Black America Is Blowin' Up | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Black America Is Blowin' Up 

With a best seller on its hands, Third World Press gingerly embraces the mainstream.

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Haki Madhubuti should be thrilled. Last month his Third World Press released The Covenant With Black America, a collection of essays conceived of and edited by commentator and public radio host Tavis Smiley. The book, which offers a detailed prescription for addressing the concerns of African-Americans, has already sold more than 100,000 copies and is in its second printing. Discussions about it are filling auditoriums across the country, and on March 26 it hit the New York Times paperback best-seller list at number six. According to Smiley's Web site it's the first time a book published by a black press has ever appeared on the list.

But if Madhubuti, who started Third World Press 39 years ago, is excited, he doesn't show it. He sits behind a large wood desk in the press's south-side offices in what was once a dark-paneled Catholic seminary. On one side, flanked by medieval-looking sconces, is a portrait of Madhubuti in his 20s. He has an Afro and an ankh dangles from his neck. On the other side are photos of progressive black figures like fellow activist poet Amiri Baraka and writer and photographer Gordon Parks. His speech is measured as he explains that the success of the Covenant means that, for better or worse, some of the commercial forces that its founder has sheltered the press from may finally be coming to bear.

Madhubuti has always considered himself a revolutionary. He's written more than 20 books of poetry and prose, including the 1990 classic Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?, which the press claims has sold at least a million copies. He's published writers from Gwendolyn Brooks to Kahil El'Zabar and serves as director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Culture at Chicago State University. But though he's always participated in marches and other forms of civic action, Madhubuti's central mode of protest has been to create institutions that are totally independent of white mainstream institutions--in addition to his work as a writer and publisher he and his wife, Safisha, run three Afrocentric schools on the south side.

"The black community only has one strong institution," he says. "That is the church. We need more than just a spiritual institution to move forward." Third World Press was founded on the principle that black people would write, publish, and distribute their own books--ensuring that any money made from the thoughts of black people would stay within the community. He even wrote a book about his philosophy, From Plan to Planet.

Over the years, Madhubuti says, he has resisted signing with a distributor to get his titles onto the shelves of chain bookstores, preferring to develop direct relationships with independents like Afrocentric Bookstore and Women and Children First. Then Tavis Smiley called.

Madhubuti was familiar with the Covenant project. He'd seen one of Smiley's town hall meetings, at which he talked about putting together a book outlining a plan to empower black America, and afterward he'd sent Smiley a letter expressing interest in the project. But until the phone rang last July, all he'd gotten was a form letter in reply. Smiley had discussed the book with other publishers, but all had pointed him toward Third World. So, writes Cornel West in his afterword, "Smiley went to the godfather of black progressive publishing, Haki Madhubuti. . . . In a grand example of genuine integrity and solidarity, this dynamic communicator not only chose Third World Press to publish this book but also insisted--at the sheer surprise of Haki Madhubuti--that all the profits from the book go to Third World Press." (Smiley did not return calls for comment.)

Obviously, the book was going to be big. Not only were Smiley and West attached to it, but Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman and ten other top black experts in a range of fields from environmental justice to public education to health care had signed on as contributors. Something this high-profile, Madhubuti knew, had to get into the chains, where as many people could find it as possible. So he signed with the Independent Publishers Group, a Chicago-based progressive book distributor. Now IPG distributes not just the Covenant but also the press's 200 other titles, as Madhubuti thought it'd be hypocritical to deny his other authors a shot at mainstream success.

Paul Coates, of the Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, says Madhubuti's decision was a big one because it's the antithesis of what he has always preached. But, notes Coates, there are no black distributors working on the scale the press required. "It is like he was trying to bake a cake without all the ingredients," he says. "If you don't have the eggs, you don't have the eggs. You might have to go borrow the eggs for now."

Madhubuti says it was strictly a business decision. "If you go into Borders on 53rd Street or the one on 95th Street, you will see a whole lot of Negroes in there buying books," he says. "It took me 39 years to get here, and I have no misgivings or second thoughts."

The reason he wanted to publish the Covenant, says Madhubuti, is the reason he went into publishing. "We want to be the publisher of record for serious black literature. We don't publish booty-call books. Our mission is to lay the information out and to figure out how we can continue to work as a people."

Part of the book's success is undoubtedly due to Smiley's celebrity, but Madhubuti thinks it's also a testament to the public's desire for information and direction. "People are not buying this book to put it on the shelf," he says. "It is the right time for this kind of book."

Coates goes a step further. He likens the response to the outpouring of support for the Million Man March a decade ago. "There are these tremendous bursts of black energy, and eventually they will become something," he says. "We may not be there yet, but this is a clear opportunity."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, Rick Diamond/wireimage.com.

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