This spring two premier poets, one from South Africa and one from the United States, exemplified the connection through word art of the Continent and the Americas. We were fortunate enough to obtain Charles Cobb’s introduction of them to the Brown community. A webcast of this historic event was made and if any blog visitor is interested please contact the Department of Africana Studies, Brown University for access.
The temptation this afternoon is to just give a brief introduction of each one of these extraordinary writers and get out of the way so that you will have the maximum amount of time to listen to their poetry, their ideas and their narratives. But I suppose being here at Brown University as an official part of the academy imposes some obligation. I promise to be very brief before introducing Keorapetse and Brenda. So, please indulge me a few words of context.
Our art – black art which I am using as shorthand for the art from black life that has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic – has always been tied to our struggle which also has unfolded in a connected kind of way on both sides of the Atlantic. We are haunted, wrote professor and author Jan Carew many years ago, by “ghosts in our blood.” Consider these words of Sojourner Truth more [than] 100 years ago that haunt me today: “I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’ And she would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!’” Is this not poetry although she is writing autobiographically of the slavery she remembered? To talk of slavery, as you must [when] discussing the black world, and black life, and the creative forces within it is to also talk of the desire for freedom and the struggle for it wherever you were born.
But all is not the past. Thinking about this forum a great many words flowed through my mind. Some of course were those of Keorapetse Kgositsile and Brenda Marie Osbey. And I’ll get to those in a few minutes. But to set the tone these [words] of Haki Madhubuti, whose Third World Press has published Keorapetse, seem immediately relevant. The come from the poem Blackman an Unfinished History, one of the poems in his book We Walk the Way of the New World – a title that tells you something about these two here today.
“The 60s brought us black, at different levels in different colors/We searched while some of us still pissed into the wind.”
I do not have nearly enough time to explore this line. But I think the poet Eugene Redmon put it as clearly as I have heard it stated: “Class and race issues, seen vividly, and devastatingly during the reign of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, remain central to the theory and fact of AA [African American] struggle and art.”
In any case, enough of my thoughts, let me introduce our two guests. With regard to both it is a personal pleasure as much as collegial honor to be standing here. Keorapetse Kgositsile – “Willie” to many of us on this side of the water who have respected and loved him for years – is an old friend who[m] I last saw more than two decades ago. “Cuz!”, Brenda Marie and I shouted out greeting each other; that’s a family thing we’re still trying to figure out – that’s part of black struggle too, for slavery ripped apart black families. The work of Brenda Marie often takes us deep into Louisiana culture and experience with extraordinary lyricism and narrative strength, particularly in presenting memory. Let me begin with her.
Sometimes, like many old black people, I fall into a state of distress about black people. Perhaps it’s some kind of weariness. Where is their consciousness? And note their. What is their consciousness? Who are they and what do they have to do with me? And then I encounter something or someone dazzling, like Brenda Marie Osbey and her words, and hear echoes of my life. Almost shouting “hallelujah” I say to myself, “all is not lost, no matter what you sometimes think, Charlie.” Listen, for example, to these words from Brenda. They place us in a particular time yet represent every day of our lives even today:
“A wail/a whoop/a line brought back from nowhere/Deep violet of memory/stored up against hard times’ coming/we were righteous then/experienced in things we had not seen/but always knew/would pass this way. We had righteousness on our side.”
This opening verse from the poem titled The Evening news a letter to Nina Simone in her book All Saints, New and Selected Poems gives us truth and beauty, and if we’re going to talk about “The poetics of social justice,” truth and beauty would seem to be central. And nothing better describes the work of Brenda Marie Osbey than the phrase truth and beauty, although I might on second thought, prefix this with powerful. You cannot help but wonder how deep is the well she reached into to bring us such language. She told an interviewer: “My family goes back to freedom and slavery in New Orleans….That’s really all I write about…the way we talk, the way we think, the way we live.”
