Sunday, October 02, 2005

Poetry, Politics and Power, and a Good Friend

Two women and a man wait to be moved to Soweto from Sophiatown, the famed multi-racial, multi-ethnic community that symbolized the great literary, musical and theatrical creativity in South Africa before the dawn of apartheid. Sophiatown was the first community targeted for forced removal under the notorious "Group Areas Act." Africans were sent to Soweto, mixed-raced Coloureds to Western Areas, Indians to Fordsburg and Lenasia, while Sophiatown was bulldozed and rebuilt into a White working class suburb called "Triomf," meaning victory in Afrikaans. Sophiatown was Don Mattera's roots, the source of his poetry and personaltiy. His book "Memory is a Weapon" describes the destruction of Sophiatown and how the seeds of hate and suspicion were sown between different racial and ethnic groups by forced removals. This elegant, haunting photograph was taken by Jurgen Schadeberg, a German immigrant who documented the life of Sophiatown. You can visit his web site, which tells many fascinating visual stories about South Africa.

Poetry moves things, poetry changes the world…

I was watching “No Direction Home” on PBS, a film about Bob Dylan by Martin Scorsese, and it struck me how much Dylan and the beat generation gave a certain voice to the civil rights struggle, and masses of people responded to that voice. With what I see in new street cafes, "slam" contests and Def Poetry Jam, it seems that spoken word art is becoming powerful again, reflecting that same passion and potential. That's really what true hip hop--early hip hop--was all about anyway. It was poetry of the streets.

Allen Ginsberg said, “Poetry is words that are empowered that makes your hair stand on end. Words that you recognize instinctively have some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it, because somebody has realized it. Then you call it poetry later...”

When I lived in South Africa I had the good fortune of becoming good friends with Don Mattera, one of South Africa's great poetic voices. In his own way, Don embodies the humanity of South Africa, and his words are full of rich meanings and great truth. Not unlike Tupac and Biggie, Ice T and Ice Cube, Don was a gangster who lived the streets and later found his voice in poetry. Don was a mentor, a guide and father figure to me, and as they say in South Africa, Don was a "
fundi." I walked with Don, through various ghettos and ethnic neighborhoods, and I watched him talk to anyone and everyone in Zulu, Sotho, English, Afrikaans and tsotsi taal, and I even prayed with him once on the street with a sangoma. Don was the same brother, whether he was eating at a local dive, lecturing at a university, writing poetry, speaking at a stadium rally or leading prayers of the Eid Festival at the end of Ramadan. The same brother...

Three of my favorite poems, from Don's book, “Azanian Love Song,” are "Black Plum," The Day They Came for Our House" (which is about Sophiatown) and "Child."


This land
The soil so stiff necked and proud
This beautiful earth is a garden
And I am the fruit
Squeezed of energy
Drained of love
Dried of hope:

a garden watered by anguish
fertilised by the tears
of my people,
strewn with the seeds
of their lives

I am the black plum
Fruit of mama africa
The spirit that cries out beyond the horizon
The soul that seeks emancipation
I am africa


Sophiatown, 1962

The sun stood still
in the sullen wintry sky
a witness
to the impending destruction

Armed with bulldozers
they came
to do a job
nothing more
just hired killers

We gave way
there was nothing we could do
although the bitterness stung in us,
in the place we knew to be part of us
and in the earth around,

We stood.
Slow painfully slow
clumsy crushes crawled over
the firm pillars
into the rooms that held us
and the roof that covered
our heads

We stood.
Dust clouded our vision
We held back tears
It was over in minutes,


Bulldozers have power.
They can take apart in a few minutes
all that had been built up over the years
and raised over generations
and generations of children

The power of destroying
the pain of being destroyed,


South African Police executing forced removals in Sophiatown.


