— Grover Lewis’s name passed in front of me recently, after almost fifty years. Don’t remember where I saw it; maybe in someone’s writing in This Long Century.
This happened by coincidence just about at the same time that I, way past midnight and unable to sleep, had looked up Godwin Matatu on the internet, setting up a channel of thought that stays with me, about old friends who are dead.
Primo Levy wrote a poem about how we all influence each other; how we are both the stamp and the malleable wax imprinted. But we remember some people because their presence in our lives is so acute—as though they are both lovers and teachers.
I knew Grover in Houston, not too long after John Kennedy was killed. He must’ve been a bit older than me but not much. He liked, though, as a defensive gesture against his vulnerability, to seem older and more skeptical than his years and spirit. At the same time, his love and care, solidarity, with all of us, men and women, was like bright sunlight.
He thought we were all important.
What did I learn from Grover Lewis? That we each are in a situation wherein we must bear witness. That I am called upon to look carefully, to think about what I see, and therefore to act; to be a witness.
Silvano Lora was ten years older than me, from the Dominican Republic. He was tall with long black hair and the most beautiful long hands I’ve ever seen.
He came and stayed with me in Geneva for a few days as part of a tour around Europe to speak to other artists and convince us to make more politically active and aware work.
The U.S. war against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was in full horror, but so was the U.S. war against the people of Latin America.
How could we as artists, as thinkers, therefore as people with a moral duty, ignore the daily reality of our world?, he asked us.
I could not then do the kind of work that he did, but after he left I could not go back to my usual practice.
We stayed in touch, even when I moved to New York, but I never saw him again. His best gift to me was his simple question. He gave me doubt—a lasting gift.
Godwin Matatu gave me an address book. He also came and stayed with me in Geneva, but many times over the years. Godwin was from a horrible place called northern Rhodesia but sometimes lived in London. He and his beautifully crazy cousin Wilson Katiyo were political organizers and fundraisers. This country now called Zimbabwe had two rival organizations fighting for liberation from the English colonizers. I forget which one Godwin was officially part of, but he had friends and enemies in both of them, as well as in ANC and other South African groups.
Those days of the early nineteen-seventies were very hard for people in Southern Africa. Comrades were arrested or killed regularly. Those from South Africa were always grieving. Their determination was hard, solemn and severe. The Zimbabweans, though, knew that they would win, and won. In the midst of death they sang and had parties.
Godwin was a Marxist Leninist of the Mao Tse Tung school but none of the Africans spoke or acted in the ways of factional disfunctionalism as I saw later among European and American leftists.
They pretty much looked at Marxism as a tool for liberation from colonial oppression.
Godwin, younger than me, was a joyous and funny teacher. He said the first thing a political organizer needs is an address book. Every useful contact I met was to go in, with telephone, address and brief description. Not my own people nor people who might be caused trouble if the notebook were confiscated; money people, organization people, famous people instead.
He said that the key to successful resistance was discipline within the organization (he was Chinese-trained), something we could never grasp back home.
I heard that he was shot in Zimbabwe. Wilson lived long enough to become a published novelist, died young in London.
Visiting New York in the eighties when I lived in Mexico I would stay with Sandy. Dr. Sandra Shepherd. Without her there I think I could not now bear the emptiness of New York.
She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Medical School, and was a pediatrician/gynecologist who worked at one of the large hospitals. In the evenings she had her private practice in part of her house on the edge of Harlem. This was a non-paying practice for the poor people of the area.
She would work into the night and then perform various organizing tasks for support work around South Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Once I went into her office and found her stitching up a head wound for a teenage activist who had been clubbed by the police at a demonstration in front of the Apollo Theater. He had run to her place to hide and to get fixed up.
Sandy had a degenerative lung disease and sometimes could not get her breath. She hoped for a transplant but it never came.
I’ve written a poem about the Filipino artist, Santiago Bosé who seemed irresistible to all women and wanted to love them all.
SANTIAGO BOSE’S POEM
Far in the (not really so cold!) north of Norway
But not yet Karasjok where I hope to go
Next year, I was not shocked but struck;
Surprised by a display of woodcut prints
By John Savio. “John?” I asked
Myself, “Why isn’t he called ‘Jan’ or ‘Johan’
Or even something close to the Cherokee
I want to ask Santiago Bosé.
In the whole world, not only the South Pacific,
There is no Santiago Bosé.
Jimmie Durham was born in Arkansas, in 1940. He lives and works in Europe. From the early 1960’s he was active in theatre, performance, and literature in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. In 1973 he became a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), from 1974-1980 he was the Director of the International Indian Treaty Council and representative to the United Nations. From 1981-83 he was the Director of the Foundation for the Community of Artists (FCA) New York City. His work has been exhibited widely at venues including the Venice Biennale; Whitney Biennial; Christine Koenig Galerie, Vienna; kurimanzutto, Mexico City; Matt’s Gallery, London; Documenta IX; DAAD Gallery, Berlin; SMAK Museum, Ghent; and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), London, among many others.