Never Without a Book:

Educating the poor and rich: Two hundred plus books every conscious African American should study by Haki Madhubuti


From the age of thirteen, after my mother introduced me to Black Boy by Richard Wright, seldom has there been a day that I’ve been without a book. For a poor boy coming from the lower east side of Detroit by way of Little Rock, Arkansas, books at such a late age represented revelation and intellectual liberation.

I grew up in the Black church (Baptist) and the unforgiving urban streets. The three “skills” I learned very early were how to pray, rap and lie to white people; without them one could not survive in Black Town, U.S.A. Books revealed to me other possibilities, introduced me to poverty greater than my own and wealth that was unimaginable. In books I discovered that Black women and men could not only write and publish, but that words—combined in a certain way, somewhat like a musician combines notes into music—could make a difference. I learned that, if used wisely, language (written and spoken) distinguished and freed a person, if only temporarily, from the awesome weight of race, gender, class and poverty in America.

Books taught me a new language, a new music. I had been exposed to the melodic lines of Black song writers. Growing up in Detroit in the late fifties, one could not escape the profound influence of the Motown sound. Little Stevie Wonder was approaching genius, while the Four Tops and the Miracles filled the streets with love songs. The tempting Temptations and the Supremes had not gone crazy yet. And writing poetry was something that was just not done by “real men.” The creative atmosphere was different. So, if I was caught writing poetry, I generally said that I was writing lyrics for Little Anthony and the Imperials.

I became aware of the liberating force of literature very early. Like most young Black men, as a teenager I met each day with a certain amount of fear. This fear was both physical and intellectual. Being tall, thin, light-skinned and about the size and weight of a 6′ 1″ skeleton didn’t help my stature among the local brothers. Also, going to a high school out of my neighborhood was a daily exercise in avoiding a beating and intellectual embarrassment. Learning how to fight, run and rap at the earliest sign of danger got me through school with only a small razor cut and a mind that was not beyond repair. Conquering the written word made high school something to look forward to each day. I knew how brothers fought in the streets, but I had no idea of the extent to which we were being annihilated intellectually in the class room and elsewhere where language and cultural knowledge were the weapons of power and destruction.

Among the Black writers that I read during this period (1955-1959) was Chester Himes—Cast the First Stone, The Lonely Crusade, Third Generation, and If He Hollers, Let Him Go; these four novels exposed me to the complexity of Black involvement within the problem of white supremacy (racism). I continued with Richard Wright and consumed Native Son, Lawd Today, Uncle Tom’s Children, Black Power, Eight Men, White Men, Listen, The Color Curtain, 12 Million Black Voices and The Outsider. Through Richard Wright and Chester Himes, I received a beginning in literary and political education. Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom incited me to think, at a new and more questioning level, about the issue of slavery and Black people in the United States. However, it was Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery that signaled in me other possibilities for Black people who had functional skills. None of these books were assigned in school; nor was there ever an Afrikan American writer discussed or even mentioned during my early formal education. The Detroit Public Library became my second home, and along with Black music, I began collecting Black literature.

My mother was killed in 1959; my sister was fifteen, unmarried and with her first child. I had become a disillusioned firebrand with a basketball court full of unanswered questions, trying to understand Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro. After my mother’s death, I Greyhounded it to Chicago, lived with an aunt for a while, and ended up with a room at the YMCA. I completed high school and, in between the few “boy” jobs that existed at that time, continued my adventure into books. Margaret Walker, Sterling Brown and Claude McKay were the poets I was reading. Also, I had become aware of the “negro” political struggle and began seeking materials that would shed light on it. I was glad to leave the fifties but did not realize how the sixties would change me, my people and America.


By 1960, the paperback revolution was changing the entire publishing industry, and books written by Blacks were becoming the “in” thing. By this time, I had discovered the “Chicago” writers Frank London Brown (Trumbull Park), Lerone Bennett, Jr. (Before the Mayflower) and Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen and Maud Martha). The works of Langston Hughes entered my world with his The Langston Hughes Reader. The “boy” jobs were unstable and didn’t pay enough to meet my major expenses of food and housing, so I decided to leave Chicago.

The year 1960 was to be a pivotal one for a number of reasons. I discovered that the needs and problems of what little family I had were so great that they could not help me. I also learned that life’s options for a young Black man ranged from few to almost none. The only value a high school diploma had was that, for one who could read, it would facilitate entrance into the armed forces. However, due to a minor heart problem, I couldn’t pass the physical and was rejected by the Air Force.

