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Third World Press’s 50 Years of Black Literature and Politics

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Originally founded in Chicago as Third World Press in 1967, the Third World Press Foundation has been publishing African-American literature under the direction of founder Haki Madhubuti for 50 years. To mark its 50th anniversary, TWPF is hosting a series of celebratory events and is publishing Not Our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America, a nonfiction anthology edited by Madhubuti and Lasana Kazembe. The book includes essays, speeches, and other works focused on the 2016 election from such writers and political figures as Molefi Asante, Julianne Malveaux, Ishmael Reed, Elizabeth Warren, and Cornel West. The book was released in September with a 10,000-copy first printing.

Founded in Madhubuti’s basement apartment with $400 from poetry readings, today the Third World Press Foundation is a publishing, educational, and political institution in Chicago and is considered the oldest independent black publishing house in the U.S. In addition to publishing, TWPF runs a network of two charter schools and one private school, employing an educational platform incorporating African thought and culture that serves children from preschool through eighth grade. Madhubuti explained that Third World Press became the nonprofit Third World Press Foundation in 2015 because “we needed a new, more realistic business model for our authors.”

Originally named Don L. Lee, Madhubuti was born in poverty in Little Rock, Ark., and grew up in Detroit and Chicago before rising to literary prominence as a poet and key figure in the 1960s black power movement. Later, he was also a prominent figure in the Chicago wing of the black arts movement, an African-American–driven political and cultural movement that emerged around such figures as Malcolm X and poet-activist Amiri Baraka.
Madhubuti is an acclaimed literary figure who has published more than 30 books, beginning with his works of poetry Think Black (1967), Don’t Cry, Scream (1969, originally published by Broadside Press but now in the TWPF catalogue), and We Walk the Way of the New World (1970). He has also published a long list of literary criticism and social and political analysis at TWPF, and his books are among the house’s bestsellers. His 1990 work Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? The Afrikan American Family in Transition has more than a million copies in print and is TWPF’s all-time biggest seller. Don’t Cry, Scream, he said, has sold more than 75,000 copies over the years.

Madhubuti singles out poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall as the biggest influences on him personally and on the founding of TWPF. He says Brooks, whom he met in the 1960s and whose books he later published, had “the greatest influence on me.” And he credits Randall, a pioneering black poet and independent black publisher, for the original Third World Press business model—basing a small press venture in your own home. Randall was publisher of Broadside Press, an influential small press that published many of the most acclaimed black poets of the 1960s, among them Brooks, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, and eventually Madhubuti. Madhubuti said that after visiting Randall in 1966 at his home in Detroit, where Broadside Press was based, he discovered the model for Third World Press. “I came back to my Chicago basement apartment, and that’s when and how I started,” Madhubuti said.

Today TWPF publishes about 16 books per year and is distributed by Ingram Publisher Services. Over the years, TWPF has published such esteemed black writers as poets Baraka, Brooks, Mari Evans, Sterling Plump, and Sanchez; historians John Henrik Clare and Chancellor Williams; psychologist Edmund Gordon; theatrical director Woody King Jr.; journalist Herb Boyd; and novelists Ayi Kwei Armah and Pearl Cleage. Titles recently published by TWPF include Brilliant Flame! Amiri Baraka: Poetry, Plays and Politics for the People, edited by Madhubuti and others; Rise of the Phoenix: Chicago’s Black Struggle 1960–1975, edited by Useni Eugene Perkins; and Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks: The Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice by Madhubuti.

The TWPF anniversary celebration, which will run from September 30 to October 7 in Chicago, will feature a virtual parade of literary and entertainment figures, including writers Ta-Nehisi Coates (along with his father, Black Classic Press founder W. Paul Coates), Nikki Giovanni, and Cornel West; entertainers Jessica Care Moore and Cassandra Wilson; and a long list of TWPF authors. The celebration features a daylong conference on the history and impact of the black arts movement and a screening of two short documentary films about the late Brooks.

The celebration comes just as Madhubuti’s personal papers and the archives of TWPF have been acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois. The papers of Haki R. Madhubuti and Third World Press, a collection comprising 300 boxes of materials spanning nearly 500 feet of library shelving, provide an unprecedented documentation of black American literature and social justice over the past 60 years. The RBML of the University of Illinois also holds the archives of Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize and poet laureate of Illinois for many years.
Asked if the mission of TWPF has changed over the last 50 years, Madhubuti said: “Our mission is the same. We continue to play an activist role in supplying literature to our community.” As an example of that mission, he unapologetically cited “Fascism Anyone? The 14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism,” an essay by Lawrence W. Britt in the newly released Not Our President.

“Trump’s election has left black and other progressive activists feeling defeated,” Madhubuti said. “But we’ve been through this before with Nixon and Reagan. We can’t allow this man’s assault on the country to stop us. We’ve got major writers in this book, and we’re working to get it out before Trump is impeached or resigns.”

By Calvin Reid 

A version of this article appeared in the 10/02/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: 50 Years of Black Literature and Politics at Third World Press

See online: Third World Press’s 50 Years of Black Literature and Politics