Keorapetse Kgositsile's poetry mixes the language of anger and love, juxtaposing images of war with symbols of passion. It's the legacy of growing up in South Africa, simultaneously influenced by the desire to overthrow a repressive government and the steadfast love of his grandmother and mother. A former deputy secretary of culture for the African National Congress, Kgositsile rejects poetry that sounds like "a carbon copy of English literature." His work is filled with the music, turmoil, and contradictions of South Africa.
The 56-year-old Kgositsile says he wasn't aware of the apartheid system until he was almost a teenager. His mother worked in a white suburb, and he played with the neighborhood boys, not realizing that there was any difference between their lives and his. Then all his friends went to register for a local boys boxing club. The club accepted his friends but denied Kgositsile entry. "Like a fool, I argued. I was easily the best boxer in the group," he says. "They must have realized that I was ignorant of South African laws because they didn't say why. All of my friends except one, Mario, refused to register if they wouldn't let me in." The boys went home and sparred in Mario's backyard. Kgositsile deliberately punched Mario in the face until his jaw was bleeding. Mario's enraged father told Kgositsile's mother to whip him, but she refused. Instead, she took Kgositsile aside and told him there would be no more playing with white boys.
"She explained everything," he says. "I never realized what was going on. I used to ride the white bus if it came before the black bus. They would let me ride because I was a little boy, but they would always tell me to sit upstairs [on the double-decker bus]. Because I loved to go upstairs, it didn't register that it was because of race."
After this revelation, Kgositsile did what he could to challenge the inequity of apartheid. "If I saw a white boy walking down the street and no one was around, I'd beat him up. If I saw one eating fish and chips or fast foods, I'd smash it in his face. I'd get up early, take a bus to one of the white suburbs, and break all the milk bottles. That was my uninformed way of fighting."
By the time he got out of high school, the young rabble-rouser was looking for a more effective method of fighting South Africa's racism. Encouraged by a former high school teacher, Kgositsile took a reporter's job at a weekly newspaper run by the Communist Party. He wrote stories about politics, culture, and sports. All of his editors were involved in the resistance movement and stood trial for high treason in the late 1950s. When Kgositsile was 23 years old, the ANC decided it was best for him to leave South Africa. "I was a bit political," he says.
Kgositsile was sent to Tanzania. He only expected to be there for a few months, but it was no longer safe for him to return to South Africa. "Everybody I had worked with had been detained," Kgositsile says. The government was also hunting for him because "what I wrote was considered undesirable. I had no idea I would be in exile for almost 30 years."
Unable to go home, Kgositsile ended up in the United States, where he attended various universities on the east coast, including Columbia and the University of New Hampshire. He also began to publish his poetry. His work first appeared in Poems Now, an anthology edited by Amiri Baraka's wife Hattie Jones in the early 1960s. He's since published 17 books of poetry, including My Name Is Afrika, The Present Is a Dangerous Place to Live, Heartprints, and Melba.
Throughout his writing career, Kgositsile has concentrated on the musicality of language. "When I write, I don't think in terms of ideas," he says. "I think of rhythm and let the words flow. The boundary between music and poetry is a Western thing." The poetry that first influenced him was written in Setswana, a language of South Africa and Botswana. In Setswana poetry, rhythm is paramount, and rhyme can appear anywhere, not just at the end of a verse.
Thanks to his mother and grandmother, many of his poems contain images of females as life-affirming forces. "Without our mothers and grandmothers we would be nothing," Kgositsile says. That's why he's been invited to perform in a program of poetry and music called For the Love of Black Women: A Poetic and Musical Tribute to Grace, Resilience and Genius, in honor of Valentine's Day. "All the poetry I write is love poetry," says Kgositsile, who married a Chicagoan this past summer. "Like any art form, it affirms life as creativity and that affirmation is an act of love."
Kgositsile will team up with musician Douglas Ewart for his portion of the program. Other performers include writers Sterling Plump, Michael Warr, Rohan B Preston, Tyehimba Jess, and Daniel Wideman, as well as saxophonist Mwata Bowden and WBEZ's Karl Wright. It takes place this Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 at the gallery Black Art Group International, 1259 S. Wabash. Tickets cost $10, $18 per couple. Call 427-7600 for more.