes to Toni Cade Bambara, Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange.
Of all the women poets noted and honored here, Gwendolyn Brooks has a paramount place in Haki’s memorial. Upon her 70th birthday, he wrote this poem and toward the end he related how “artfully you avoided becoming a literary museum, side-stepped retirement and canonization, gently casting a rising shadow over a generation of urgent-creators waiting to make fire, make change. With the wind in your hand, as in trumpeter blowing, as in poet singing, as in sister of the people, of the language, smile at your work, your harvest is coming in, bountifully.”
What Haki has said of Gwendolyn Brooks and of her inspiration and influence, of her providing a lamp and way, applies without exception to the way he has picked up her mantle and broadened the tapestry of our possibilities. I would wager that what comes next is taught by men.