Gwendolyn Brooks first met Don L. Lee in 1967, at the height of the most racially charged and divisive era in the history of the United States. In the midst of violent race riots erupting throughout the country, uncertainty about the role of racial minorities in the Vietnam War, and the pain of the assassination of Malcolm X (among many other pivotal moments), black people in positions of power felt particularly compelled to choose a side. As a young, vigorous, and self-righteous Black Nationalist, Don L. Lee left an impression on Brooks that would pervade the rest of her life and her work.
Haki influenced her to grow her hair into an afro, and stop straightening it, which was the popular, afrocentric style among young people during the civil rights movement. “It was symbolic of a refocusing of her poetry, of her decision to write, consciously and directly, to blacks, rather than having a general readership in mind” (Reardon, 3). A vegetarian himself, Haki guided her eating habits in her old age, teaching her the benefits of juicing, which she did every morning (Hill, 91). They were intimate friends and confidantes, not only sharing ideas about literature and politics, but details of their personal lives and relationships. “In fact, there were periods when Madhubuti would stop in to visit with the older woman four or five times a week” Reardon reports in an article in the Chicago Tribune. He was only 24 years old when they met, and was a teenager when his own mother died. He said “they drew to each other like oxygen and hydrogen” from the moment they met (Hill, 84). She describes a similar illuminating experience, recalling the image of him entering a tavern, and commanding the attention of the patrons to listen to them recite their poetry. She says the image never left her (Hill, 87).
Referred to as her “Literary Son,” Haki mutually felt that she was his “cultural mother.” He said “it was almost like our bones were attached.” “She had risen to the top of the mountain, but somehow didn’t take the ride” Haki told the reporter (Reardon, 2). He did the things a son would do, checking on her frequently in her old age, and reading to her while she lay on her death bed. In Say That the River Turns, Madhubuti hails Gwendolyn as his “Queen Mother,” who “never put her art above or before the people she writes about” (Madhubuti, xii).
Hill, Christine M. Gwendolyn Brooks: “Poetry Is Life Distilled” Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2005. Print.
Madhubuti, Haki R., and Gwendolyn Brooks. Honoring Genius: Gwendolyn Brooks: The Narrative of Craft, Art, Kindness and Justice: Poems. Chicago: Third World, 2011. Print.
Madhubuti, Haki R. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago, IL: Third World, 1987. Print.
Reardon, Patrick. “Shaping Chicago: Haki Madhubuti.” Chicago Tribune 7 Feb. 2009, News sec.: n. pag. Print.
Rhynes, Martha E. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poet from Chicago. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Pub., 2003. Print.