The evolution of African-American poetry

Faith Riggs

A slow walk to the mic.

A quick glimpse of the audience before a few moments of truth.

“As long as I’m comfortable with what I’ve written,” said Kaela Staples-Still, a senior theatre studies major and poet. “I have no problem going up on stage and reading it to other people. How they perceive it, is how they perceived it.”

Staples-Still performs slam poetry with the Kent’s organization Sojourneyed Da Truth.

Slam Poetry is a competitive poetry reading performed without props, costumes or music.

Sojourneyed Da Truth commonly meets at Oscar Ritchie Hall to hold public poetry slams. Staples-Still said it is a performance art that is very important to the African-American community.

“I feel like that’s something that black people kind of cultivated and made into their own,” Staples-Still said. “It’s expressing poetry but in a cooler manner.”

Since performing, poetry has exposed her to a professor who has greatly impacted her life.

“Professor Okantah, he’s a poet here and he’s really been a huge influence on my life this year,” Staples-Still said. “His poetry is still very captivating, and I was able to learn about other black poets like Sonia Sanchez.”

Mwatabu Okantah, an associate professor of Pan-African Studies said poetry has always been apart of the African-American community.

“Poetry and self expression has always been apart of our culture,” Okantah said. “I come out of the black arts movement and they took the poetry to the people and showed up in bars and on street corners.”

Okantah, who attended Kent State in the 70s explained the open mic scene of spoken word poetry.

“There has always been a very active poetry scene,” he said. “There were poetry readings downtown and in the bars. I kind of fell into that scene. I got one of my first poems published in Shelly’s (bookstore) magazine.”

He said spoken word has evolved into what is known as “slam,” but the message is primarily the same.

“It’s just apart of what we do, and that hasn’t changed,” Okantah said. “You can put a finger on the post of what is happening in our community. If you go to a slam or a neighborhood, that will give you insight of what’s going on with our folk.”

Faith Riggs is the Women and Gender Issues reporter. Contact her at [email protected].