National News

Keorapetse Kgositsile, 79, South African Poet and Activist, Dies

Posted January 16, 2018 6:35 p.m. EST

Keorapetse Kgositsile, a South African poet whose writing and activism helped bridge his country’s freedom struggle with the Black Arts movement in the United States, died on Jan. 3 in Johannesburg. He was 79.

His death was announced by the South African government, which did not give a cause.

Kgositsile — whose full name was pronounced KERR-ah-PET-seh HO-set-SEAL-eh, but who was affectionately known as Bra Willie — first received acclaim while living in the United States in the 1960s. When he returned to South Africa after the fall of apartheid in the early ‘90s, he was welcomed as a national hero. In 2006, he became the second person to be named the country’s poet laureate.

His poetry addressed themes of black solidarity, displacement and anticolonialism with an uncompromising directness. In their declaratory rhythms as well as their content, his poems often echoed the music of black America and of Africa.

“I believe my work is contemporaneous with me,” he told Callaloo, a journal of black literature, in 1972. After moving to the United States in 1962, he said, “my acceptance of my environment did not erase my memories of Africa on the continent.”

“Africa on the continent and Africa in America exist interwoven in my work,” he added. “Even past ideas, even past thoughts, even the music in my writing, is a composite of both.”

Kgositsile’s poetry often meditated on the mystery and power of memory, as in “Point of Departure: Fire Dance Fire Song,” a multipart poem published in 1968 in the journal Negro Digest. It begins, “Distances separate bodies not people.”

Later in the poem, he recalls his grandmother:

The elegance of memory,

Deeper than the grave

Where she went before I could

Know her sadness, is larger

Than the distance between

My country and I. Things more solid

Than the rocks with which those sinister

Thieves tried to break our back

I hear her now.

Kgositsile saw his poetry as both art and a call to action. The Last Poets, a spoken-word group that gained acclaim in the early 1970s, took their name from the themes in Kgositsile’s poem “Towards a Walk in the Sun.”

The poem imagines a time when “there will be no art talk. The only poem/you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted/in the punctured marrow of the villain.”

After writing briefly for New Age, a left-wing magazine in South Africa, Kgositsile left the country in 1961 as part of an early wave of activists who were sent abroad by the African National Congress, the outlawed political party that would eventually topple the apartheid regime. He worked as a journalist in Tanzania and moved to the United States the next year.

He briefly attended Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania (the alma mater of Langston Hughes) before moving to New York, where he joined the staff of Black Dialogue magazine.

In New York, he reunited with his friends Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa, prominent South African jazz musicians who were also living in exile, and befriended a coterie of Harlem-based writers, including Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) and Ishmael Reed.

Later in the 1960s they and others would found the Black Arts Movement, which promoted African-American literature, theater and other arts and led to the founding of black-run publishing houses, journals and production companies, as well as Africana studies programs.

Kgositsile became a central figure in the movement, publishing a string of well-received poetry books. “Spirits Unchained” and “For Melba,” both from 1969, were followed two years later by “My Name Is Afrika,” a volume released by Doubleday featuring an introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks. It helped establish him as a leading voice in the pan-Africanist movement. “I would say that he is a ‘master,'” Brooks wrote in her introduction, “if it were not for my belief that no one ‘masters’ anything, that each finds or makes his candle, then tries to see by the guttering light. Willie has made a good candle. And Willie has good eyes.”

Recognition came both locally and nationally with awards from the Harlem Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kgositsile graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in fine arts and held positions at various colleges across the United States. In 1971, he helped found the Black Arts Theater in Harlem, and in 1974 he became a founding member of the African Literature Association, which continues today.

The next year he moved back to Tanzania, taking a teaching post at the University of Dar es Salaam. From there he helped the African National Congress establish its departments of education and arts and culture.

With the downfall of apartheid he returned to South Africa, eventually becoming an adviser to the minister of arts and culture until retiring in 2014.

Kgositsile has recently become better known to a younger generation in part because of a famous family member: His son Thebe is a rapper who performs under the name Earl Sweatshirt.

Information on other survivors was not immediately available.

Keorapetse William Kgositsile was born on Sept. 19, 1938, in a mostly white section of Johannesburg; his mother had rented a shack in the back of a white family’s property. He felt isolated in the neighborhood.

“At an early age I was forced to start reading all kinds of things,” he said in the Callaloo interview. “Instead of playing regular children’s games, I read.”

He chose not to attend college rather than submit to the apartheid regime’s racially discriminatory Bantu Education program. Instead, he did odd jobs before starting to write for New Age.

Encouraged by a friend who recognized his talent, he devoted himself to writing, spending up to 18 hours a day reading literature — mostly American and European — and honing his literary voice. He went often to the library at the U.S. Information Agency’s office, where he had access to the work of black authors like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

But Kgositsile found that for a writer words alone were not enough.

“I believe very strongly that any artistic or, in particular, any literary activity, unless it is an invitation to action, ceases to have any validity,” he told Callaloo. “It should mean that the writer himself or herself is willing to participate on the physical level.”