Dennis Brutus Collection: A Renowned Activist’s Connection to WSU

While you may have heard his name, how much do you know about Dennis Brutus?

By Julia Konow


Nearly 37 years after the activist Dennis Brutus first visited Worcester State University, the Learning Resource Center continues to have the Dennis Brutus Collection available to students, staff, and scholars in an effort to spread awareness about Brutus’s life and his devotion to fighting for human rights.

“The Dennis Brutus collection documents the personal and professional life of Dennis Brutus, a world-renowned poet and political activist who devoted most of life to the anti-Apartheid movement,” said Matt Bejune, the Executive Director of the Learning Resource Center at Worcester State. “The collection includes his poetry, personal correspondence, and scholarly works, as well as ephemera documenting social activist causes.”

Brutus had deep-rooted ties with Worcester State that began nearly four decades ago, which led to the donation of his collection of scholarly works and personal items to the university. Brutus was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on May 29, 1982 due to his achievements as a poet and as an activist in opposition to the segregation in Apartheid South Africa. In his lifetime, Brutus published 12 collections of poetry and contributed to multiple publications.

“Mr. Brutus had an association with Worcester State University beginning when he was a speaker at the inauguration of the Center for the Study of Human Rights,” said Bejune. “And when he was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, he came back to campus in 2000 as a speaker at a human rights program. In 2001, he was appointed Poet in Residence at WSU, co-taught courses in the Honors Program, and spoke at Commencement exercises in May 2001.”

The Dennis Brutus Collection is located within the Learning Resource Center at Worcester State University. The collection includes Brutus’s scholarly works, a large portion of his manuscript, memorabilia, personal and professional correspondence, and large volumes of clippings, fliers, periodicals, and other social justice materials alongside original and published poetry and prose. The collection also includes faculty papers from the University of Pittsburgh, which were donated to Worcester State after Brutus’s death.

“Brutus was a global personality and an activist who is known worldwide,” said Ross Griffiths, archivist and associate librarian at Worcester State University. “This collection is unique because of its breadth and depth. It covers an international scope. The collection documents how activist organizations operated before the era of internet and social media. It provides an opportunity to access magazines and newspapers from activists organizations that are not available anywhere else.”

The collection includes various perspectives of Brutus’s life, with its contents ranging from scholarly documents to family photo albums. Researchers looking at the collection can note how Brutus uses two different types of handwriting, formal and informal, depending on what he was writing for, Griffiths explained.

“The collection documents his life, poetry, activism, teaching and more,” said Griffiths. “It is an interesting glance at a person’s whole life, from personal to professional. It provides opportunities to explore primary sources.”

Dennis Brutus was born on Nov. 28, 1924 in South Africa, and became a teacher after earning degrees in psychology and English from Fort Hare University in 1947. In addition to teaching, Brutus became a political activist and journalist who participated in anti-Apartheid protests with a focus on ending racial segregation within sports.

Apartheid is a system of institutionalized racial segregation that took place within South Africa from 1948 to 1991 where public facilities, employment, and housing involved racial segregation. Opponents to this segregation were often brutally suppressed by the South African government.

“South Africa during Apartheid was for the very rich and wealthy white people,” said Josna Rege, an English professor at Worcester State University who met Brutus on a few different occasions. “Black people couldn’t even vote in their own country. Brutus carried the crusade of equality to the world and never stopped doing that.”

Brutus became the president of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee in 1963, and his activism caused Apartheid South Africa to be banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1991. The South African government repeatedly arrested Brutus and he was incarcerated in the same location as Nelson Mandela while serving an 18 month sentence of hard labor on Robben Island, South Africa. After trying to escape Robben Island and being shot, Brutus later went to England before coming to the United States of America.

“Dennis Brutus articulately advocated the rights of all humankind with grace, humor, and compassion,” said Kenneth Gibbs, a retired professor from the Department of Languages and Literature (now the English Department) who had worked at Worcester State for 39 years. “Knowing him kept alive one’s optimism about the future fate of humankind.”

Brutus’s activism also impacted the United States of America when his opposition to the South African government clashed with the Reagan Administration’s favorable relationship with the South African government, leading to the administration’s attempt to deport Brutus from the United States. Due to the assistance of worldwide scholars, activists, and writers, as well as Merrill Goldwyn, an English professor at Worcester State University for about 30 years, Brutus was eventually granted political asylum in 1983.

