Brutus, Dennis 1924–
Dennis Brutus 1924–
Poet, teacher, political activist
African poet Dennis Brutus was one of the leading opponents of apartheid, the official policy of strict racial segregation and discrimination a-gainst nonwhites practiced in his native South Africa. He led the campaign against segregation in sports there, and was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities. He succeeded in having South African teams banned from the 1964 and 1968 Olympic games, as well as many other international competitions. “Brutus has a distinction that makes him a hated symbol to the white rulers of South Africa, and a heroic one to the critics of their regime: He has actually succeeded in bringing about some change …,” Anthony Lewis wrote in an August 1983 column in the New York Times.
Brutus was born November 28, 1924, in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). He is the son of South Africans Francis Henry and Margaret Winifred (Bloemetjie) Brutus, who both were teachers. He returned as an infant with his parents to their native South Africa, and described himself as “an enthusiastic athlete, not a skillful one,” according to a 1991 New York Times article by William C. Rhoden. He attended Paterson High School in South Africa and earned his bachelor’s degree in English with honors from Fort Hare University in 1947. He taught English and Afrikaans at various high schools in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, from 1948 to 1961. Among his favorite poets are John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He married May Jaggers on May 14, 1950, and has eight children: Jacinta, Marc, Julian, Antony, Justina, Cornelia, Gregory, and Paula.
It was as a high school teacher during the late 1950s that Brutus first began his crusade against apartheid, particularly in sports. Brutus was secretary of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee from 1959, and president of the group from 1963. His goal was two-fold, he wrote in the New York Times in 1991: “We would get the racist national Olympic Committee expelled and we would get recognition for a non-racial sports body.” He was largely responsible for the exclusion of South Africa from numerous national sporting events.
At a Glance…
Born November 28, 1924, in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe); son of Francis Henry and Margaret Winifred Brutus; married May Jaggers, 1950; children: Jacinta, Marc, Julian, Antony, Justina, Cornelia, Gregory, Paula. Education: Fort Hare University, B.A. 1947; studied law at City of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1963-64.
Career: High school teacher of English and Afrikaans in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1948-61; journalist, 1960-61; teacher and journalist in London, England, 1966-70; Northwestern Univ, prof of English, 1971 -85; Swarthmore Coll, Cornell Professor of English Literature, 1985-86; Univ of Pittsburgh, prof of black studies and English, chair of department of black community education research and development, 1986-; visiting prof, Univ of Denver, 1970, Univ of TX at Austin, 1974-75, Amherst Coll, 1981-82, Dartmouth, 1983, and Northeastern Univ, 1984; Oxford Center for Africa Studies, International Summer school, lecturer, 1990; Univ of Durban, Westville, S. Africa, visiting fellow, 1992; Univ of CO, Boulder, distinguished visiting humanist, 1992-93. Founder of Troubadour Press. South African Sports Assn, founding secretary, 1958, pres, 1963-; UN rep, International Defense and Aid Fund (London), 1966-71; chair of Intl Campaign against Racism in Sport, 1972-; Emergency Comm for World government, 1978-; chair, Africa Network, 1984-; coordinator, Union of Writers of the African Peoples, 1986-; prog dir, Prog on African Writers in Africa and the Diaspora, 1988-.
Selected memberships: Union of Writers of the African People (Ghana); vice pres, 1974-; Congress of South African Writers, 1989-; African Lit Assn, founding chair, 1975; exec comm, 1979-.
Addresses: Office—Dept of Black Community Education Research and Development, University of Pittsburgh, 230 S. Bouquet St., Forbes Quad 3T01, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.
Brutus worked as a journalist for a short time, but was prohibited by the government from teaching, writing, or publishing. He then studied law at the University of Witwatersrand until his studies were cut short in 1963, when he was first arrested for protesting racist policies in South African sports. His first collection of poems, titled Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, was published in Nigeria while he was still in prison. Though his work is protest poetry, and Brutus has shouldered his own burdens in the fight against racism, his poems lack any element of self-pity. While on bail, Brutus attempted to escape to Baden Baden, West Germany, to protest apartheid in sports before the Olympic executive committee. He was arrested on the border between Mozambique and Swaziland and turned over to the South African police. He was shot in the back while trying to escape when he was being returned to prison.
