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Dennis Brutus' long association with Worcester State University, which spanned over 20 years, began on May 28, 1982, when he appeared as key speaker at the inauguration of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Worcester State University. The next day, May 29, 1982, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters for both his heroic activities as an opponent of Apartheid in South Africa as well as for his distinguished achievement as a poet. It was at this time that, partly out of gratitude for WSU's support of him during his dramatic battle to win political asylum in the United States and partly out of a generous desire to assist the newly created Center for the Study of Human Rights, he donated an extensive number of personal manuscripts and other items to the Center.
In November 1924, two South African school teachers working in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, became the parents of a baby boy. That child would later become one of the best English-language poets to come out of South Africa. He would also become a thorn in the side of the South African government through his work against apartheid and sports segregation.
That child, Dennis Brutus, grew up in South Africa. Of mixed-race ancestry, he was branded as “Coloured” with few human rights and an overwhelming sense of fair play. He became a teacher, like his parents, after attending St. Augustine Teacher Training College and later Fort Hare University, where he completed a degree in Psychology and English in 1947.
Along with his teaching, Brutus was becoming politically active. He switched careers to journalism, and began to take part in anti-apartheid protests. His focus became racial segregation in sports, and in 1959, he became associated with the South African Sports Association, serving as secretary for the group. By 1963, Brutus was serving as president of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC), a group that worked to have the country banned from the 1964 and 1968 Olympics for not integrating its sports teams.
This activity led to Dennis Brutus’ first arrest by the South African government. He was forbidden by the government from attending gatherings of over two people, from working in teaching or journalism, and from publishing his poetry. He broke his probation by attending a meeting of the white South African Olympic and National Games Association in 1963 and was arrested. On bail, Brutus left the country, ending up in Swaziland on his way to meet the International Olympic Committee in Germany.
Unfortunately, he was arrested by Portuguese police at the Mozambique border and returned to South African authorities. Brutus feared for his life. He was being held by South African police in Johannesburg, unbeknownst to family and friends. He tried to escape and was shot in the back. After recovering from his wound, he was imprisoned on Robben Island—an 18-month sentence doing hard labor—where he met Nelson Mandela. Some of his poetry was published during this time in his first volume Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963).
Upon his release, the South African government placed him under house arrest and prohibited him from further publication—even from writing without publication—for five years. Brutus circumvented the restriction by writing letters to the wife of another Robben Island prisoner; his book Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison was published in 1969.
After a year of house arrest, Brutus and his family were allowed to leave South Africa, settling in London in 1966. There he continued his activist work as director of the Campaign for Release of South African Political Prisoners. In 1970, he was offered a teaching post at the University of Denver, the first of several professorial appointments at major American universities, including the University of Texas, Northwestern, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Brutus’ activism led to problems in the United States. The Reagan Administration, a strong supporter of the South African government, took steps to have Brutus deported from this country after Rhodesian independence left the poet without a passport for a few months. Brutus, a wanted man in the segregated country, again feared for his life. After the interjection of writers, scholars, and activists worldwide, including the late Merrill Goldwyn, a Worcester State University English professor, Brutus was granted political asylum in 1983.
He and Goldwyn became close friends, with Brutus helping with Goldwyn’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, which is still active on the WSU campus. Dennis Brutus received an Honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from WSU in 1982, and donated a portion of his collection of papers to the school. The Dennis Brutus Collection is housed in the Learning Resource Center and is available for perusal by students and scholars.
After a long hiatus, Brutus returned to WSU to participate in several human rights programs together with the Archbishop of South Africa, the Right Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, in 2000. The Dennis Brutus Collection was formally unveiled on March 21, 2000, during that visit. In the following year, he was appointed poet-in-residence for the 2001 spring semester, during which he appeared in human rights programs, co-taught courses in WSU’s Honors Program, and composed several new poems, one of which, "Zocalo, March 11, 2001," he read during the Commencement exercises for WSU’s125th Anniversary on May 19, 2001.His death in 2009 was a loss to the world of literature, to activism, and to the WSU community.