Poet Mwatabu Okantah shares African culture, history with community through poetry and song


Ella Donovan

Vince Robinson, a multi-genre musician, journalist and photographer, played the keyboard and piano during Words in Sound event on Feb. 9.

Isabella Schreck Reporter

In celebration of Black History Month, Mwatabu Okantah, interim chair of the Department of Africana Studies, shared the story of his African culture through poetry and song Wednesday in Murphy Auditorium. 

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 alumni, students and faculty in Rockwell Hall. 

“We are about to share an excerpt from an epic poem that was written for Cheikh Anta Diop,” Okantah said. “The poem is not as much about him but about the impact of his work on those of us who have been searching and struggling to reconnect with the sense of our heritage as African derived people.”

Diop was a Senegalese historian, physicist and political activist from the mid 1900s. He founded the first laboratory for radiocarbon dating in Africa in 1966, and he was a strong supporter of Africa’s independence from Great Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Keyboardist Vince Robinson, who graduated from Kent State in 1980, and violinist Wanda Sobieska accompanied his reading while a slideshow of pictures played behind them. 

Okantah, Robinson and Sobieska took the stage after Tameka Ellington, associate professor of design and interim assistant dean for the college of the arts, introduced them. 

Ellington mentioned the impact Okantah has had on her, saying she even calls him “Baba,” which means “Father” in many African languages.

“[He] is such a close, close person in my life,” Ellington said. “He is someone I refer to as ‘Baba.’”

Okantah began his poem with the question “what is Africa to me?” As he read, Robinson and Sobieska played their instruments. 

During the beginning stanzas, photos honoring influential African American figures like W.E.B. 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 started to describe his trips to Africa through his poem.

“Feeling made me go to Africa,” Okantah said. “I heard Africa calling my name, I heard Africa calling my name. Africa, she arrested me, freed me to the core.”

Pictures of slave-trading posts in Africa were shown on the screen. Okantah had visited these places during his trip.

The poem ended with a declaration of strength.

“We are Africa,” Okantah said. “We are defeated, not broken. Undaunted, suffering still.”

After a long round of applause, the three performers sat together and Ellington came back on stage for a short discussion about race on campus and in the Kent community. 

Okantah, who has written many other books and poems about his heritage, gave the history of Rockwell Hall and how campus evolved from his time as 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 in Rockwell before Oscar Ritchie Hall. 

Okantah started teaching as a graduate assistant the September after he graduated. From then until now, he said he has spent most of his time in Oscar Ritchie Hall, which was named after the professor in 1977.

“It is the crown jewel of this university,” Okantah said. “For a long time people did not know it was there or what it did because it looks so different. When you come in, you see pictures of Black people. That’s a part of feeling like you belong somewhere, to see pictures of yourself reflected in your environment.”

Ritchie was a 1946 graduate of Kent State and in 1947, he was the first African American faculty member to work at a predominantly white university in Ohio. 

Okantah also said that there needs to be more centers on campus like Oscar Ritchie Hall for different groups on campus to encourage inclusion and diversity. 

Robinson, a multi-genre artist, journalist and photographer, spoke next about his experience at a predominantly white university. He gave credit to the Department of Pan-African Studies for cultivating his passion for writing.

“Thanks to the Department of Pan-African Studies, I got exposed to Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou and all the other heroes,” Robinson said. “So my experience at Kent, thanks to 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 Kent State’s campus and the country as a whole. 

“The bottom line is our history is not something that’s separate, it’s an integral part of [our country’s] history,” Robinson said. “We’ve been excluded so we have to have things like Black History Month to remind folks that we’ve been around. We have to mention this because we celebrate Black History Month every year without understanding the impact of Kent State University. We were the ones that brought that forward.”

Sobieska, a Kent-based solo and chamber orchestral musician, then talked about how the Kent community can encourage more inclusivity. 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 thinking ‘music is not really an end, it’s just a vehicle. It’s a means for expressing love, and that’s unconditional.’ So in that sense, music is the catalyst. Nourishing that spirit would be wonderful for everyone.”

Ellington, who co-created the exhibit along with assistant professor of art history Joseph Underwood, ended the conversation highlighting the “TEXTURES: the history and art of Black hair exhibit” on the second floor of the Kent State Museum. 

“TEXTURES” features photos, paintings and even life-size artistic depictions of the history behind Black hair.

“This is the first time that they’re had something this large in representation of Black culture,” Ellington said. “We’ve gotten amazing feedback from all over the world about the show, and it’s had a great impact so far on campus.”

The exhibition will be at the museum until Aug. 7. Through the exhibit, performances and other events promoting diversity and inclusion on campus, Robinson said it all creates “consciousness,” which brings people together.

“It’s about raising consciousness, and consciousness and intelligence is God,” Robinson said. “When you get into that understanding, you see the relationship of your consciousness to someone else’s and realize that we’re all one. We look at race and create these divisions, but beneath the skin, beneath the pigment, we’re all the same. We have to come to appreciate each other.”  

Isabella Schreck is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].