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MITCHELL: A cultural phenomenon celebrates 50 years of independence

Haki Madhubuti. | Sun-Times files

Third World Press Foundation has a lot to celebrate.

The nation’s oldest black-owned publishing company is celebrating 50 years of giving black writers an independent platform for their work.

Like a marriage that has endured through thick and thin, Third World Press Foundation, once known as “Third World Press,” has had its ups and downs.


The monetary downturn in 2007-08 nearly wiped the company out, said founder Haki R. Madhubuti (formerly known as Don L. Lee), a world-renowned poet and educator who played an important role in the ‘60s black arts movement.

“In the U.S., when white folks cough, black folks get pneumonia. We had to reconstruct ourselves to be a 501(c)(3),” he said.

With $400, a mimeograph machine and support from writer Johari Amini and the late poet Carolyn Rodgers, Madhubuti started Third World Press in a basement apartment in Englewood.

“I had two rooms that I shared with other unwanted animals,” he told me.

Over the years, the company has published hundreds of titles by black writers, including books by the first African American to win a Pulitzer, Gwendolyn Brooks.

But the publishing company is part of a much bigger love story — one that includes Madhubuti’s love for his troubled mother, love for a brilliant wife, love for the fertile minds of children and love for a downtrodden people.

Madhubuti, 75, will still break down when he talks about his mother, a sex worker who was killed at 34.

Despite her lifestyle, she was the one who had set him on his journey by encouraging him to read Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.”

“For the first time I was reading literature that was not an insult to my own personhood,” Madhubuti said.

He credits Brooks with saving his life.

The famous poet was teaching writing to members of the Black Stone Rangers when Madhubuti met her in 1967. The pair formed a mother-son bond that lasted until her death in 2000.

“Gwendolyn Brooks always taught me that if you do not have integrity, you do not have anything, especially as a poet and as a writer,” he said.

Third World Press has stayed focused on its mission for 50 years because “somebody’s got to love black people,” Madhubuti told me.

“We don’t do this because we are looking to get paid. We do it with a sense of integrity, and a sense of honor and fairness,” he said.

Madhubuti and his wife, Safisha Madhubuti (also known as Carol D. Lee), also founded three schools: Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, Betty Shabazz International Charter School, and the Institute of Positive Education, now the New Concept Development Center, a pre-school.

“For me, the celebration is not about me per se,” Madhubuti told me.

“It is about building an institution. We are one of a few, if not the only organization, that built independent black institutions and own the property that we are working in,” he said.

The couple first bought storefronts at 7524-26 Cottage Grove, where they opened a bookstore, a credit union, a food coop and a typesetting company. The couple also bought a farm in South Haven, Mich.

“We were as serious as a first love,” Madhubuti said laughing.

Today, Third World Press is located at 78th and Dobson, in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.

A defining principle has guided Madhubuti and others who have shared his vision.

“We love black people. Nothing is more important than our children and having the facility to tell our story rather than somebody else telling a story about us. That is why Third World Press Foundation continues,” he said.

The weeklong 50th Anniversary celebration kicks off Saturday, Sept. 30 with an intergenerational conversation between acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; his father, former Black Panther Paul Coates; and Madhubuti. It ends Oct. 7 with a gala featuring jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

For more information, go to http://www.thirdworldpressfoundation.com