For my daughter Noeleen

The leaves of my tree
grow brown and thin
soon they will fall to earth
and be forgotten

Much fruit has withered
only a few strong boughs remain
but they too will be broken
by the fury that will sweep our land

But of all my fruit
of all things clear and close to my heart,
are you and the hope that is manifest
in your being
you the offspring
of an invisible dream

All my seeking my fervent cries
and the depth
of longing are but distant echoes
my wounds mere relics
yet all I ask of you
is that you should remember me
for what I tried to do, tried to offer
so that a new bright sun would rise on your day;
that a portion of
my dream for the freedom of my people
would find a match in your song
my name and those who marched with me
be recorded on your scroll

What does a man live for
if not to be remembered by his beloved?

I wanted
to offer you sonnets
And springbuds unfurling to the sunlight
sing about the fir trees pointing to God
but how can I sing of the tree when
beneath it my brothers lie bleeding
and their wounds unfurl the horror of existence
and their prayers are cries of death
and their hearts curse God

Yet amid all the hate and hostility
I do not hate those who hold
us in servitude
though I have tried hard to do so,
I just cannot hate

Perhaps it is a weakness on my part
perhaps the folly of the oppressed
is that we do not hate enough
or that we love too much but
it is a truism that revolutions
are born out of love;
love for land and liberty
love of humanity and love of oneself

I have watched many suns sink
seen phantom shadows raise their ominous banners
and I have heard my name called
while dreams, desires of a lifetime
whittled under violent feet

I hold the bloody scroll
with shakey, awe-struck hands
the cup will not pass untouched
for the lips that hunger after justice

How often have I asked God
whether there was something we missed
or a teaching that went unheeded
from the prophets in whose shadows we walked

But your blood is changing;
a vibrant light glows in your eyes
a sacred fire of unseen power within you
claims its bounty of life
tomorrow belongs to you
yours through strength and defiance
that flows in the struggle carved from God's image

The world is teeming with unrest
everywhere men are fighting to be heard
to walk upright in the
land of their fathers
it is no different in our continent
nor in our country where the tin gods
teach their offspring to despise and humiliate us

Greed, selfishness and hypocrisy
have blinded most white people
verily, they live by the sword

Yet there are many good, well-meaning
justice-loving white folk
men and women of conscience
who sacrifice their days that others might be free

Those who did not conform were broken

those who refused to break
were imprisoned or killed
others persecuted to self-exile
but many millions remain silent
enjoying the ill-gotten harvest

I am not influencing you to hate whites
I could not ask such a thing
for it would negate my own humanity
the enmity I feel is for the denial of black dignity
for the sacred right to love unhindered

I tell you that even our finer emotions,
those which sustain us with inner succour
when debasement exacts its toll on our lives,
are now the white man's past-time
and God is made the lie with which we are deceived

But as there are evil white people
so are there black ones
who have become the tools
with which we are fooled and indoctrinated
black men and women who travel
for the colonial crumbs of comfort
selling their souls for money

Child, I look at the slow decaying
of our people in the cities
in the dry foodless reserves in
the prisons, and a thousand angry rivers
rush inside of me:
the deaths they die will not be in vain,
they are the foundation of your freedom

I look at you and the fear I had for death falters
as I touch your dimpled hands
drink of your warm laughter
certain that you would outlive
the tempest which must first lash the land
in order to set it free

Yet it was in a dream
and it was by the river
that I heard the plaintive voices of men in chains
black men naked and shining, singing the
slave's song:
How long Lord, how long?
and the moon fell on the
shimmering water
lighting up their faces and I was among them
shackled but singing

So that our voices rose heavy with sound
breaking the fetters that held us bondage

And children came with seed
and where we stood,
they planted a new people

These words I give you
as a testament of my deepest love for you
and for our beloved land

written in the hope that you will remember
those valiant folk who marched with me
and in remembering, cherish the legacy
bequeathed to you through their blood
in the final hope that a new bright sun
will rise on your Tomorrow


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At 9:05 AM, Blogger Alli said...

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At 5:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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