In 1964 Brutus was sentenced to serve 18 months in the infamous Robben Island penal colony, where he did hard labor alongside future Nobel Prize winner (and president of South Africa) Nelson Mandela. Despite, or perhaps because of, Brutus’s imprisonment, his campaign to exclude South Africa from the 1964 and 1968 Olympics was successful. He was breaking stones on Robben Island when he heard the news about the 1964 Olympics. The impact on sports-loving South Africans was immense. In addition to the Olympics, South African cricket, rugby, and other teams were banned from international competitions. It would be nearly 30 years before South Africa was readmitted to international sports, including the Olympic games.
Brutus left South Africa in 1966 after his release from prison. He, his wife, and their seven children left on a one-way “exit permit” that guaranteed Brutus’s immediate imprisonment if he were to return. He relocated to London in 1966, where he served as the director of the Campaign for Release of South African Political Prisoners and a staff member of the International Defense and Aid Fund from 1966 to 1971. His work during this period was banned in his native land; Letters to Martha, Brutus’s 1968 collection of poems addressed to his sister-in-law, was published as “letters” from prison as a result. Trips to Algeria and China resulted in Poems from Algiers and China Poems, both published in 1970.
After a stint as a visiting professor to the University of Denver in 1970, Brutus immigrated to the United States in 1971. He was a professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, from 1971 to 1985, moving to the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. He founded the Troubadour Press in Del Valle, Texas, in 1971, and published several volumes of poetry in the 1970s. A Simple Lust, a collection of both previously published and unpublished work, was released in 1973. Brutus published Strains in 1975 and Stubborn Hope in 1978.
After a decade living in exile in the United States (and by this time a tenured professor at Northwestern), Brutus became a “victim of the Administration’s curious immigration policy toward black political refugees,” according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., president of the Afro-American Academy and Yale University literature professor, in a 1982 New York Times column. Under Reagan administration policy, the burden of proving one’s right to political asylum rested with those judged to be “guilty” of “illegal” acts under the repressive regime from which he or she fled.
It seemed implausible to many that Brutus could even face being deported. “If Dennis Brutus … loses the right to asylum,” one Northwestern University professor was quoted as saying in Gates’s column, “his life will be placed in serious jeopardy.” A former South African secret agent, Gordon Winter, told the New York Times in August, 1983, that his government rated Brutus “one of the twenty most dangerous South African political figures overseas.” Brutus himself believed that he would be a target for assassination in South Africa, a country in which political assassination is not unheard of. Reagan Administration lawyers scoffed at fears for his safety and offered secret evidence against his asylum. Considering his record of political commitment, Henry Louis Gates declared in the Times, the rejection of political asylum to Brutus would have been an “embarrassment” to the Reagan Administration.
In 1981, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) informed Brutus that he must show cause why he should not be deported. His visa had expired because the country which had issued his passport, Rhodesia, had since become Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe did not yet have a consulate in the United States so he had nowhere to renew it. A hearing declared Brutus “deportable,” but he was granted extra time to apply for political asylum. The U.S State Department took over his case in February 1982 and was much publicized. The case dragged on until September 1983, when an immigration judge granted his asylum request. “There is no question that Professor Brutus has made himself hated by just about every South African for his position and activities,” Judge Irving Schwartz is quoted as saying in a September 1983 article in the New York Times.
While poetry is considered by some to be the language of romanticism and love, Brutus’s interests are generally more earthly. “My concerns have widened to embrace larger social issues,” he is quoted as saying in Contemporary Poets, “especially nuclear annihilation and the problems of the third world.” That said, Brutus still is able to compose a gentle love poem, though the harsh truths he has faced remain present. A passage from Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, captures this duality: “Patrols uncoil over the asphalt dark / hissing their menace to our lives, /most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror, / rendered unlovely and unlovable; / sundered are we and all our passionate surrender / but somehow tenderness survives.”
