Jayne Cortez: one last word

Est. read time: 4 min

On February 6th, professor Gus John joined Jayne Cortez’s friends and fellow poets, writers and performers in New York to celebrate her life and work. Here’s Gus John’s tribute, which was read out during the ceremony

"Untitled" by Margaret Busby (Picasa - CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Gus John speaks at the Cooper Union (Margaret Busby)

She glided across our sky like a beacon

The sky above Mother Africa and the Global African Diaspora


Peeling the scales from our eyes

Clarifying and inspiring

Prodding with word sticks that stung like bullets

Wake up calls

Signalling the need for vigilance and for healing

For urgent action less we bleed to death

From self-inflicted wounds and

Lie wasted and in time forgotten

She glided across our sky like a beacon

And vanished in the body

To emerge in fullness of spirit

Indestructible, indivisible, eternal

And immortal as the words and memories she left us

Razor sharp, bursting with energy

Pregnant with meaning

And abundant in the Hope

That keeps us keeping on

Until the Universe makes beacons of us all

To glide across the sky and ground in our struggles

Like lightning rods of change

Of renewal

Of reconstruction

In the primordial image and likeness of


The Mitochondrial Eve

And Yes, Jayne, in your very own words

From that ‘Beautiful Book’:

          ‘You are out there in

          The political activity of yourself

          Doing what you do best

          And we will never stop loving your creative imagination

          And your willingness to consolidate and

          Be that mother in the area of direct confrontations


          We will never get over

          The awesome vibration of air-waves

          In the windpipe of your great spirit

          You are out there’

Love and respect to Mel, Denardo, Margit, Jayne’s sister Shawn and nephew Tony  and all of Jayne’s loved ones.

My name is Gus John and I bring greetings from our movement in the UK, from the George Padmore Institute, from New Beacon Books, from friends of the late John La Rose and from the family of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books and the Bookfair Festival which was held in London, Bradford and Manchester between 1982 and 1995. Jayne was one of the first people, cultural and political activists from across the five continents, that John La Rose, director of the Bookfair, invited to present at the Bookfair festival.  She came regularly, year on year, even when she was not presenting. Indeed, we were privileged to have Jayne open the Bookfair in 1990, as CLR James, Wole Soyinka and others had done before her.

Jayne and Mel joined us to celebrate the life of John La Rose when he passed on in February 2006.  In April 2011, Jayne delivered the Second John La Rose Memorial Lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University.  Sadly, that was the last time most of us on that side of the pond saw her.

I am joined here today by my wife Joy, Milverton Wallace, a fellow organiser of the Bookfair and of the John La Rose lecture and founder trustee of the George Padmore Institute, from whom you would here in a moment, and  Dr Margaret Busby, fellow activist, Jayne’s good friend and author of the excellent obituary on Jayne in the Guardian newspaper.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, friend of Jayne and fellow poet and performing artist, is unable to be here but has asked me to read this short message:

Condolences to Denardo,  Mel and Jayne’s other nearest and dearest. I am sorry that I cannot be there with you for the celebration of her life.

Jayne was not only one of my favourite poets, she was also one of my favourite people. For me she was a serious African American woman with an indomitable spirit who told it like it is; a righteous sister with a big heart. She had a wonderful sense of humour and I loved to hear her talk. Whether we were in Barcelona, Dakar, London, Paris or New York, I took great delight being in her company.

Whenever we shared a stage reciting poetry I always felt confident knowing that she was there rooting for me; that we would be singing from the same songbook of the African diaspora experience in our own individual style; that we belonged to a tradition that connects the pen to the drum; that we were fellow travellers with a shared aesthetic that connects the music in language with the language of music.

Jayne was one of those poets who understood that poetry is not merely the art of the distillation of experience through language that on rare occasions can offer fleeting insights into the human condition. She understood the power of poetry to raise consciousness, inspire and uplift the spirit as a potent cultural weapon in the struggle against all forms of oppression.

I will always remember Jayne Cortez for her incendiary poems, her African consciousness, her commitment to our struggles for racial equality and social justice, her solidarity and her kindness. I feel privileged to have known her and to have been able to call her elder, sister, comrade and friend.

We are in the process of planning a UK tribute for Jayne and that will take place in London in the coming months.


Picture (Home): “Untitled” by Margaret Busby (Picasa/ CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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