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The Tenderness of Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)

00BrutusCIMG0101.jpgThe Dresser is not a political animal but one person two years ago moved her to stand in Washington, DC's LaFayette Square across from George Bush's White House to say, "The politics of death and taxes bring me here to grieve." That person was the South African poet Dennis Brutus, who spent time with Nelson Mandela breaking rocks at Robben Island. His crime, like Mandela's, was the audacity of fighting racism in their native land.

The occasion of the Dresser meeting the venerable Brutus was the 2008 Split This Rock poetry conference. As a keynote speaker, Dennis Brutus viscerally made real what conference organizer Sarah Browning meant by naming her conference Split This Rock. What was especially moving to the Dresser was how such a modest and giving person could stand and suffer great hardship in the name of social justice and good common sense. Without hearing him speak, the Dresser would not have attended the LaFayette rally that crisp Sunday in March. The Dresser told those assembled that she was inspired to speak because of what Dennis Brutus said at the Split This Rock conference and she saw that Mr. Brutus who was standing in front of the crowd was moved by that confession. Afterwards, she spoke with him face to face and he embraced her. He said he was hoping people would be moved to action.

00BrowningCIMG0123.jpgOn January 10, 2009, Sarah Browning and many others delivered a tribute program to Dennis Brutus who died December 26, 2009 at the age of 85. The tribute at Busboy & Poets took its name "Somehow Tenderness Survive" from the last line of the poem seen below. Among the participants were poets Kenny Carroll, Holly Bass, and Sarah Browning. Emira Woods, Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies, and Briggs Bomba, Africa Action, co-hosted. The Langston Room of Busboys was so packed that people were invited to sit on the stage behind the speakers. Vincent Moloi screened "I am a Rebel," a 50-minute documentary of Brutus' life.


Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.

Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;

over our heads the monolithic decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;

boots club the peeling door.

But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.

Patrols uncoil along 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 survive


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Comments (4)


Nice work here, Karren. I corresponded with Brutus years ago. Class act.

Brian Gilmore,

What always surprises me is how the literary community in Washington DC doesn't better support such events of importance. But in all practical reality, the room couldn't have shoe-horned in many more people. Most of those attending were social activists. I came because Dennis Brutus was a poet first and activist second, no matter how important the social action he took.

I was amused by what Neil Watkins of Jubilee USA Network called Mr. Brutus. Watkins said Brutus was a "rock star." That puts a whole new meaning into that phrase and one I believe the poet Brutus would have weighed carefully. The phrase actually deconstructs the pop iconography and puts humanity back into the phrase that makes popular singers gods. As you probably know, some thinkers say humans come from stars, meaning the material stars are made from which could just boil down to rocks. Mr. Brutus was salt of the earth if not a hefty rock himself.

Pamela Uschuk:

Thanks, Karren.  Dennis was wonderful.  I am lucky to have known him.

Juanita Rockwell:

I was very moved by your tribute to Dennis Brutus last week - lovely.

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