Traveling Stanzas—driving while black
In partnership with the Wick Poetry Center
Poet: Mwatabu Okantah
Place of residence: Akron, Ohio
As Mwatabu Okantah, B.A. ’76, was heading home from Kent one evening several years ago, he saw a police car parked near a high school. When he drove past, the officer turned on the car’s headlights and followed him all the way to the highway.
“It’s not the first time that’s happened, and probably won’t be the last,” says Okantah, associate professor and poet-in-residence for Pan-African studies and director of the Center of Pan-African Culture, who has taught at the Kent Campus for 25 years. “I wrote a poem about it, because it’s a story many black people share.
“I’ve had police stop my car, and when they talk to me, their hand is on their gun. I can see they’re afraid, and it’s on me to diffuse the situation.” His teenage sons have had similar experiences. “I’ve taught them to keep calm, say ‘yes sir, no sir,’ do what they ask and don’t move without permission,” he says. “It’s irritating, but you learn to live with it because that’s the way it is.”
In his “Black Experience” class, Okantah teaches the history of black people in this country. “Students see that what they are experiencing now isn’t new. Young blacks are just the latest generation to have to learn how to navigate these things.”
In passing along this history, Okantah has become an African-American griot—following in the tradition of West African griots, a class of traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who perform tribal histories and genealogies. He redefines that tradition through his research, writing and performances. “My approach to poetry is telling stories about experiences, connecting history from one generation to the next.”
It seems an unlikely path for someone who once received an “F” for refusing to write a poem in the 10th grade. “The poetry I was exposed to was alien to me,” says Okantah, who grew up in New Jersey. But his father made it clear he could not bring home another failing grade. So the next time he had to write a poem—as a high school junior who played football and ran track—he did, writing about the racial tension in his school after the Newark riots that summer. “I had to read my poem to the class, and there was silence. It was like being naked.”
He didn’t write again until he came to Kent State on an athletic scholarship, and his writing instructor required students to keep a journal. “When I wrote in my journal, I would lose all sense of time,” Okantah says. He was surprised to receive an “A” in the class: “I even asked the instructor if he was sure.”
That spring he hurt his knee. While he was in the hospital‚ a teaching assistant visited and gave him a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son. “It was the first time I’d read a book by a black author, and it opened a whole new world to me‚” Okantah says. He left school for a year and a half, then returned and declared English as his major. “I’d learned the power of words.”
Mwatabu Okantah photographed by Melissa Olson
Illustration by Zuzanna Kubisova '17
Traveling Stanzas—an award-winning collaboration between the Wick Poetry Center and the School of Visual Communication Design—aims to facilitate a global conversation through the intimate and inclusive voice of poetry. Featured poems are curated from global submissions and illustrated by Kent State students and alumni.
Share Your Voice!
In partnership with Traveling Stanzas, Kent State Magazine will feature a poem by one of our readers in future issues. If your poem is selected by the Wick Poetry Center, it will be illustrated and appear in print and online versions of the magazine, as well as on the Traveling Stanzas homepage.
To submit your poem, visit travelingstanzas.com, click “Submit,” and label it “Magazine Entry.” For more information, call Wick Poetry Center at 330-672-2067.