The Roads Taken
It was a Saturday morning in the summer of 1967 when I and several other poets from the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) Writers' Workshop ventured into Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood to encounter and embrace the space of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks, responding to a request from the great entertainer, songwriter, and producer, Oscar Brown Jr., taught a weekly poetry workshop with members of the Black Stone Rangers (a neighborhood youth group, also referred to as a gang). About twelve young girls and boys, ages ranging from about sixteen to twenty-one years old, sat quietly as Brooks, using books and an overworked blackboard (remember those?), transported them into a universe of unknown words and worlds.
I had first read Gwendolyn Brooks's work about eight years earlier, at the impressionable age of seventeen. On the mean streets of Detroit and Chicago where I grew up, poetry reading and writing was not a priority, and my introduction to this marvelous poet did not occur in an advanced high school course or by studying the books we had in school. I found her work in an anthology that I purchased from a used bookstore for the grand price of forty cents: The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 edited by the master poets, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.
The Hughes-Bontemps anthology opened me up to the wonderful world of Black poetry in the diaspora. Of the seven Brooks poems published there, "kitchenette building" and "of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery" were my favorites. I memorized "of De Witt Williams" and today can recall the first two stanzas:
He was born in Alabama.
He was bred in Illinois.
He was nothing but a
Plain black boy.
Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot.
Nothing but a plain black boy.
When I met Brooks that day in 1967, she had recently turned fifty—old enough to be respected by the hardest of black youth and young enough to return their respect. I was twenty-five, had published one book of poetry, Think Black (1966), with a second book, Black Pride, coming early the next year from Broadside Press of Detroit. I was not certain about what I was searching for, but when I found her that sun-filled morning on Chicago's South Side in a community others had neglected and forgotten, I found an answer.
The poetry workshop eventually moved to her South Evans Avenue home where it continued to meet weekly. Her criticism of my poetry as well as others was firm, non-patronizing, always encouraging us not to reinvent a poem but to improve upon it. I remember how she wanted us to be conscious of language and form. I also remember her telling us that excessive use of profanity was lazy writing. I don't know if I toned down after that, but I was more aware of when and how I used those expletives.
As the workshop came to an end, the two of us continued to meet weekly. She would take me with her on her readings and encourage me to read my poetry there. Our familyhood lasted for over thirty-three years, and in fact she is still with me every day. Her smile, her voice, her example, and her words continue to encourage, nurture, and keep me grounded and committed to the work—poetry, editing, teaching, and publishing—that she encouraged me to do. Finally, her greatest lesson to us all is that serving one's community as an artist means much more than just creating art.
Born Donald Luther Lee in Little Rock, Arkansas, the poet adopted the Swahili name Haki R. Madhubuti after traveling to Africa in 1974. As he shared in a 2006 interview, he sensed that “a new African name would help me in arriving at a final definition of self.” Haki means...