To celebrate Black History Month, Mwatabu Okantah, Acting Chair of the Department of African Studies, shared the story of his African culture through poetry and song in the Murphy Auditorium on Wednesday.
In his multimedia exploration “Word Sounds and Power: Poem for the Living”, Okantah, a 1976 Kent State graduate, read an excerpt from his book “Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living” to an audience of Rockwell Hall alumni, students and faculty.
“We are about to share an excerpt from an epic poem that was written for Cheikh Anta Diop,” Okantah said. “The poem is not so much about him as about the impact of his work on those of us who have sought and struggled to reconnect with a sense of our heritage as people of African descent.”
Diop was a Senegalese historian, physicist, and political activist of the mid-1900s. He founded the first radiocarbon dating laboratory in Africa in 1966, and he was a strong supporter of African independence from of Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Keyboardist Vince Robinson, a 1980 Kent State graduate, and violinist Wanda Sobieska accompanied his reading as a slideshow of images played behind them.
Okantah, Robinson and Sobieska took the stage after Tameka Ellington, associate professor of design and acting assistant dean of the college of arts, introduced them.
Ellington mentioned the impact Okantah had on her, saying she even calls him “Baba”, which means “Father” in many African languages.
“[He] is such a close person in my life,” Ellington said. “It’s someone I call ‘Baba’.”
Okantah began his poem with the question “what is Africa to me?” While he read, Robinson and Sobieska played their instruments.
As the stanzas began, photos honoring influential African-American figures like WEB Du Bois, who was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University in 1895, played on the screen behind them.
Okantah then began to describe his travels in Africa through his poem.
“The feeling made me go to Africa,” Okantah said. “I heard Africa calling my name, I heard Africa calling my name. Africa, it stopped me, freed me to the core.
Images of trading posts in Africa were projected on the screen. Okantah had visited these places on his trip.
The poem ended with a declaration of strength.
“We are Africa,” Okantah said. “We are defeated, not broken. Unshakeable, still suffering.
After a long round of applause, the three artists sat down together and Ellington returned to the stage for a short discussion about race on campus and in the Kent community.
Okantah, who wrote many other books and poems about his heritage, told the story of Rockwell Hall and how the campus evolved from his time as a student to a professor.
When he was a student at Kent, Rockwell Hall was the library and Oscar Ritchie Hall was the student union. For a time, the Black Student Union was at Rockwell before Oscar Ritchie Hall.
Okantah began teaching as a graduate assistant in September after graduating. Since then, he said he spent most of his time at Oscar Ritchie Hall, named after the professor in 1977.
“It’s the crown jewel of this university,” Okantah said. “For a long time people didn’t know he was there or what he was doing because he looked so different. When you walk in you see pictures of black people. It’s part of the feeling of belonging somewhere, to see images of yourself reflected in your surroundings.
Ritchie graduated from Kent State in 1946, and in 1947 he was the first African-American faculty member to work at a predominantly white university in Ohio.
Okantah also said there needed to be more on-campus centers like Oscar Ritchie Hall for different groups on campus to encourage inclusion and diversity.
Robinson, a multi-genre artist, journalist and photographer, then spoke about her experience at a predominantly white university. He paid tribute to the Department of Pan-African Studies for cultivating his passion for writing.
“Through the Department of Pan-African Studies, I was exposed to Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou and all the other heroes,” Robinson said. “So my experience at Kent, through the department, was almost like attending a historically black college.”
Regardless of the month of the year, Robinson emphasized the importance of black history on the Kent State campus and in the country as a whole.
“The main thing is that our story is not something separate, it is an integral part of [our country’s] history,” Robinson said. “We were left out, so we have to do things like Black History Month to remind people we were there. We have to mention this because we celebrate Black History Month every year without understanding the impact of Kent State University. We are the ones who put this forward. »
Sobieska, a Kent-based solo and chamber orchestra musician, went on to talk about how the Kent community can encourage greater inclusion. She emphasized the importance of the arts.
“I think more in terms of what I can give and being a musician,” Sobieska said. “When we were on stage, I was like ‘music isn’t really an end, it’s just a vehicle. It’s a way to express love, and it’s unconditional. So in this meaning, music is the catalyst. Nurturing that spirit would be wonderful for everyone.
Ellington, who co-created the exhibit with assistant professor of art history Joseph Underwood, ended the conversation by highlighting the exhibit “TEXTURES: The History and Art of Black Hair” at the second floor of the Kent State Museum.
“TEXTURES” features photos, paintings, and even life-size artistic depictions of the history of black hair.
“It’s the first time they’ve had something so prominent in the representation of black culture,” Ellington said. “We’ve had amazing feedback on the show from around the world, and it’s had a big impact on campus so far.”
The exhibition will be at the museum until August 7. Through the expo, performances, and other events promoting diversity and inclusion on campus, Robinson said it all creates a “conscience,” which brings people together.
“It’s about raising consciousness, and consciousness and intelligence are God,” Robinson said. “When you come into this understanding, you see the relationship of your consciousness to someone else’s and realize that we are all one. We look at race and create these divisions, but under the skin, under the pigment, we’re all the same. We have to come to appreciate each other.
Isabella Schreck is a journalist. Contact her at [email protected].