the self-hatred of don l. lee
a one time,
(doors called, “the only one” & “our negro”)
thru Du Bois
Wright & others,
“us, we, me, i”
—Haki Madhubuti (9/22/63)
In 1974, upon his return from a trip to Africa, poet, Donald Luther Lee changed his name to the Swahili, Haki (meaning “justice”) Madhubuti (meaning “precise, accurate, and dependable”). In an interview years later, he explained that adopting an African name would help him arrive at a “final destination of self.” (Source: Poetry Foundation)
Madhubuti’s poem, “the self-hatred of don l. lee,” is interesting because it doesn’t describe the same kind of self-hatred described in Baraka’s “Black Bourgeoisie.” Instead of running from his blackness, the speaker runs to it. In fact, he fears he’s not black enough. While he was never ashamed of his “color” before, he didn’t fully understand its significance, using it instead for “acceptance” into white circles, as the cool, “token” black friend. However, after reading the works of writers, historians, and Pan-Africanists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and others, he opened his eyes to a new version of himself, became aware of his African roots, and wanted to embrace all of it.
I like this poem because it reminds me of a slight identity crisis I had earlier this year. Back in November, I finally made the leap and bought an AncestryDNA kit (it helped that it was on sale for 20% off too). I’ve always been curious of my background. What part of Africa were my ancestors from? Who in my family is white? Am I part Native American (like every other black person in America claims to be)? After 6 weeks, I received the email that my results were in, and . . .
I’m half Nigerian! I’m also thrilled to see that I have a little Senegalese in me too, since I’ve always believed I was related to Phillis Wheatley somehow ;). My DNA is also a compelling mapping of the Atlantic Slave Trade, as the majority of African slaves came from West African countries.
Now I find myself facing the same dilemma as Don L. Lee. I’m 91% African, but I know nothing about the continent; I know nothing about Nigeria. How can I embrace my roots? Change my name, my clothes, my hair? Would I even fit in if I ever visited, or would they look at my light brown skin and call me white? And these results don’t reveal any additional information about my ethnicity. Am I Yoruba? Am I Igbo? Am I Fulani?
I won’t say my recent self-discovery has lead to a developed hatred for my American self, as it did for the speaker of this poem. Nortina is not going anywhere. America is just as much a part of me as Africa is, and while I would like to know more, I’m happy that I at least have a country to point to now. I am Nigerian.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem about self-discovery. What is your history? Your roots? How will you embrace your newly discovered self?