How far we’ve come

Christina Stavale

Pan-African studies professor discusses how the black experience has improved and where it can still be better

Thirty years ago, when Mwatabu Okantah, assistant professor of Pan-African studies, was a student at Kent State, people thought the university would never have the very department in which he now teaches.

At that same time, Okantah said people would have been shocked to have a black man like Barack Obama be a serious contender for presidency.

In that sense, things have progressed since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream years ago, but Okantah said other things have remained the same.

“Things have changed, and we’ve progressed so that we’re doing things that previous generations would have thought to be impossible,” he said.

“But at the same time, we had the Jena 6 going on in the latter part of this year. There’s a firestorm over a comment a Golf Channel sports anchor made about Tiger Woods. And now there’s a firestorm over Golf Magazine putting a noose on its cover.”

Okantah, who was 15 at the time King was assassinated, said he can look back at things that happened during King’s time with historical context.

“The civil rights movement was the 6 o’clock news. It wasn’t a documentary — it was happening,” Okantah said.

At that time, schools were overcoming segregation, but today, the principles sometimes remain. For example, Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., was a central location of the desegregation movement. Fifty years later, he said the school has just had its first black student council president. In that sense, it’s moved forward.

“On the other hand, if you go to the advanced placement courses, you’ll see just about all white students,” he said. “If you go to the other courses, you see most of the black students.”

Ashley Tolliver, sophomore fashion merchandising major, said she thinks the nation has moved both forward and back.

“We’ve come further, but we’ve taken a few steps back,” she said. “People just don’t see the need to fight anymore because there’s already a path paved.”

Junior finance major Tia Lockhart agreed, saying that people should take better advantage of the rights they’re given, such as voting and getting an education.

“I think it’s changed, but some people take the things (King) changed for granted,” she said. “As far as racial issues, we’ve come a long way.”

One way Okantah said the nation progressed in is the area known as “political correctness.”

“What people call political correctness really is an acknowledgment that the people in power can no longer just take people for granted,” he said. “There was a time when you could say the things that (Don) Imus said and not lose your job … Now you have to be very careful of what you say.”

But more important than how far we as a nation have come since King, said Okantah, is the direction in which we’re headed. And for the future, he said there’s hope.

“I think we’re moving into an era where American young people are beginning to realize that the world is bigger than this,” he said. “And if we don’t go there — if we don’t realize that we’re a global community, I think we will perish. Of that I have no doubt.”

He said in order for American society to achieve King’s dream, people need to reach an understanding and learn about other cultures. Okantah said it would be helpful for today’s youth to learn about Islam because they are bound to come in contact with Muslims during their life.

“We need to give people the kind of education where they can have these encounters with people — to not meet them in ignorance, but to know something about them,” he said.

Matt Hill, sports management graduate student, said his own encounters with people of different cultures helped him to become more understanding. Befriending people of other races helped him break down the stereotypes he once believed.

“The more educated you are, the more you learn about other people,” he said.

Okantah said to really move forward in the direction of King’s vision, people need to know “that there’s more to him than his dream.” He suggested reading his works, and beginning to think critically and become activists.

“I think that’s what I take away from Martin Luther King,” he said. “That people have a tremendous amount of power if we’re organized … There will always be people amongst us who accept the challenge of their historical moment, and they will inspire us.”

Contact minority affairs reporter Christina Stavale at [email protected].