Davis: For Kofi Awoonor, a poet murdered in Kenya

Kofi Awoonor, left, seen in the Stony Brook Kofi Awoonor, left, seen in the Stony Brook University 1969 yearbook. (Sept. 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

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Confucius warned young men against the sin of emotional excess, old men against the sin of emotional penury. My sin was being shamefully unmoved by the tragedy at a shopping mall in Kenya, until I read the news: "Also among the dead was Kofi Awoonor, 78, a Ghanaian poet and former professor at the University of Ghana." Alas, the smallness of the world became evident once again.

Kofi Awoonor was my great friend and mentor. He taught me most of what I know about writing. We met in 1968 when I was an English major at Stony Brook University where he taught African Literature, read my heartbroken poetry, and gave me that all-important first real encouragement that I could write. Years later, I sent him my first book. This year, I planned on sending him my 15th. It will never happen. Murderers took down a giant of a man.

For decades, I wrote with Kofi's rules written on a faded yellow paper taped to my wall. First, "A poem is distilled from the poet's blood," he would say. If I did not feel deeply about what I was writing, no one else would. Second, "If you want to know your times, read the poets." Writing without understanding and compassion is mere recording. And third, hardest of all, the rule that has kept me up countless nights struggling to meet a standard of such height that it is perhaps the only Cardinal Rule for writing I know. "If it can be cut, it must be."

I will never forget this man of so many facets, so central to my life. I remember a Kofi who felt such passion for life, and such rage at its inequities, that he would suddenly leap onto a table, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black in hand, and yell to the crowd, "Attend to me, mother------s! Attend to me!" And I remember a Kofi who bristled at the absurdity of it all when a package addressed to "George Kofi-Awoonor Williams" came to his dorm apartment and I asked why his name appeared as such. "I was African, and they said I had to have a proper English name at Oxford," he said, shaking his head and muttering about "the bloody English."

I sat spellbound, listening to the tale of how his Ewe village had only enough money to send him, the son of a chief, to school in England. He was expected to return to Ghana, join the remains of the British colonial infrastructure, and raise others to his "height." But he could not, choosing instead a path that took him to all people, everywhere. I also remember a Kofi confused by his first dental cavity ever, cursing American food and all dentists, anywhere.

It was in Kofi's university apartment that I remember meeting Chinua Achebe, author of "No Longer at Ease," which I had just read, along with the works of Ekwensi and Tutuola. Chinua had stolen into the country on a Biafran milk flight returning from Africa, still smelling of cordite from the Nigerian civil war. And, when I had no money, I remember my friend Kofi hiring me to type his handwritten manuscript for "This Earth, My Brother" on an ancient Underwood, and gently paying me anyway when he discovered I could not type.

Kofi Awoonor was a teacher of hope, a poet of ancient rhythms, a man of intellect and peace. He never "wrestled with his Chi," as the African saying goes, and he taught me not to, either. Even so many years later, I know this to be true -- that his love of people permeated every word he ever wrote, and his belief in the ascendancy of man was absolute.

Kofi's death at the hands of the very kind of brutality he spent his life opposing means I will never get to make our planned trip to Ghana, so often put off by time and events. We will never drink Palm Wine or swap Kola nuts, or draw lines in the floor. I will never again hear that voice which held audiences spellbound with its powerful and mellifluous blend of African Ewe and Oxford English. But his legacy continues. He remains a beacon. Death will have no dominion. They can never kill a poet.

My friend of the bright and shining spirit, I know where your birth cord is buried.

The drums rumble. Dancers gather.

I salute you.

Bart Davis is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming "Black and White: The Way I See It," the autobiography of Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams.

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