Keorapetse Kgositsile was a feminist

How Kgositsile ensured he never expressed himself like a white man.

Keorapetse Kgositsile at Kelly Writer's House. Image via Flickr.

I was raised blue-black by hip hop culture,
imbibing the legend of a South African poet
who christened the grandfathers of rap
with a name:
The Last Poets

We rocked Karl Kani jeans back-to-front like
Kriss Kross,
strapped Timberland boots in the scorching sun of Lebowa townships.
We crafted a way of life that was our own:
Made with our beats, our clothes and our art
a counterculture to apartheid,
which existed to clip our wings,
and stymie our very aspirations to fly.

African American culture was both exotic and familiar: here were these “others” who looked like us, dared to own themselves, and had the audacity to assert that at our best we are love.

These memories are the foundation of my career. When I started taking poetry seriously after high school, I sought that legendary poet out.  I was hypnotized even then, by his name: Keorapetse Kgositsile. Who was this man with a name that rests easy on my tongue; that uncoiled ancient sounds in my ear?

In Johannesburg in the early 2000s, the lyrical, pan-African musings of former South African President, Thabo Mbeki,  spawned a movement of dashiki-clad, Afro-donning Biko disciples. There we were, brandishing mutilated psyches, attempting self-medication. Like the Black Consciousness era of our collective yesteryears we resurrected an uncompromising blackness on which to tether our self-determination. Poetry was our medium, and we looked to the black archive for its sounds, rhetoric, performance, and heroism. It affirmed us: we are of unyielding strength, capability and creativity, despite the narrative of the racist fascists. In the heat of our screams interjected the resonant voice of our elder, returning from exile and transforming a harmattan of colors into areas of feeling: the legend of Kgositsile was in our midst. I heard his voice, and longed to sit at his feet.

The impetus was unrelenting. Access to Kgositsile’s poetry led me to focus my doctoral research on his life and work, which led to our first meeting in 2012. I started collecting any and all evidence of his work and mapping traces of humanity he left across the continents where he was exiled.

In five years of conducting interviews with his family, comrades, and fellow writers in both South Africa and the United States, he became a father, a mentor, a supervisor, and a gracious biography subject. He was selfless in his commitment to what became the KWK (Keorapetse William Kgositsile) project.

There is much I can draw upon to share with you of his many lives, but I will speak here of the women who shaped his radical, collectivist and material approach to culture, politics, and revolution, which he espoused to the very end.

Kgositsile spoke of his grandmother, Madikeledi, and his mother Galekgobe, as the kernel through which his quest to seek and engender community took root. He credited them for helping to develop the deep sense of custom, community, and culture evinced in his poetry.  In particular, he spoke lovingly of the fact that Madikeledi insisted that they only speak  Setswana in the household. He also remembered how she taught him to question the myth of nation state on the continent. Madikeledi was a victim of forced removals and dispossession, and so she pointed across the border to Botswana as home.  It was in part because of these early teachings, that land, community and language became such significant preoccupations for the revolutionary poet.

When he went to America, he carried an oeuvre of Setswana classics with him across the Atlantic. These stories and their idiom were a material representation of his cultural archive; an aesthetic that would ensure he never expressed himself like a white man.

The late Keorapetse Kgositsile giving a reading at Kelly Writer’s House on the campus of the Unniveristy of Pennsylvania’. Image via Flickr.

In exile he identified the African American parlance and jazz as an extension of this rebuttal of whiteness and an affirmation of blackness.  As a result, he fought with African Americans against white supremacy and American imperialism. When his contemporaries embraced their African identities by renouncing their slave names, for example LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka, one Detroit-based civil rights activist and poet Gloria House changed hers to Aneb Kgositsile. His socialist commitments derived from the matri-archive: a collectivist approach embedded in oral transmissions of social values and cultural imperatives from his matrilineal upbringing.

Where relationships between black South Africans and black Americans are recorded – between Es’kia Mphahlele and Langston Hughes, Solomon Plaatje and W.E.B. Du Bois, and Peter Abrahams and Richard Wright for example – the relationship between Kgositsile and Gwendolyn Brooks is striking and particularly unique. It disrupts the narrative of gender relations during the Black Power and Black Arts movement, whose legacy is plagued by charges of misogyny and overshadowing masculinity. Brooks and Kgositsile had a relationship of mutual admiration; evidenced by the fact that Brooks penned a moving introduction to his 1971 poetry collection My Name is Afrika.

In the introduction of his sophomore collection, For Melba, which pays homage to his first wife, Melba Johnson, and their daughter, Ipeleng, he expressed shock over the disrespectful treatment of women in his American black community. Sterling Plumpp, literary scholar and Kgositsile’s life-long friend, rightly concluded that Kgositsile’s becoming as a revolutionary writer can be studied through his poems dedicated to Ipeleng.

On his return to the continent, in Tanzania, Kgositsile nurtured a personal and revolutionary friendship with ANC activist Kate Molale at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Morogoro, during a time when he travelled with communist party stalwarts across the larger Soviet Union. He penned two tributary poems for Molale—a leading figure in third worldist feminist politics—upon her death in 1980. His sixth collection of poetry – a body of poetry dedicated to women – was published in East Germany, and conceived to raise funds for ANC’s Voices of Women, the organ for the women’s league in exile. It was through Kgositsile’s poem that I learnt of Black Consciousness poet Ilva Mackay, otherwise erased by history from that canon of literature. The project of mapping his life and work cannot be a finalized without considering the influence of women in his becoming.

On his return home to democratic South Africa, Kgositsile’s commitment to nourish and mentor a new generation of writers saw him in the company of, and at the centre of, an emerging body of poetry by black women, among them Lebogang Mashile and Phillipa yaa De Villiers, with whom he travelled the world to poetry festivals and conferences. When I pointed out his her-story with women we shared a few laughs at this cosmic joke which sent a young black South African woman to be his biographer. He found it fitting.

In our time together, Kgositsile never held anything back. As he made his final crossing, I launched a 21-poem-salute for this statesman, revolutionary, and poet extraordinaire. Pula.

* Keorapetse Kgositsile died on 3 January 2018. He was 79 years old.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.