SOMEHOW, the former University of Pittsburgh professor and black studies department director, who died from prostate cancer at his home in South Africa recently, crammed a lot of work and living into his 85 years. Dennis Brutus is remembered by former students and colleagues at Pitt and at the University of Denver and Northwestern University, as an outstanding poet and dedicated teacher who encouraged an ethic of global engagement.
Mr. Brutus' life could serve as a blueprint for principled action. Considered “colored” because of his mixed-race heritage, he refused to accept the limits imposed by South Africa's apartheid regime or well-meaning allies in the black liberation struggle.
Shot by police while fleeing arrest as a young man, he almost died while waiting for the arrival of an ambulance that would transport “blacks” to the hospital. For his protests against the government, he was arrested and sent to Robben Island, where he served 18 months. Nelson Mandela was also a prisoner at the time.
While incarcerated, Mr. Brutus continued to write poetry. A few years after his release, he went into exile where he ramped up his campaign to get South Africa kicked out of the Olympics. The country was expelled from the international games in 1970.
In 1971, Mr. Brutus emigrated to America where his academic career flowered. He returned to South Africa to teach in the 1990s and continued to speak out against injustice and policies he believed were inconsistent with the revolution.
Throughout his life, Mr. Brutus stood firm against injustice. In his youth, he refused a prestigious poetry award given to “blacks” because it was racially restricted. When South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture tried to induct him into South Africa's Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 he rejected the honor because those “who championed racist sport” were honored alongside its victims.
In his last days, he campaigned for sane environmental policies against the threat of global warming. Professor Brutus refused to look back with regret when he could move forward with purpose.