After 25 years away, Brutus returned to his homeland in 1991, after the South African government announced that all exiles were free to return. “All my associates are there; my roots are there,” Brutus explained when asked by William C. Rhoden of the New York Times why he was going back. “It makes sense … If I was motivated to serve, where would be the logical place to serve but in the place where I grew up?” Anti-apartheid figures welcomed his visit, but said he must “reacclimate,” according to Rhoden in the Times. The nature of the anti-apartheid movement had changed significantly while he had been gone.
After the fall of apartheid, Brutus remained an activist on a host of other issues. He was arrested and charged with civil disobedience in February of 2000 as part of a protest on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, a controversial death-row inmate. The charges were dropped. He turned his focus to the alleged injustices of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies in Third World nations, including their impact on the environment. In Seattle, Washington, in October of 2000, Brutus represented the Anti-Corporate Globalization campaign.
Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, Mbari Publications, 1963.
Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison, Heinemann, 1968.
Poems from Algiers, African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin, 1970.
(Under pseudonym John Bruin) Thoughts Abroad, Troubadour Press, 1970.
A Simple Lust: Selected Poems Including “Sirens, Knuckles, Boots,” “Letters to Martha,” “Poems from Algiers,” “Thoughts Abroad,” Hill & Wang, 1973.
Strains, edited by Wayne Kamin and Chip Dameron, Troubadour Press, 1975, revised edition, 1982.
China Poems, translated by Ko Ching Po, African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
Stubborn Hope: New Poems and Selections from “China Poems” and “Strains,” Three Continents Press, 1978, Heinemann 1991.
Salutes and Censures, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Nigeria), 1984, Africa World Press, 1985.
Airs and Tributes, edited by Gil Ott, Whirlwind Press, 1989.
(Editor with Hal Wylie and Juris Silenieks) African Literature, 1988: New Masks, Three Continents/African Literature Association, 1990.
Work represented in anthologies, including Seven South African Poets, edited by Cosmo Pieterse, Hei-nemann, 1966, Humanities, 1973; From South Africa: New Writing, Photographs, and Art, edited by David Bunn and Jane Taylor, University of Chicago Press, 1988; and Words on the Page: The World in Your Hand, edited by Catherine Lipkin and Virginia Solotaroff, Harper, 1989. Contributor to journals. Member of editorial board, Africa Today, 1976-, and South and West, Guest editor, The Gar, 1978.
Hamilton, Ian, ed., Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Ousby, Ian, ed., Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Riggs, Thomas, ed., Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, 2001.
Stringer, Jenny, ed., Oxford Companion to 20th-century Literature in English, Oxford University Press, 1996.
New York Times, September 7, 1982, p. A23; August 25, 1983, p. A23; September 27, 1983, p. A29; May 12, 1991, p. S10.
University of Pittsburgh, http://www.pitt.edu/~bjgrier/brutus.htm (December 23, 2002).
The South African poet in exile Dennis Brutus (born 1924) is known both as a creative artist and as a political activist opposed to apartheid.
Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, of South African parents. Educated at Fort Hare College and the University of the Witwatersrand, he taught for 14 years in South Africa and participated in many anti-apartheid campaigns, particularly those concerned with sports. The South African government eventually banned him from attending political and social meetings and made it illegal for any of his writings to be published in South Africa.
In 1963 he was arrested for attending a sports meeting. When released on bail, he fled to Swaziland and from there tried to make his way to Germany to meet with the world Olympic executive committee, but the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border handed him back to the South African security police. Realizing that no one would know of his capture, he made a desperate attempt to escape, only to be shot in the back on a Johannesburg street. On recovery he was sentenced to 18 months hard labor on Robben Island.
