This week we depart from Haiti to visit the native son of another country with a deep history of oppression and resistance: South Africa. The luminary Dennis Brutus – freedom fighter, economic and environmental justice activist, professor, and poet – died last year on December 26. We republish this eulogy because of the transcendent lessons Dennis’ life offers to Haiti, the U.S., and all places where people seek greater justice and humaneness.
How does one pay tribute to Dennis Brutus? To do so appropriately would take a short book or a very long poem. Someone should attempt the feat, both because Dennis deserves it and because it would help spread the power of his life, work, and words. And spread is what Dennis’ life, work, and words must continue to do, for in them lie the essentials for a more just, nurturing, equitable, and environmentally sustainable world.
The Dalai Lama is reported to have said, “Let your life be your message.” Dennis’ was, in the humility with which he carried himself, the kindness with which he treated others, and the wisdom and clarity of those words. His message, and his life, lay also in the strength of his convictions and the energy with which he worked for them, whether the cause be liberation from oppressive regimes; reparations to victims of Apartheid from corporations that made profits off the system; the dissolution of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization; or control over corporations creating climate change.
I met Dennis in the early 80’s when we were both fighting the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, during which time he was also fighting for his own political asylum from South Africa. Our collaboration deepened in the 90’s through the global boycott of the World Bank, and through our joint engagement with the Center for Economic Justice. Though reaching the Center’s board meetings in the remote city of Albuquerque required many hours of travel, and though he often had meetings or presentations in other countries on the front and back ends, and though his participation was often for no more than a day, still he came, for Dennis was faithful to whatever he committed to. The same was true of the World Bank boycott: Dennis appeared for most any workshop, presentation, or meeting we requested, raising high the flag with all his strength and brilliance.
He lobbied us all to involve ourselves, to turn out, to unite our voice and strength, to do more than we were already doing. The man was tireless and fearless, and gently urged us to be, too.
He always showed up with his most pressing passions and politically urgent campaigns. I recall running a workshop on strategies to challenge the World Bank’s power in a church in Washington during a week of protests. Making a cameo appearance, Dennis asked for the floor and proceeded to make a long appeal for everyone to join him at another gathering on another topic in another country, many months out. As he went on about that gathering, a woman hissed at me that the speaker was off-message and that I should cut him off. I was polite while denying her request, but what I really wanted to say was, “Do you have any idea who is speaking? You should just feel honored. Listen very carefully to what he has to say.”
The schedule he kept was remarkable for anyone of any age or state of health, but I never heard him complain or make excuses. On he plugged even after he had surpassed 80, when his health had diminished, when his itinerary exhausted him, when his memory had wandered. I ran into him at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in one of his final years when he was clearly weary of body and mind. After sharing a big hug, he said, “I must go now because I have a meeting. I can’t remember with whom, or where it is, but I know I have one.” And off he went through the throngs, tenacity and a fierce commitment to obligation trumping all personal challenges.
When we were lucky, Dennis had the time and inclination for a story. The narrative was always marked by his beautiful verbiage, exquisite oration, enlivened eyes, and -if a good story- delight, or -if one of injustice- calm. My favorite stories were of his and his comrades’ fierce fights against Apartheid. So much courage and creativity they bespoke. He found humor in unexpected places, and always understated his own suffering.
There was the tale of attempting to flee guards as he was being transported from one prison to another, jumping out of the police car at a red light and setting off in a dash. “That was when I learned what a through-and-through wound was,” he said of the bullet which pierced his chest and went out his back. He told of lying on the ground bleeding, “in the shadow of the Anglo American Corporation, appropriately enough,” waiting for the ambulance. When a whites-only ambulance arrived by mistake, he was not allowed in it and had to lie on the verge of death for another long period awaiting a second ambulance, this one for so-called coloreds.
He told of his comrades’ breaking into the hospital to free him after the shooting, as he barely survived on life support, and of his stealthily writing on his hand, “Abort mission,” sure that he would die in the attempted rescue. He told of being under house arrest with guards parked in front of his home around the clock, while he climbed out the side window to attend political meetings.
During one of his narrations in my living room, I noticed that the self-deprecating chortle that usually punctuated his stories had vanished. Dennis was quietly crying. A tear ran down his nose and hung at the tip, where it remained throughout the rest of his tale of horror and brutality. Like Dennis’ life, the sadness and frustration behind that tear never stopped his truth-telling.
Poems were easy to get from him, whether he read them during a public presentation or shared them in a calm moment. Whenever Dennis had a new book (he published 13), he carried copies around and freely gave them out, after adding a warm inscription in his exquisite calligraphy. Dennis was perhaps most full in his poems, which merged the personal and the political, which never denied the existence of tyranny but always brought his breath of hope that the world can be different – if we organize to make it so.
It is perhaps easiest to remember Dennis the fighter, but I was always equally impressed with Dennis the human being. No matter how ugly the political fight, Dennis’ anger remained streamlined on the unjust systems and policies, not wasted on the individuals behind them. He kept his eyes on the prize: the principles at play.
The same was true with his approach to social movements. When comrades and allies around him made errors, when internal politics divided, his response always shone like a beacon. He seemed to know better than most that we are all limited and imperfect, and that the benefit of the doubt or the possibility of change is a grace we need for humanity to continue to evolve. Or perhaps it was simpler: perhaps he believed that he was no one’s judge. Or maybe he just knew that the world was harsh enough already, as he expressed in his poem “Somehow We Survive”:
All our land is scarred with terror
rendered unlovely and unlovable
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
Dennis wrote his own simple obituary in 2009 as he discussed the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. “I was committed to the struggle and I would if necessary die in the cause of liberation: ‘Freedom or death.’ It was a very simple resolve.” He did indeed die in the cause of liberation, though fortunately not violently or prematurely. Every single thing that Dennis did was in the cause of liberation.
I would say I will miss Dennis, but he’s not going anywhere. He’s in all of us who care profoundly for justice, humanity, and the planet.