Lesson in freedom from Robben Island

Chris Bliss is a comedian who led the successful effort to create America’s first monument to the Bill of Rights, in Phoenix. Today is national Bill of Rights Day.
Chris Bliss is a comedian who led the successful effort to create America’s first monument to the Bill of Rights, in Phoenix. Today is national Bill of Rights Day.

The rarest thing in life is a truly free human being. So rare that you might not even realize such a thing exists until you meet one, and find yourself asking, “What was that energy? And how did that person tap into it?”

I’ve met one in my lifetime, Dennis Brutus, my professor of African literature at Northwestern University in 1971.

Brutus was a South African poet and political activist. Not long before arriving in Evanston, he had been imprisoned on Robben Island, in the cell next to Nelson Mandela.

He was released when the apartheid government of South Africa unexpectedly gave him something called an “exit visa,” in effect an expulsion into permanent exile. Its only condition was that Brutus agree never to return to South Africa, under penalty of life imprisonment.

In case you’re thinking how fortunate Brutus was during his hour of need to be taken in by the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, think again.

As far as Nixon’s State Department was concerned, my professor was neither a welcome guest nor a victim of oppression; he was a dangerous left-wing subversive.

So dangerous that, other than that other dangerous left-wing subversive John Lennon, Brutus was the person Richard Nixon most wanted to kick out of the country. It wasn’t until 1983

— after 12 years of legal limbo — that he was finally granted political asylum.

Brutus only spoke to my class once about how he’d made the journey to be our professor. It was early on, by way of introducing both himself and the broader terrain of his subject. He told us how the first thing the prison guard said to him when he got off the boat was “the only way you’re ever leaving this place is in a pine box.” And also how a favorite pastime for the guards was assigning political prisoners the special duty of relocating pyramids of cannonballs that were stacked on the beach.

Manacled hand and foot as they trudged through the sand under the intense South African sun, Brutus and the others unstacked and re-stacked the cannonballs, one at a time, 20 meters down the beach from where they had been, only to have the guards tell them when they were finished that, on second thought, they looked better where they had been.

Such were the sadistic, medieval pleasures of the guards on Robben Island; a flawless reflection of the brutish, racist depravity that was apartheid.

And yet there was no hint of either anger or acquiescence in Brutus. Not a trace of bitterness or brokenness, of violence or violation. Instead there was something I’d never seen before. A man who was free, of all of that.

Here was a man who had arrived at a crossroads of nothing but dead-end streets, and managed not just to jump off that ruinous map, but to leave its scars behind him. He simply transcended it, but he kept fighting against it.

I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing at the time, but I knew enough to realize this was a kind of freedom I hadn’t even imagined.

We talk more about freedom in this country than anyplace on Earth, so much so that we’ve come to assume we have some special insight into the topic.

But the truth is that it’s been a long time since the word has held transcendent or even coherent meaning for most Americans.

Now that we’ve just lost a towering champion of freedom’s power to be both transcendent and coherent, it might be a good time to re-examine our assumptions about what freedom is and can be, and what that requires of us.

Because ultimately, there is no freedom without an open mind and a willing heart. Not that I don’t enjoy our amusement park version of endless consumption and ever more thrilling rides to nowhere. It’s just that whenever I think back on those three months in Brutus’ class, and then look at the menu of what currently passes for freedom in America, I’d rather have what he was having.