“Merrill Goldwyn arranged to invite Dennis Brutus as a visiting professor so he wouldn’t get deported,” said Rege. “Dennis had been in exile for so long that he became an outside critic of the regime when he saw corruption. He was still very much a global person without a home. Dennis was very active in global issues, even climate change. He was a rebel. This was his identity.”

On May 28, 1982, Dennis Brutus began his association with Worcester State, which can still be observed even today through the collection that he had donated to the university.

“I was fortunate to have formed a friendship with Dennis Brutus after he received an honorary degree for WSU in 1982,” said Gibbs. “As a result of that visit, the Center for the Study of Human Rights was reinvigorated, and in my capacity as part of the Honors Program in 2001, Dennis was invited to be Poet in Residence for one term. After that, he visited the campus on numerous occasions, establishing a lasting relationship with WSU.”

Gibbs had edited and entitled the book “Poems by Dennis Brutus,” which is part of the collection in the LRC. The book includes an introduction of Brutus’s poetry, as well as short essays by Goldwyn and Henry Theriault.

“Dennis was a very renowned human rights advocate,” said Theriault, the Associate Vice President in the Office of Academic Affairs at Worcester State who had worked closely with Brutus while he visited WSU. “Because Worcester State helped him, Brutus had developed a strong bond with the university and many students. It’s hard to overstate him because he was a major global figure. He was a nonviolent activist who did not advocate for or engage in violence.”

Brutus was a key speaker at the inauguration of the Dennis Brutus/Merrill Goldwyn Center for the Study of Human Rights at Worcester State University, which is an organization that focuses on raising awareness about human rights violations that are present in today’s society. It was established by Goldwyn with the participation of Brutus. The Center for the Study of Human Rights incorporates human inequality awareness into the Worcester State curriculum, as well as provides resources for academic research. The organization aims to promote awareness about human rights issues by hosting speakers, lectures, and symposia.

“Brutus was very human,” said Rege. “He lived a noble and interesting life, yet he was very unassuming.”

Dennis Brutus donated numerous personal manuscripts and other items to the Learning Resource Center in an effort to support the newly created Center for the Study of Human Rights and display gratitude for Worcester State’s support as he fought to obtain political asylum in the United States.

“Our Dennis Brutus collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of Brutus materials in the world,” said Bejune.

On March 21, 2000, the Dennis Brutus Collection was formally unveiled when Brutus returned to Worcester State University with the Archbishop of South Africa, the Right Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, to participate in human rights programs on campus. Brutus was appointed as a poet-in-residence for the 2001 spring semester where he co-taught Worcester State Honors Program courses, participated in human rights programs, and composed poetry.

“For someone who has lived a very challenging life and who is politically active in very serious issues, Dennis Brutus was very funny, light-hearted, and he seemed like he was having fun living life,” said Aldo Garcia Guevara, a professor of history at Worcester State and former director at the WSU Center for the Study of Human Rights who had previously met Brutus. “He was very friendly with folks—people felt comfortable around him. He never sought to be the center of attention but rose to the occasion whenever he was put in that position.”

Brutus would continue to visit Worcester State to help run programs up until 2008.

“I had met him the first time as a graduate student in 1990,” said Rege. “When I was researching WSU in 2006 before my job interview, I noticed that they had the Dennis Brutus collection and, as a postcolonial scholar, that interested me. I thought it was a sign of Worcester State being the right place for me. The collection was a factor in me deciding to work here.”

In 2009, Brutus passed away in Cape Town, South Africa at the age of 85 but his legacy of social equality and human rights activism lives on within the Dennis Brutus Collection at Worcester State.

“The Dennis Brutus collection contains primary source materials that are extremely valuable for the study, interpretation, and understanding of the past,” said Bejune. “As is often the case, researchers examine the past by reading secondary accounts of history. Researchers using the Brutus collection experience history through the lens of Dennis Brutus’s personal documents.”

Members of the poetry community in Worcester have requested to view the Dennis Brutus collection to analyze his poetry, explained Griffith.

“It’s a wealth of material,” said Theriault. “The collection has a tremendous amount in it that hasn’t been tapped yet. Brutus was in correspondence with important folks in the literary and activist world.”

