Poetry of Black Consciousness

Poetry of Black Consciousness

I have a soft spot for South African poetry of the Black Consciousness movement. I envy its innovative shifts of language-register, image and rhythm, ranging from contemplative verse to deep irony, from global references to tsotsi-taal.
This is the poetry of what has been called the South African urban writers. This refers not to writers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, but writers particularly in the black satellites: Soweto, Langa and Kwa Mashu.

These poets include, but are not limited to Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mtshali, Mafika Gwala and others.
These poets were variably spurred on by the political ideals of the anti-apartheid popular movements. South Africa during the 1970s was a fertile ground for a literary revival of the silenced black voices withering under state repression.
This was a defining period for the evolution of political consciousness among black South Africans, and the philosophy of Black Consciousness affirmed and fostered black cultural values, aiding the establishment of a racial solidarity in the face of harsh oppression.

This kind of poetry took shape during this period and you clearly see some influences from the Harlem Renaissance in the US and the Negritude movement. There are hints that the writings of Leopold Senghor, David Diop, Aime Cesaire, Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee and Ishmael Reed offered these South African poets a new mode for expansion and expression.
In South Africa, the Black Consciousness Movement was a grassroots anti-Apartheid activist movement that emerged in the mid-1960s out of the political vacuum created by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960.

The Black Consciousness Movement poetry is characterised by a focus on the experiences of the downtrodden of apartheid South Africa and relevant themes. Much of this poetry is characterised by an examination of the historical place of the black people of South Africa with regards to the future. This poetry asks the question: where has the black person been and where is she going?
No wonder Mongane Wally Serote’s iconic poem “Hell, Well, Heaven” starts with those starling lines about suddenly awakening:
“I do not know where I have been,
But Brother,
I know I’m coming.
I do not know where I have been,
But Brother,
I know I heard the call.”

The whole poem is about waking up to the sudden realisation that one is downtrodden and may not have noticed. There is the sudden decision to do something about it now –now!
The persona decides to come to action, “like a tide of water now…” He calls out to both heaven and hell, all at the same time, because whatever the case, one has to arise like a germinating seed.
He prances about wondering where he has been. He is a new Adam who still wonders why he still has his body and mind after all the battering he has taken during his long sleep.

In Serote’s other poem called, “City Johannesburg,” the great city is shown as the playground of oppressive laws like the mandatory carrying of pass books. The city is also the scene of the back breaking eight hour job. When one goes back to his people he is actually tattered and torn. One goes back home in order to die:
“That, that is all you need of me.
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg,
You are dry like death,
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg, Jo’burg City.”
You feel that the poet is talking about more than the city itself.

“The Actual Dialogue” is a poem that uses very high irony and symbolism. It is about a black man bumping into a white man in the dark and having to apologise profusely for their chance meeting because under the apartheid system, a black man is not supposed to meet a white man in the dark or to startle or to take a white man by surprise.
This brings out the issue of invisibility sometimes referred to as ghostliness of black people under apartheid that one sees in much of South African literature from this period. The black people are just a number in the eyes of the white system, their individuality does not matter.
But even the black man’s apology in that poem sounds like a double sword. You may actually think that it is a roundabout call to arms or an indication that a clash is inevitable! That part of the poem goes:

“Do not fear-
Blame you’re your heart
When you fear me-
I will blame my mind
When I fear you
In the night that is black like me.
Do not fear Baas,
My heart is as vast as the sea
And your mind as the earth.
Its awright baas,
Do not fear.”

Serote’s poem called “Black Bells” is a clear indication that poetry from South Africa’s Black Consciousness movement is close to the original idea of the Blues music from the Harlem Renaissance. The blues lyrics, included repetition, rhyming, improvisation, symbols and metaphors.
In the blues musical versions, it was not uncommon for a musician to perform “their” song differently each time because they may not have felt the same way in each moment. Moreover, it was acceptable for singers to borrow lyrics or other musical elements for their own performances.
Many times, metaphors and symbols were used in the lyrics to communicate with the audience. In keeping with that, a part of the poem

“Black Bells” goes:
Make pain,
Like poverty can make pain.
Like thought, are elusive,
Like life,

Where everybody is trapped.
Trying to get out
Words. Words. By Whitey.
No. No. No. By Whitey.
I know I am trapped.

