With Hidden Noise: Focus on South Africa

 
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Jeffery Renard Allen



“Mean to be free”

--Robert Hayden, “Harriet Tubman”

 
 

My oldest child, Elijah, at twenty-three years of age doesn’t give a shit about writers, whether canonical or contemporary, famous or obscure, bestselling or midlist. Often, I will wax on about hanging out with this celebrated novelist or having dinner with that prize-winning poet, only for Elijah to meet my enthusiasm with a blank stare or a dismissive “Oh really?” There is one exception. Elijah respects my having been decades-long friends with the late great South African revolutionary and poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, father of the celebrated rapper Earl Sweatshirt, a musician who Elijah holds in high regard. Back in 2012, Elijah got to spend a day with Kgositsile when the latter was visiting New York as part of a national speaking tour I had organized on his behalf. Elijah still has vivid memories of Kgositsile, how welcome and appreciated the grand man of letters made him feel. Kgositsile had a knack for connecting with young people.

One of my goals in organizing the tour was to bring the deserving Kgositsile to the attention of the larger American literary community of scholars and academics who had for the most part ignored his work and who continue to do so. (Last year, in recognition of Kgositsile’s contributions to belle-lettres, The University of Nebraska Press published his Collected Poems, 1969 - 2018, no small achievement.) Another goal was to, frankly, put some American dollars in his pocket, money that would go far in South Africa. However, because of a technicality involving his visa status, he never received payment for most of his appearances. Although the tour was long and demanding, Prof had a great time making his way from one coast to the other, connecting with old friends like Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni--Giovanni to me on the phone, “I last saw Willie at Gwendolyn Brooks’s house in Chicago in 1969”—Eugene Redmond—Redmond to me on the phone, “Oh, I’m just sitting here having tea at Maya Angelou’s house”-- Askia Toure’, and Ishmael Reed, and making new friends. When I could, I would connect with him on the road, which afforded me the good fortune to hear him hold court and regale a dinner audience with stories about, among others, Stokely Carmichael, Nina Simone, Martin Luther King, Gloria House, Gil Scott Heron, Rashidah Ismalili, and Malcolm X, all people he knew personally.

It was through Prof that I came to understand what it means to be a revolutionary, which at the end of the day requires your willingness to kill or die for a cause larger than yourself. A well-traveled and well-read Marxist-Leninist, Prof never stopped believing in vanguard-party-politics as the only path to true human liberation. He lived shaping his actions as a solution to the problems of imperialism, apartheid, and global capitalism. This demanded that he always speak his mind.

At a dinner once in Ghana, I spoke the unpopular opinion that the Black Panthers had been naïve in underestimating the powers that be in the U.S.A. Prof agreed with me.

During a panel for a jazz and literature festival that I had helped organize in Zanzibar, I heard him say, “I write political poetry because I’m a political person.” Simple. Sound. Smart.

One night at that same festival, a drunk Kenyan man kept saying “Roho safi na mapenzi.” (“Clean heart and love” in Kiswahili.)

I heard Prof say to him, “You are naïve.”

A few days later over breakfast at a beautiful beach resort, I asked him to sign one of his books for my fiancée.

He paused in his eating, took one look at my fiancée, then wrote, “May you find a bit of happiness in this miserable life.”

While many are quick to criticize young people for their fixation on cell phones and social media, Prof would instead readily quote a famous passage from Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, a book that the ever-hopeful Fanon dictated to his wife while he was dying of leukemia: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

 
 

In 2008, I organized an international writers’ conference in Ghana through the Pan African Literary Forum, a nonprofit I started with fellow writers Arthur Flowers and Mohammed Nasheeu Ali. In his role as the National Poet Laureate of South Africa, Prof brought a contingent of fifteen writers and editors, mostly promising young workers of the Word, including novelist and short story writer Zukiswa Wanner, who was about 32 years old at the time. Recently Zuki garnered worldwide attention when she returned the Goethe Medal to the German embassy in Nairobi in response to Germany’s continued support of Israel during the ongoing genocide in Gaza and Germany’s silencing of pro-Palestinian and other dissenting voices.

In her statement to the press, Zuki noted that Germany’s guilt for the Holocaust “makes its position on the current genocide in Palestine all the more shameful.” She goes on to say: “I wish the German government exhibited the same regret for their history in Namibia with the Herero-Nama genocide and for the genocide during the Maji Maji Rebellion in Tanzania. Equally important, I wish that the German government, in reflection and saying ‘never again’ would acknowledge that never again should be for anybody.”

Prof would be proud. Many of us were equally proud of South Africa when, last January, the Ramaphosa government assembled a special legal team to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court of Justice over genocide in Gaza. Just as the spirit of Fanon abided in Kgositsile, the spirit of Kgositsile abides in Wanner and many of her fellow South Africans.

Indeed, millions of us continue to speak out against Gaza and continue to fight, as Fanon put it, to give “birth to a world,” including an “Africa to come, even if, as Kgositsile wrote in a celebrated poem, the “present is a dangerous place to live.” We have in our favor the many spirits who abide in us: Fred Hampton, Nwanyeruwa, Hannah Arendt, Patrice Lumumba, Nehanda, Steven Biko, Sophie Scholl, Hector Pieterson, Qui Jin, Ernesto Che’ Guevara, Raya Dunayevskaya, Thomas Sankara, Winnie Mandela, Samora Machel, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Margarita Neri, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hammer, Solomon Mahlangu, Miriam Makeba, Edward Said, Barbara Harlow, Fatima Mohammed Bernawi, Shaka, Rachel Corrie, Ghassan Khanafani, Ida B. Wells, Mahmoud Darwish, and many others. Perhaps one day the chickens will come home to roost.

In the meantime, we must witness, and we must fight. When the blood of our brother cries from the ground we must listen. When the blood of our sister cries from the ground we must listen.

The editorial team here at The Evergreen Review wants to honor South Africa’s noble spirit of witnessing and revolutionary action by celebrating the work of South African artists and writers in the months to come. The series will run until September 12th, an important day in The Struggle against apartheid, the day that Steve Biko was murdered.

We dedicate this series to Bra Willie--in his memory.

A Luta Continua,

Bantu Jeffery Renard Allen,
Africa Editor
16 marche 2024
Patton, Pennsylvania

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Jeffery Renard Allen

Jeffery Renard Allen is the award-winning author of six books of fiction and poetry. His accolades include The Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction, The Chicago Public Library’s Twenty-First Century Award, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, a grant from Creative Capital, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, residencies at the Bellagio Center, Ucross, The Hermitage, VCCA, and Monson Arts, and fellowships at The Center for Scholars and Writers, the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His latest book is the short story collection Fat Time. Making his home in both New York and Johannesburg, Allen is at work on several projects, including a two-volume memoir, Mother-Wit, the collection Try Me: Twelve Stories, the novel Radar Country, and a book about music and writing called The Rhythm of the Hot Dog. Find out more about him at www.writerjefferyrenardallen.com.



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