Brutus’s collection of materials in the LRC includes comments that Brutus wrote on drafts written by various literary figures, explained Theriault. The majority of these materials by Brutus were sent to Worcester State from 2000 to 2008. Theriault went on to describe how Brutus’ activism made him a prominent figure on a range of issues, including race, third world debt, and much more.

“The collection connects us to the present and a history of activism that Worcester has with people who have moved through Worcester in opposition to the powers that be,” said Garcia Guevara. “Worcester has a spirit of activism.”

Scholars from around the world have used the collection housed at Worcester State University to learn more about Dennis Brutus and the anti-Apartheid movement.

“The Dennis Brutus Collection is a treasure trove of material written by Dennis Brutus, and thus essential for any scholar studying Dennis Brutus or the struggle for human rights both in South Africa and in the world,” said Gibbs.

Some Worcester State students have also used the Dennis Brutus collection as a resource to conduct in-depth research about activism and Brutus.

“It is a research collection,” said Griffiths. “Students use it for certain research, like those studying political science, history, or humanities. We get inquiries from scholars from Australia, the United Kingdom, and all over the world when they want to find out about dates, identify documents, and more.”

Griffiths prepares, maintains, and organizes the collection in the LRC. It has taken years to sort through much of the collection due to its enormity.

“It has been a long time to get here to make the collection accessible to students,” said Garcia Guevara.

Garcia Guevara hopes that faculty direct more students to the collection and that more students take advantage of this resource on campus. Similarly, Rege is hopeful that the collection can grow in the public eye in the coming years. She explained that she would like to see an organized event, like a poetry reading of Brutus’s poems or a convention with Brutus scholars, take place in the near future.

“I hope we do something that brings scholars here to talk about Brutus’s legacy because he was an activist first and foremost, and his poetry was in service of his activism,” said Rege. “He did not focus on the art of poetry. It wasn’t obscure so it could be accessible to share the message. The way the poems are crafted makes them powerful.”

Rege went on to describe the poetry, noting that some of the poems are written on airline tickets and envelopes, which makes them unique to reveal how Brutus worked. Anyone who is interested in viewing the Dennis Brutus collection can contact Ross Griffiths or email him at rgriffiths@worcester.edu to make an appointment. The Archives, located on the third floor of the LRC, are also open from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. every Wednesday.

“We have many other archival collections, yet none are quite like the materials found in the Brutus collection,” said Bejune. “It is my personal hope that the Brutus collection will help us acquire other collections like it, particularly materials supporting the study of human rights.”

The Dennis Brutus collection contains work from an international human rights activist, which many individuals at Worcester State believe is an important topic that needs to be forefronted today.

“We need to pay attention to human rights,” said Rege. “It is something, in people’s competition to grab the last of the resources on the planet, the most vulnerable need to have their voices heard and amplified. If it’s them today, it’s us tomorrow. They are canaries in the coal mine. They are fellow human beings whose lives are on the line. Human rights has never been more important.”

Human rights are being violated across the world and even within the United States of America, Rege explained. She described the example of how the current United States presidency has summits with North Korean leaders about economics but leaves human rights out of the conversation. In the North American continent, for example, there are violations of human rights with immigrants, situations at the border, and international law with refugees applying for asylum without being accepted, explained Rege.

“I feel like Worcester State always has posters and signs about human rights,” said Katelyn Seguin, a 22-year-old junior studying art and business at Worcester State University. “The school is headed in the right direction with that.”

While Seguin had not heard of the Dennis Brutus Collection previously, she thinks that the conversation of human rights awareness on campus is important and should continue in the future.

“The connection to Worcester State is important because of what Dennis Brutus means,” said Garcia Guevara. “He advocated for human rights in many ways and this is still important today.”

Because of the prominence of human rights violations throughout the world, as well as the opportunity for in-depth research of Brutus and the anti-Apartheid movement within the contents of the collection, many members of the Worcester State community believe that analyzing and turning towards Brutus’s collection of activistic materials is extremely relevant even today.

“Researchers from across the country and the world seek to utilize materials in the collection,”  said Bejune. “The collection enables the exploration of history, social activism, racism, human rights, international politics, and many other topics. The Dennis Brutus collection is a treasure.”

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