It is perhaps unfair to pluck lines from her often lengthy verse, but sometimes lines leap off the page demanding to be spoken. Even when she is warning us:
“You laugh/you drink/and for a moment your pain is gone./But I am here to tell you:/it is not over.”
She is Assistant Professor of English at Louisiana State University. Graduated from Dillard University and received her M.A. from the University of Kentucky. She has taught French and English at Dillard University in New Orleans, African American and Third World Literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, African American Literature and creative writing at Loyola University; and was visiting writer-in-residence at Tulane University. She has published four volumes of poetry. For All Saints, New and Selected Poems, she won the American Book Award in 1998. She received the Loring-Williams prize of the American Academy of Poets in 1980; and from 2005-2007 she was Louisiana’s Poet Laureate.
Her work has appeared in Callaloo, Obsidian, Essence, Southern Exposure, Southern Review, Epoch, The American Voice, and The American Poetry Review. She has been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Millay Colony, and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Studies of her work appear in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (Oxford, 1997), Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women by Lynn Keller (U. of Chicago Press, 1997) and The Future of Southern Letters edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe (Oxford, 1996). This all, of course, is the short version of her accomplishments.
The important presence in the black cultural and political life of Keorapetse Kgositsile, a South African by birth, teaches us that place is only a detail. [The] freedom fight is what is essential. Consider this excerpt from a poem by Keorapetse’s countryman, Dennis Brutus, commemorating victims of the 1976 Soweto uprising:
“Pray you remember the/The alleys reeking with the acrid stench/of gunfire, teargas and arrogant hate/Pray you remember then/We remember them/The pungent odor of anger, of death and dying, and decay/I pray you do remember them/Anger drifting through smoke-filled lanes/and sudden erratic gusts/Pray and remember/We remember them…/The ghettos reeking/Fathers grieving/Mothers weeping/Bodies of children torn and bleeding/Pray and remember them:/We remember them.”
I ask you: Where is this? The song, the word – in church, in field, in juke joint, shebee, savannah, rain forest or city pavement – have always defined one of the fundamental aspects of black life whether in colonized Africa or white supremacist America: struggle. In words as meaningful today as when he spoke them in 1857, “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” said Frederick Douglass.
After arriving in the United States in 1962 he almost immediately flung himself into the emerging black arts movement, becoming an increasingly influential voice. I think more than the political exchanges taking place between young Afro-Americans and liberation movements like the ANC or Zimbabwe’s ZAPU and ZANU, Willis and his works kept us connected to those struggles. We could see ourselves in them. Those freedom fighters on his side of the water looked like we felt. Listen to part of his discussion of a black aesthetic in 1985.
“There is nothing like art – in the opressor’s sense of art. There is only movement. Force, Creative power. The walks of Sophiatown totsi or my Harlem brother on Lenox Avenue. Field Hollers. The Blues. A Trane riff. Marvin Gaye or mbaqanga. Anguished happiness. Creative power, in whatever form it is released, moves like the dancer’s muscles.”
There is always challenge in his voice. In one of my favorites of his books, The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live, he asks: “Where then is the authentic song? The determined upagainsthewallmotherfucker act?” And later in that same work: “The young eyes will soon curse our cowardice with a simple: What did you do between despair and desire?” Poetry. But a call as well. I hope you see this. There are many places in Willie’s work, but I suppose not here, where I would pause at this point and say, “Let the church say ‘amen’.”
His poetry collections include My Name is Afrika, Heartprints, To the Bitter End, If I Could Sing, and This Way I Salute You. He has been the recipient of a number of literary awards including the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award, the Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Poetry Award, and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize.
In July 1990, after 29 years if exile, he returned to South Africa. He has made several return visits to the US, once as a visiting professor at the New School in New York, and has been on the editorial board of This Day newspaper in Johannesburg. He is the special adviser to the current Minister of Arts and Culture and is the Poet Laureate of South Africa.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., journalist and writer, is Chair of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project Advisory Board, and Visiting Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University