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Black Public Intellectual

After having the privilege of conversing with Haki Madhubuti and Joanne Gabbin this past Wednesday at the 16th National Black Writers Conference, I have decided to post the closing paragraphs of an unpublished essay about the trajectory of Madhubuti’s nonfiction work.

In 2016, Haki Madhubuti published his most sweeping political statement, Taking Bullets: Terrorism and Black Life in Twenty-First Century America Confronting White Nationalism, Supremacy, Privilege, Plutocracy and Oligarchy. A Poet’s Representation and Challenge. He began writing the book following the killing of Tamir Rice, and it is dedicated in part to “all children of all cultures who I hope will grow up without being contaminated and acculturated by the deadly ideology of white supremacy/white nationalism or religious nationalism.” While still a strident critic of White-supremacist imperatives, he decried the fact that, in his view, “There is little if any discussion nationally on the acute poverty of Appalachian and Delta Mississippi poor whites. This discussion would introduce the conversation of class inequality among whites and the rich avoid this reality like the plague.”

Along with criticizing developments like, in his opinion, ill-advised U.S. military adventures in the Middle East and misguided largesse for armaments industries, he called for a new social-justice movement led by young people of all cultures that would push for numerous initiatives, including “quality education, full employment, adequate housing, single payer healthcare, clean water rights, and police brutality elimination.” Madhubuti also disclosed that after listening to Bernie Sanders for years on the Thom Hartmann Show, examining his voting record in the Senate, reading Harvey Jaffee’s Why Bernie Matters as well as Sanders’s own The Speech, he became a supporter. He revealed that Sanders’s values and vision for the country were much like his own.

Tracking the Right

In 2017, Madhubuti co-edited with Lasana Kazembe an anthology titled Not Our President, the aim of which is to inspire “progressive movement-building” in opposition to the Trump agenda. Contributors include Cornel West, Bill Ayers, Herb Boyd, Henry Giroux, Ishmael Reed, Molefi Asante, Gerald Horne, Maulana Karenga, Julianne Malveaux, Elizabeth Warren, and Talib Kweli Greene. In his concluding remarks, Haki reminisced about the numerous car trips he took through Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Kentucky while on his way to conferences and speaking engagements. During his trips he often listened to the radio. “What I discovered,” he shared, “was that there were about 400 rabid right-wing white supremacist radio stations across the land. And it is very clear that the nation moves on 18-wheel trucks and there are millions of white truck drivers crisscrossing the country listening to this right-wing white supremacist neo-fascist drivel and accepting it as gospel. Therefore, we have millions of white men and some women, going home each week confirmed in their misinformation and ignorance. Their fears confirmed to them daily by the likes of Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and others.” By a simple calculation, Haki concluded that given their families and extended families, four million white drivers traversing the country each week yields a Trump base of 20-25 million people, more than half of whom are women.”[i] Madhubuti was clear-eyed about the discursive battlefield and showed no signs of shying away.

Fulfilling the Mission

Madhubuti has performed superbly as a Black public intellectual in the sense that we should recover that term. Such people should be our free-agent, intellectual first responders to political and moral crises. They should not be tethered to or compromised by arrangements that foreclose honest assessment. For our part, because of the urgent instances that they and we encounter, we should grant them space for thought experimentation and incomplete formulations if they have consistently displayed magnanimity of heart and possess a track record of speaking in the interest of the Black community as a whole and in the interest of humanity overall as well as a history of engaging in related initiatives. Thus, we can assume their good will and work out their theoretical oversights or excesses over time. We can, in fact, appreciate their evolving ideas, say, from cultural nationalist to many-faceted cultural nationalist plus. As their understanding increases regarding the requirements of liberation efforts, it is a gift to us all. That is the example of Wells, Du Bois, and others. In other words, you really don’t hang out a shingle and brand yourself a Black public intellectual. You earn that title in the crucible of struggle and in a demonstration of love for and commitment to Black people. This has been the motion of Madhubuti for over 50 years. As an artist, educator, and institution builder, he has been, with much personal sacrifice, a vital voice and invaluable change agent. In our most useful conception of the Black public intellectual, there is none finer to recommend.


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