After being rejected by the military (the poor boy’s answer to the future and full employment) I did not see too much of a bright tomorrow. I joined a Black magazine selling caravan that traveled throughout down-state Illinois. We stopped in small towns—going from door to door—hawking the popular magazines of the day. There was little money or enjoyment in this work, but it was a way to get out of Chicago. I traveled with an all Black group of young women and men in a caravan of four cars. My second “skill” came into use because the selling pitch was “We are working our way through college.” The interesting thing about this slice of life is that this was the first time college ever entered my mind at a serious level. I did not think that a university education was possible for poor Black people in America.

Anyway, my travels with these young “entrepreneurs” ended in St. Louis where they left me in a two-dollar-a-day hotel with a serious virus that would not allow food or liquid to remain in my body. Upon recovery, I did “boy” work to survive and spent my evenings in the public library of St. Louis. By that time I had discovered Carter G. Woodson’s The Negro in Our History; W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folks, Black Reconstruction in America, Dust of Dawn, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States; and Crisis magazine. However, the work that was to cause me much conflict and inner searching was the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. I was becoming more and more aware of the issue of color, and these books gave me the historical and political foundation that would lead me to a realistic and deadly understanding of white world supremacy.

In October of 1960, without funds or the possibility of a job in a city that was less friendly than Detroit or Chicago, I tried to join the military again. This time it was to be the U.S. Army. Because of my “heart” condition, I knew that the physical exam could be a repeat of my Air Force experience. Therefore, when I walked into the examining room, which was a large, wide open area, I looked for the youngest doctor. They were all white males. During my examination, he caught an irregular heartbeat and asked if I had a heart problem. I promptly said, “No. This is the first time that I’ve been away from home. I’ve never been around this many white people before, and I’m a bit nervous.” I got in and was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training.

On the bus to basic training, I was reading Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand. The book, according to the drill sergeant that welcomed us to the camp, was written by a Black communist (the word “Black” was just as negative as “communist” in 1960) and would only confuse and corrupt my negro mind. He took the book, held it high above his head as an example of “forbidden fruit,” and—in between gutter room invectives—tore the pages from the book, distributing them to the new male recruits and instructing the “ladies” to use the pages as toilet paper. I will not go into this in any more depth except to say that, for me, the military was a blessing in disguise, even though it was there that I had put my life in the hands of men less intelligent than I.

By this time, I was reading E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie and Drake’s and Clayton’s Black Metropolis. Race-politics in the United States was heating up, and upon completion of basic timing, I was shipped south to Fort Bliss, Texas for advanced training in military mediocrity. In Texas, partially because there was little to do, I made a decision that would change my life. I took a speed reading course that enabled me to increase my reading speed greatly. I decided that I would become as knowledgeable as possible about Afrikan and Afrikan American people. I was nineteen, and I consciously stopped apologizing for being Black and went on the offense.


My study regiment for the next five years (1961-1966) was to read a book a day and write a 150 to 200-word review of the book. The reading went close to schedule, but the review writing revealed another inadequacy—that of my putting words on paper to convey critical meaning. Also, the task of critically analyzing what I read presented a problem. I was not prepared to do either well. But, I was in the military; I had learned discipline, and I had plenty of time. In fact, at that time the U.S. Army’s unofficial motto was “hurry up and wait.”

John 0. Killens’ And Then We Heard the Thunder gave me insight on Black men fighting in a racist military. It also gave me the confidence I needed to take the balance of my military time and use it to my advantage. I learned from Killens to get good yardage out of a bad situation. I realized the full range and scope of Black writing by reading anthologies and the collected works of authors. Books like James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry; Sterling Brown’s, Arthur P. Davis’ and Ulysses Lee ‘s Negro Caravan; and Arna Bontemps’ and Langston Hughes The Poetry of the Negro made it clear to me that writing as a profession was not only possible but necessary. The ignorance that Black people lived with spoke directly to their station in life. However, the lack of self-knowledge displayed among many Black people convinced me that, if nothing else, I must never put myself in the position where my ignorance would embarrass me. The study of Black people became as important to me as love-making. Therefore, reading was not only developmental, it was pleasurable; it was food and new life.

My favorite spots for acquiring Afrikan American literature—at that time it was still “negro literature”—were the Salvation Army used clothing stores and used book stores. I remember the ultimate joy of finding a mint condition, first edition copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son for 25 cents. From that day on, I was in fIrst gear about books. Since 1961, every trip I’ve taken has included visits to local book stores. I found copies of Alain Locke’s The New Negro and The Negro in American Culture-completed after his death by Margaret Just Butcher. Julian Mayfield’s The Hit, Wright’s Color Curtain, and Saunders Redding’s The Lonesome Road were all found in mint condition at used book stores.

