Today, we feature Mwatabu Okantah, a performance poet based in Akron, Ohio, who also serves as Assistant Professor and Poet in Residence for the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University. His new book, Muntu Kuntu Energy: New and Selected Poetry, is new from Chatter House Press. ~Erinn
I am now able to see The Library in the same way Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and so many others saw, and, continue to see it: as the one place where we can literally discover ourselves in relation to the world.
by Mwatabu Okantah
When I was invited to contribute to the book, Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art II , the editors asked the same kind of questions posed to me by the Library as Incubator Project. In the first case, I was asked to discuss my love of books and their influence on my development as a poet. Now I am being asked essentially the same question in relation to the impact of libraries on my work.
As a youth, the library was a place they forced you to go to in school. It was never a place I went to on my own. The library was a mysterious place then; run by people who were always telling us to be quiet. What I remember most is the sound of that quiet. It was deafening. It was overwhelming. I did not like it. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling. For a long time, going to the library was like going to the dentist: a necessary but painful experience. It would be years before books would become a central force in my life. It would be years before the library would become important to me because books lived there.
I provided the following list of ten books to the Poet’s Bookshelf Project, and I’ve added three more–these are the books I wish every library had available on the shelf:
- Native Son, Richard Wright
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruse
- Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, Eugene Redmond
- I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes
- The Negro Caravan, Sterling Brown
- A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing, Gwendolyn Brooks et al.
- When I Know the Power of My Black Hand, Lance Jeffers
- Return To My Native Land, Aime Cesaire
- The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah
- Beloved, Toni Morrison
- Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma Patrice Some
- Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
When I think of the affect of the books, as well as the importance of libraries on my creative development, I am forced to reconsider how I came to be a performance poet/Griot in the first place. I am a lover of books, but this was not always the case.
I cannot separate the significance of the books on my list from the people and circumstances that have so profoundly shaped my career choices. First and foremost, my parents have been primary role models in my life. I can thank them for my work ethic and for my love of travel. They were both avid readers. Books and magazines were always visible in our house. Even my grandparents, who had limited formal schooling, read newspapers on a daily basis. Yet, I have no real fond childhood memories with books. As a child, I did not love books or reading the way my own children do.
I am a lover of books, but this was not always the case.
I remember being in high school and receiving an F in my 10th grade English class one grading period because I refused to participate in a unit on writing poetry. One by one, my classmates went to the front of the room to recite their poetry. When my turn came, I refused. When I reluctantly brought that particular report card home, my father would make me an offer I could not refuse in regard to bringing home F-bombs in any subject. When I was confronted with a similar poetry writing assignment the following year, I grudgingly completed the task, writing my first poem as a high school junior in the fall of 1968. If some one had suggested to me that I would grow up to become a published poet, I would not have believed them. I would have scoffed at such a ridiculous notion.
I discovered the word-sounds that worked their way up and out of the core of my being as a college student at Kent State University in the 1970s. A Freshman Writing Instructor forced us to keep journals, and, to my surprise, the act of writing became therapeutic for me. It would be another graduate student who would see poetry in me before I would reluctantly see it in myself. She would introduce me to the world of Black literature and Black music—a world that would change my life forever. She gave me copies of Richard Wright’s Native Son and The Autobiography of Malcolm X to read and I was hooked. She turned me on to the music of John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Gil Scott-Heron, Jayne Cortez and so many others. She gently but firmly pushed me into the world of poets, musicians, and storytellers.
I became one of the hungry black students studying in the fledgling Institute for African American Affairs under the direction Dr. Edward Crosby. Institute instructors exposed students to the work of Nigerian composer and philosopher Fela Sowande who taught us the universal beauty and value of traditional African cultures. Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh would introduce me to the African epic tradition in poetry. He called a group of us “wanna be” poets, the program’s Griots. In old world Africa, the Griots were the rememberers. They were the keepers of the sacred lore. They were the singer-poets who kept the people’s stories alive. Hulda Smith-Graham, Althea Romeo-Mark and Wylie Smith, III became the aesthetic midwives that were present at my birth as a Black Arts Movement writer.
My attitude toward books and the library began to change when I started to approach my formal studies as training to become a Griot.
The library became that quiet place where I could search out and process the stories I came to tell in my poetry. Those same people who used to demand silence, now became the people who found the rare books I needed to read. I will always remember that day when the librarian at the Union Township Public library found an old, damaged copy of Sterling Brown’s Negro Caravan, or, the archivist at the Charleston Historical Society who helped me locate materials on the Stono slave rebellion. Libraries became important when I realized that much of the information I needed to become the Griot I wanted to become was stored in them.
I have no list of favorite libraries as such, however, there are two librarians who have been key influences in my development. They taught me the value of The Library as a safe and welcoming community space—the ideal library. Greg Reese and Ron Antonucci created caring environments at the East Cleveland Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library in the face of conditions that too often devastate and discourage. More importantly, they brought me into their libraries as a performing artist; as a vital resource made available to the communities they served. They were more than librarians. They were cultural midwives that truly nurtured the people who came into their information domains seeking knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
Without libraries, I could not have written the long poem, “Legacy: for Martin and Malcolm,” or completed my major work, Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living. My current writing project, The View from Stono: Reflections, Reminiscences, Ruminations, would not be possible without libraries. Thanks to dedicated librarians like Greg Reese and Ron Antonucci, I am now able to see The Library in the same way Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and so many others saw, and, continue to see it: as the one place where we can literally discover ourselves in relation to the world.
- Visit Okantah’s website for more information on his publications and performances.
- Check out videos of Okantah performing with his original ensemble on MySpace. “Driving While Black,” from a show at The College of Wooster, and “Satta Masagana / I Wonder” from a show at Gettysburg College are highly recommended.
- Find Okantah’s books and recordings at a library near you with WorldCat.org.
- Find Okantah’s new collection, Muntu Kuntu Energy: New and Selected Poetry, at Chatter House Press.
Mwatabu S. Okantah holds the BA in English and African Studies from Kent State University (1976) and the MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York (1982). Currently, he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University and as Director of the Center of Pan-African Culture. He has worked in a variety of musical situations, including time as Griot for the Iroko African Drum & Dance, in an ongoing collaboration with the Cavani String Quartet and as Baba Okantah and MKE.Pin It