“Isn’t sound continuity/isn’t sound memory/loving care caress or rage/sticking our shattered and scattered pieces together?”(For Bra’ Ntemi )
In a month that has lost us the work and incandescent spirits of Myesha Jenkins and Achmat Dangor, today, Saturday September 19 we remember the birth, of another departed poet. 81 years ago on this date Keorapetse William Kgositsile (‘Kgosi”; “Bra’ Willie”), South Africa’s first Poet Laureate, revolutionary, feminist, Pan-Africanist, internationalist – and the writer who came closest to invoking the sound of South African jazz in rhyme – was born in Johannesburg. (It’s a birthday he shared, very appropriately, with AACM pianist, composer and teacher Muhal Richard Abrams.)
To recount all his achievements would be impossible. His formal accolades are well documented; perhaps less so the history in whose making he participated.
I worked with Bra’ Willie in Medu in Botswana (https://mg.co.za/article/2018-01-12-00-beauty-in-struggle/ ) and the predictable thing to say would be that we all sat at his feet in awe. But Medu wasn’t like that and nor was our poet comrade. Praxis ruled. Do the work; engage in more-than-robust debates; do more work; let your words be debated; then do more work on them. Kgositsile was unsparing of himself and of the rest of us: writing and learning about literature and history are grounded in hard, disciplined work; so is waging effective political struggle. He’d have ridiculed the notion of anybody sitting at his feet in awe – the work was something we did together, and something we could all, however distinguished, learn from.
And what were those lessons? First, that any work of cultural creation is unavoidably ‘political’; that refusing to express opinions about how we live together and how we should live also represents a political choice. Second, that speaking out about important truths is a human duty. Third, that it’s equally a duty to do it well, with meticulously craft.
Charles Rowell’s 1973 interview with the poet begins with his reflections on starting childhood in the back rooms of his mother’s white employer: not spending time on the streets, he became a voracious reader and – because of his mother’s sheltering silence – largely un-intimidated by the racism that surrounded him. The most important book he read as a youngster was Richard Wright’s Black Boy, because it “made me realise that I didn’t have to sound like an English Poet…I could tame that English to speak my language.”
When he left white suburbia to attend Madibane High School – where one schoolmate was musician Jonas Gwangwa – he rapidly learned. “[T]ownship streets were full of bullies,” he remembered. “The regular ones and the regime ones under their cloak of being the police. And as far back as I remember I have always been intensely allergic to bullies.” And, for him, that had everything to do with being a poet, because “the production of (…) poetry is, like everything else produced by a people, rooted in and informed by human action and interaction.”
He wrote prose as well as poetry, as a journalist for the (quickly banned) New Age in the 1950s and later, in American exile, for many other publications, including the journal Black Dialogue at Columbia University. He studied at Columbia University, earning an MFA and later taught at several US institutions, as well as teaching later at universities in Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as at Fort Hare back home.
And he participated in making history: cultural and political. He was a leading voice in the Harlem Uptown Black Arts Movement and a co-founder with Amiri Baraka of the Black Arts Theatre. The Last Poets were inspired to coin their name by his poem Towards a Walk in the Sun, which foresaw a time of uprising when there would be “no art talk.”
Less-known, perhaps, is that he drafted Miriam Makeba’s 1963 speech to the United Nations, which won international recognition for South Africa’s liberation struggle and the ANC. He was part of delegations at both editions of the historic pan-African cultural festival, Festac: 1966 in Senegal; 1977 in Nigeria. He was a founder-member of the ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture in exile, and continued to work with the department and the movement when he returned home. But that did not stifle his 1992 criticism that his own movement had been “criminally backward when it comes to questions of culture and its place in society or struggle.”
Because although he was entranced by the beauty of music and could write deeply romantic poetry, Kgositsile never romanticised history, struggle or politics. He was dismissive of fantasies of some past African ‘golden age’ of peace, pointing out acerbically that all societies had experienced oppression and resisted their own feudal tyrants, as well as the colonialists. But he never lost his revolutionary optimism about the better future that can be if – again – we work for it. Kgositsile chose what would be three decades of exile, aged only 23, so he could begin that work. He knew it had to be a process, claiming, in Cabral’s words, no easy victories just because the apartheid regime had officially ended. And he knew that exile could be not just of the body from place, but of memories of struggle from a politics that sometimes found it uncomfortable to recall them.
Multiple awards and achievements are listed in various online biographies and book appendices; possibly the best short appreciation of his life and work is that by fellow writer Mandla Langa in the foreword to the comprehensive 2017 compilation of his work Homesoil in My Blood (https://xarrabooks.com/en/product/homesoil-in-my-blood/ ). A longer work by Dr Uhuru Phalaphala is on the way.
But let’s finally get back to the words. “I approach the writing of a poem,” Kgositsile wrote, “the way a musician improvises a solo on the stage…I let my imagination reach into the depth of my feeling to bring out what I am most responsive to at the moment of playing my solo with language…”
Soundman/that I have always aspired to be/my ear sees the tentacles/of our fragile voice/breaking through the walls of our exiles/as I remount the curve of evil times/to unearth my anchored memory. (from Renaissance)