The first time I encountered the term “Afro-American” was in the title of an anthology of short stories edited by Nick Aaron Ford and H.L. Faggett, Best Short Stories by Afro-American Writers. Up until that point (1962), the term “Negro,”capitalized due to the Garvey movement, was the “correct and accepted” designation for people of Afrikan descent in America. Ford and Faggett’s title forced me to reassess what we called ourselves. Lights began to click in my mind. In contemplating this question, the crucial issue of self-definition and self-reliance took on a larger meaning. The key to any people’s liberation quite logically starts with that people defining itself. As long as a people accept the conqueror’s definitions, it will be impossible to imagine other worlds.

Two other points need to be made about my reading. Most of the authors who influenced me were Black men, and in much of their literature they displayed the sexist attitudes and beliefs of the culture. By this time, I was reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; William Gardner Smith’s Last of the Conquerors; Ann Petty’s The Street; Claude McKay’s Selected Poems; Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl. Brownstones; LeRoi Jones’ Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note; John A. Williams’ Night Song; William Melvin Kelly’s A Different Drummer; and Lewis Lomax’s The Negro Revolt.

The two writers who signaled to me the possibilities of poetry were Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks. Walker’s For My People gave me fighting poetry in free and unclustered form. However, it was Gwendolyn Brooks who gave me the greatest gift—the gift of time, caring and example. This woman is as close as anybody can be to existing without hypocrisy.

It was the serious examples of Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs that pushed me to start Third World Press, the Institute of Positive Education, Black Books Bulletin and the African American Book Center. Because of the influence of Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Burroughs, Hoyt W. Fuller, Dudley Randall and Malcolm X. I am the man that I am today. I learned from them that one must never give up in the right fight. Yet, one must always be prepared to carry the battle to a more effective level. I may be one of the few writers of Afrikan descent who do not have to give credit or thanks to white people for our development or “success” as writers or publishers. My books have sold a million plus copies not because of white publishers, but due to the fact that Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Chicago’s Third World Press and our readers never gave up on us. That is truly progressive and revolutionary.

I left the military in September of 1963, just as four little girls were being bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. To a young man with a warrior ‘s attitude, this state of affairs was unacceptable. I also left the military with an unofficial Ph.D. in Afrikan American literature and the words of Robert Hayden ringing in my ears, “Mean, mean, mean to be free.”


There are literally thousands of books that should be read by people who are truly trying to bring beauty into this world. In the United States in 1988, over 56,000 books were published. Therefore, a reader needs to be selective in her or his reading. Readers need to understand that the introduction to knowledge does not mean the acceptance of knowledge. There is a wealth of armchair intellectuals in the West, and the damage they do—as far as I know—has never been accurately calculated. Knowledge, if it is indeed useful, must lead one to an active consciousness; a creative and productive mind-set; a doing and problem-solving life-style; an environmentally conservative approach to nature; a sharing and loving presence among children and others; and the will to find and be an example of an enlightened person who is seeking wisdom.

The books listed here are not all-encompassing. I chose the books that I think provide a good starting point for a person seeking wholeness. I tried to divide the selection evenly between women and men. I strongly support the position that reading must become like eating—done daily and consuming the best.

Libraries are the one true gift for poor people in America. However, most poor people don’t take full advantage of public libraries. We pay for libraries through our tax dollars. A well-stocked and well-staffed library is a blessing. I would not have gotten hooked on books if it wasn’t for the Detroit Public Library. The free library system in this country is still an undiscovered secret.

Finally, a few tips: 1) if parents read, chances are children will read; 2) develop reading time for the home—a time when television and radio are off and books are on; 3) try to visit the library weekly as a family; 4) take children to bookstores (new and used) and encourage them to spend their own money on the books they want; 5) each home should have a library (i.e., a collection of best-loved books to be read often and shared with others); 6) parents should read to young children; 7) self-discipline is the key to a life of reading pleasure—read for information and fun; and 8) remember, books are like good fruit—rare and precious and healthy.

The first list of books is comprised of writers of Afrikan descent Afrikan, Afrikan American, Afrikan Caribbean, etc. The second list is of non-Afrikan writers; books that I feel will bring another, yet important, perspective to international understanding. Finally, those persons who have first use of knowledge and use it in a way that advances world development are to be congratulated and rewarded. Look for them, and join their ranks; they are truly in the minority and know something the rest of us don’t.

Never Without A Book::Haki Madhubuti::Black Men: Obsolete, Single Dangerous? Jun 22 2004

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