Opinion: Will America Finally Get It?
Note: The following essay was crafted by Mwatabu S. Okantah, associate professor in Kent State University’s Department of Pan-African Studies. The Department of Pan-African Studies focuses on the study of communities of people of African descent both on the continent of Africa and in various countries throughout the world.
“Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom
of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human
spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”
I arrived on this campus, for the first time, 50 years ago in September 1970. It was a very different place then. It was a different time. Two years prior to my arrival, Black United Students (BUS) walked off this campus in protest against the same issues that still plague this nation today. There was no Department of Pan-African Studies then. There was no Center of Pan-African Culture. No Oscar Ritchie Hall. No Student Multicultural Center. No Women’s Center. There was no Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion then. May 4th was a raw, open wound. If someone had said to me then that I would be back here now, I would have responded in a way I cannot repeat in this forum.
My perspective on what is becoming a global Black Lives Matter movement is deeply personal. It has been shaped by so many of my life experiences here at Kent State. I have been a student, an athlete, a BUS activist, a graduate assistant. I returned as adjunct faculty in 1991. I have been full time non-tenure track faculty, an assistant professor, an associate professor and now, the assistant chair of the department. It has all been racing through my mind, as I have watched the events of the last several days unfold. While I cannot deny the progress that I have seen transpire over the years, I also cannot forego my skepticism. Too many of the apologies and the newfound revelations ring hollow.
I am a 67-year-old black man. I am a husband, a father and a grandfather. I have looked down the barrel of a police white man’s gun more than once. My father taught me to recognize the fear I saw in his eyes, just like his father taught him. I have been profiled, “driving while black.” I remember being a teenage boy in my New Jersey hometown and being told by white police officers to “get back to where you belong.” My father was born in 1921, the year of the Tulsa Race Massacre. My father was a World War II veteran who returned “home” to a Jim Crow America. My mother’s father escaped a white-hot South Carolina, with his family, in 1925. I remember the pride I felt when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali in 1967. I remember refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time, April 5, 1968.
I had to teach the same lessons my father taught me about being Black in America to my hoodie-wearing, Skittles-eating sons when the news came of Trayvon Martin’s murder. My wife and I had to teach our daughters to appreciate their natural black woman beauty in spite of the seductively sinister messages beamed at them from big and little screens. And now, we have a granddaughter and two grandsons to help raise. Black mothers and fathers have always had to teach our children how to navigate the racist mine field that is life living in a white supremacy behavior system.
Black people have always been endangered living in the white man’s world. As the talking heads try to make sense out of what we are seeing live, I watch in silence knowing they have no idea of the depths of the pain and the anguish we have inherited. We carry it around with us every day of our lives. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell now admits the league was wrong when it refused to listen to Black players. He didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know when he said, “There can be no NFL without Black players.” How can we trust his sincerity, when he made no mention of Colin Kaepernick? Will individual “good ole boy” owners apologize Drew Brees style, or, will they continue to lock step behind the MAGA Bully Donald Trump?
KSU is a very special place. As we observe the 50th anniversary of May 4, 1970, it is important to remember why there were so few Black students on campus that fateful day. No one had to tell them that police and national guard White men with guns will shoot you. White students learned a harsh lesson that day. They experienced a reality that Black people have had to live with ever since our ancestors were first brought to these shores. We live in a nation that has no problem devouring its young. At Kent State, those students learned that under the right circumstances, even being white cannot save you.
I have been caught up in an often-bitter adversarial relationship with the university for most of my time here. Established by Dr. Edward Crosby in 1969 as the Institute of African American Affairs, Pan-African Studies has been viewed as a pariah on this campus for years. BUS has been seen as “troublemakers” for most of its history. It was truly a surreal experience for me in 2018, when we stood on the floor of the Ohio Statehouse to receive a citation formally acknowledging the pivotal role that BUS has played in making KSU a better place for all of its students. When I was VP of BUS back in the 1970s, they would not have allowed us anywhere near the statehouse.
At the same time, I am blessed to be able to say to current BUS members, “I am a part of a generation that had you in our dreams before you were born. Your present represents our future. So many of us never experienced taking classes in the department. So many of us never experienced walking the halls of Ritchie Hall; an experience I have seen bring Old Heads to tears. We were not trying to destroy the university. We understood, in making the university a better place for ourselves, it would become a better place for everybody. It is now your generation’s turn to dream big dreams for the students that have not been born yet.”
Black voices have always spoken truth to power. As I listen to people quote Martin Luther King Jr., it is cruelly evident they won’t recall the King who warned, “There is such a time as too late!” They overlook the King who wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.” In Donald Trump’s America, the maxim, “My ignorance is greater than your knowledge rules.”
If there is a glimmer of hope in this current manifestation of the “dis-ease,” it can be found in the wide diversity of the people participating in the peaceful demonstrations. I see our students in them. They are Black and White. They are Latino and Asian. They are gay, transgender and straight. These young people have grown up together. Unlike so many of their parents and their grandparents, they do not fear each other. They know each other in ways that were virtually unknown for previous generations. These young people have come together to “walk the way of a New World.” Will their Elders join them? Will America finally get it?