When he finished his term in prison, Brutus was permitted to leave South Africa with his wife and children on an "exit permit," a document which made it illegal for him to return. He lived in London from 1966 to 1970, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist. In 1970 he took a position as a visiting professor of English at the University of Denver for a year, after which he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was a professor of English at Northwestern from 1971 to 1985, then took a position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. In 1983 Brutus was granted political asylum in the United States. During the 1970s and 1980s he remained active in a number of anti-apartheid organizations, particularly SANROC (South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee), which led the movement to have South Africa excluded from the Olympic Games because of its discriminatory sports policies. He was also on the staff of the International Defense and Aid Fund. Brutus was as famous for his political activities as he was for his poetry.
There were five distinct phases in his development as a poet, each marked by formal and thematic shifts which tended not only to reflect his changing preoccupations and professional concerns, but also to document profound transformations in his conception of the nature and function of poetry. Each new phase grew out of a personal experience which made him question his previous attitudes toward verbal art and seek a more satisfying outlet for his energies of articulation.
His first book of poems, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963), contained a variety of lyric forms invested with many of the standard poetic conventions. This was highbrow poetry— tight, mannered, formal, and sometimes formidably difficult. Schooled in classic English verse, Brutus attempted to compose multi-leveled lyrics that would challenge the mind, poems sufficiently subtle and intricate to interest any well-educated lover of poetry. He frequently sought to achieve an ambiguous idiom that allowed him to make a political and an erotic statement in the same breath. It was during this early phase in his career that he wrote nearly all of his most complex verse.
While he was in prison Brutus decided to stop writing this kind of poetry. The five months he spent in solitary confinement caused him to reexamine his verse and his attitudes toward creative self-expression, and he resolved thereafter to write simple, unornamented poetry that ordinary people could comprehend immediately. His Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) contains brief, laconic statements deriving from his experiences as a prisoner. The diction is deliberately conversational and devoid of poetic devices. Instead of seeking to express two or three thoughts simultaneously, Brutus was striving to say only one thing at a time and to say it directly.
After he left South Africa and began his life in exile, Brutus' poetry changed again. This time a change appeared as a balance between the complexity of his early verse and the simplicity of his prison poems. While traveling the world as an anti-apartheid crusader, he wrote many nostalgic, plaintive lyrics recalling the beauties and terrors of his native land. This homesick verse, collected in Poems from Algiers (1970), Thoughts Abroad (1970), and A Simple Lust (1973), was more richly textured than what he had written in prison, yet he continued to aim for lucidity rather than symbolic nuances.
In the summer of 1973 Brutus visited the People's Republic of China to attend a sports meeting. Impressed by the extreme economy of Chinese verse, he began experimenting with epigrammatic poetic forms resembling Japanese haiku and Chinese chueh chu, in which very little is said and much suggested. The results were brought together in a pamphlet called China Poems (1975).
Brutus's later collections, Strains (1975), Stubborn Hope (1978), and Salutes and Censures (1980), contained poems written over a span of years and thus in a variety of poetic idioms. But in his later verse he appeared once again to be moving toward a balanced position, this time between the extreme density of his complex early verse and the extraordinary economy of his nearly wordless Chinese experiments. However, despite these remarkable changes in poetic posture, Brutus's political stance never altered. He devoted his life and his art to opposing apartheid in South Africa.
Until the dissolution of the apartheid system in 1993, Brutus' work was systematically banned in South Africa. He did manage to publish his collection, Thought Abroad under the pseudonym John Bruin for a short while. Until the government learned Brutus was the author, the poems were actually studied in South African universities. The banning of Brutus' work was so thorough, literary critic Colin Gardner observed in Research in African Literatures, "it seems likely that many well-read South Africans, even some of those with a distinct interest in South African poetry, are wholly or largely unacquainted with his writing."
In the late 1980s, Brutus published Airs and Tributes (1989). The end of apartheid brought a surge in creativity for South African writers, and in 1993 Brutus visited his native country for the first time since 1966.
No books have yet been written on Dennis Brutus, but he is discussed in most books dealing with African poetry or with South African literature. Informed critical commentary can be found in Ken Goodwin, Understanding African Poetry (1982); Ursula A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1983); and Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre, The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa (1984). □