South African poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, who was a central figure in the United States’ Black Arts Movement, died in Johannesburg on January 3, Giovanni Russonello of the New York Times reports. He was seventy-nine years old.
Born in a mostly white area of Johannesburg, on September 19, 1938, Kgositsile (also known as Bra Willie) spent most of his childhood reading. Rather than endure the apartheid regime’s discriminatory Bantu Education program, Kgositsile chose not to go to college. Instead, he began writing for New Age, a left-wing South African magazine, before he traveled to Tanzania in 1961 and then to the United States a year later as part of an African National Congress initiative that sent activists abroad.
Kgositsile studied at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before settling in New York, where he would help found the Black Arts Movement, which promoted the work of African American artists, writers, musicians, and performers. The movement inspired the founding of publishing houses; arts spaces such as the Black Arts Repertory Theater, which opened in Harlem in 1965; and Africana studies programs.
Kgositsile earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University, taught at a number of colleges across the United States, and authored critically acclaimed works of poetry, including Spirits Unchained and For Melba (both 1969) as well as My Name Is Afrika (1970). “Africa on the continent and Africa in America exist interwoven in my work,” he told the black literary journal Callaloo in 1972. “Even past ideas, even past thoughts, even the music in my writing, is a composite of both.”
In 1975, Kgositsile moved to Tanzania, where he worked as a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, and after the fall of the apartheid in the 1990s, he returned to South Africa. In 2006, Kgositsile became the second South African national poet laureate. The influential writer served as an adviser to the minister of arts and culture and retired in 2014.