Trapped me whiyet. Meem wanna ge aot Fuc
Pschwee ep booboooduboobooodu blllll
Black books…”
Serote is a great stylist who demonstrates a wide understanding of poetic methods from across the world in order to fashion out his own. He was born in 1944. He is widely known as a poet, novelist, political activist, exile, member of the Black Consciousness Movement and African National Congress, Commander in uMkhonto weSizwe and Member of Parliament in democratic South Africa. He became involved in political resistance to the apartheid government by joining the African National Congress and was arrested and detained for several months without trial.

Where Serote tends to be double edged and titillating, his colleague, Oswald Mtshali can be very pointed. Sometimes he openly looks for direct links with traditional African culture for strength. He appears to believe that the black man can only stand up firm if he does not lose the useful links with culture and tradition.
Mtshali’s poem called “The Birth of Tshaka” raises Tshaka as an icon of physical and emotional strength that the blacks could reach out to during this fight against apartheid. Tshaka is described in superlative terms to become a character larger than life. The poem ends in a very definitive way:

“His eyes were lanterns
That shone from the dark valleys of Zululand
To see white swallows
Coming across the sea.
His cry to two assassin brothers:
“Lo! You can kill me
But you will never rule this land.”

Mtshali’s other poem called “The Detribalised” is a sarcastic attack on those black South Africans who have allowed themselves to become detribalised and now have lost link with their life-giving traditional cultures and traditions. As a result these people have become wish washy:
“He pays cash
That’s why
He is called Mister.
He knows
he must carry a pass.

He don’t care for politics.
He don’t go to church
He knows Sobukwe
He knows Mandela
They are in Robben Island
“So what? That’s not my business!”

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali was born in 1940, Vryheid, Natal, South Africa. He writes in English and Zulu and his works draw deeply upon the immediate experience of life in the Johannesburg township of Soweto during apartheid.

Sipho Sepamla is very keen on the ironic self defensive actions of the apartheid system. He is merciless and hard hitting in his protest and you read his poems and feel his strong accusatory finger of a court prosecutor. In that poem, Tell Me News, he goes:
“Oh, tell me
of a sister
who returned home pregnant
from a prison cell
has she been charged under the Immorality Act?

Tell me of a brother
who hanged himself in jail
with a piece of his torn pair of jeans
was he hiding a pair of scissors in the cell?

Tell me, tell me sir
has the gruesome sight of a mangled corpse
not begun to sit on your conscience?”

Where Serote writes about the whole city of Johannesburg, Sepamla descends on Soweto and opens up its history and saying that Soweto emerged as an “afterthought” settlement. Although Soweto has created legendary figures, Sepamla believes that Soweto has been equally “a huge quiet cemetery where many have been buried by day and resurrected by night to make calls at night-vigils.” He calls for Soweto to arise out of its immobility and immorality to claim its place amongst the living.

Sepamla calls for contemplation and meditation as he asks the people to listen to the trees and talk to the migratory birds in search of new and positive stories. He wonders what even our pets would say about us if they were called to testify. Then he finally calls everybody to arms by saying, “Come on let’s talk to the devil himself it’s about time.” You can see that the “talking” is not an ordinary conversation.
“A wish,” could be one of Sepamla’s best poems. In it he becomes transcendental:

I have rivalled the birded in the air
enfolded by clouds even

I’ve been given to bend the sky at night
I am an atlas in my own right
holding back mighty rivers or changing their course

I defy distance reducing it to a point
as little as my hand

listen, I have pulled myself out of
the earth’s warm womb glittering

I am that kind of man
but a wish of mine remains
peace at all times with all men

Sydney Sipho Sepamla was born in 1932 and died in 2007. He lived most of his life in Soweto, the giant township southwest of Johannesburg. He was a trained school teacher who contributed to the return of a black protest voice after the suppression of dissent and the banning of black writers in the ‘silent decade’ of the 1960s. Some of his poems have been published in the collections Hurry Up to It! (1975), The Blues is You in Me (1976), The Soweto I Love (1977) and Children of the Earth (1983).
Like in many places in the world where people are oppressed, these urban poets realised that the voice of the artist could be best employed to rally people together against oppression.

Memory Chirere

Previous Dream of ending poverty fades
Next Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part Nine

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