Mwatabu S Okantah
Legacies: Forward Ever, Backwards Never!**
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
WHEN I KNOW
THE POWER OF MY BLACK HAND
I do not know the power of my hand,
I do not know the power of my black hand.
I sit slumped in the conviction that I am powerless,
tolerate ceilings that make me bend.
My godly mind stoops, my ambition is crippled;
I do not know the power of my hand.
I see my children stunted,
my young men slaughtered,
I do not know the power of my hand.
I see the power over my life and death in
another man’s hands, and sometimes
I shake my wooly head and wonder:
Lord have mercy! What would it be like … to be free?
We are all hurting, feeling a pain we always know is there. A pain we repress, that we refuse to fully wrap our minds around, because we know it will lead to volcanic eruption. This is a time for the storytellers, for the players of instruments, for the singers of songs. This a time for poets. I begin with Lance Jeffers. He has poem’d the Black condition down to the bear nitty gritty. This is a time for the family—the BUS/KASA/DPAS/CPAC/PAFSA/SMC/ “the Ritchie” village**—at Kent State University to come together. A time to care for, to support and to help each other cope. Time to gather together under the Baobab to assess and to find a place in the history making moment unfolding in this NOW time.
I subscribe to the message in Ayi Kwei Armah’s classic novel, 2000 Seasons. We have survived the descent—One Thousand brutal seasons down into slavery. We are now experiencing a "Western Sunrise"—One Thousand miraculous seasons crawling maimed from it. This is a time to rediscover how to use the power that has always been in our hands. I remember being a shy, nervous 18-year-old first year student back in September 1970. May 4, 1970 had stunned the nation. Ohio national guardsmen opened fire on predominantly white students protesting against the Viet Nam war; killing four and wounding nine. Dick Gregory called those students, “The new niggers,” a year later, to a rousing yet curious standing ovation. An Elder now, I am pondering the emotional state of the black community on campus—students, faculty, staff, workers.
The rage and fury we are all feeling is real. A blinding anger has been burned into our bones. It is always aching just below the surface calm. The anger I see flashing in young black men was birthed in the pain you feel, deep down inside the male dungeon built beneath the English church at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. The shrill crying out I hear coming from young black women echoes the searing anguish that consumes you, standing inside the female dungeon at Ghana’s Elmina Castle. Black bodies are still “Strange Fruit” in this world. Ancestral pain is awakening in a new generation. A generation born to shout, “This shit has got to stop!”
The department’s curriculum is literally playing itself out, “all the way live,” in the streets, “at home and abroad.” Black/African American/Pan-African/Africana Studies has existed as an academic discipline on this campus and around the country for at least fifty years. The discipline continues to exist under constant threat because it represents and it generates a body of knowledge, as well as an historical narrative that pushes back against the mainstream Eurocentric status quo. Black people have never been the people white people have imagined us to be. America has never been the America she claims to be in her hallowed documents.
What distinguishes Pan-African Studies as an academic discipline, is the legacy of its activist tradition. We embrace a mission borne out of an ongoing resistance movement that was, and remains, external to mainstream American academia. As we all grapple with another epic historical moment, the department may be more relevant now than at any other time. When I hear a young black colleague ask for advice on how to deal with white colleagues now showing concern for our feelings, it speaks to the service this discipline has doggedly attempted to provide; a service, obviously needed, but arrogantly marginalized. When black students voice the same uneasiness that we struggled against so many years ago, it speaks to just how far we have not come.
Yes, we are hurting, but, is healing possible? It was not until I stood in the Door of No Return in the House of Slaves on Senegal’s Goree Island, that I was finally able to lay this burden down. It took the ultimate pilgrimage to ancestral lands to begin to put the shattered pieces of myself back together. Maya Angelou once told me, “Bitterness gives nothing back.” She was trying to teach me, hating white people is not the answer. Hating white people has only intensified our own self-hatred. Although the uprising gripping the country is about the harsh realities of living in a white people dominated society, I am less concerned about having to teach them, than I am about the in-group dialogue we desperately need to have with each other.
Halim El Dabh and Fela Sowande showed me the real danger of hating white people; it can only infect us with the same “dis-ease.” Chief Sowande taught us, “The Negro in America must choose between recovering and becoming fully conscious of his own identity or being washed down the plumbless drains of history as a mindless freak of nature.” He also forced us to deal with this vital question, “What kind of seeds did our ancestors sow, that we reaped being kidnapped and enslaved?” Healing is possible, but we have to learn how to reconnect to the true essence of our heritage as African derived people—the good, the bad, the ugly. Self-knowledge is the key to navigating our relationship to Europeans and people of European descent.
The United States was born as a divided nation; a European settler nation. The presence of black people has always been the proverbial, “elephant in the room.” We cannot become distracted by the dilemma white people have created for themselves. We cannot solve or resolve the fears, the inner desires or the insecurities they must confront in themselves. Watching the multi-racial makeup of the young people participating in the demonstrations, reminds me of the diversity of our Black Experience classes and my hope this generation might signal a beginning to putting this troubled nation on a path toward genuine truth and much needed reparations.
I began and will end with the Lance Jeffers poem, because I truly believe the power and the resiliency of the ancestors is alive in each and every one of us. We are alive today because we are descended from people that literally refused to die. The trials and the tribulations of our ancestors have prepared us to deal with this history making moment in OUR time. We are descended from the strongest of the strong. A monumental price has already been paid. We can walk tall because black people have earned the right to thrive on THIS campus, in THIS country and throughout THIS world.
Sowande helped me to see, we do not have to accept being labeled, “weeds in the garden of life.” Whether white society is willing to change its hate-filled ways is entirely up to white people. It remains to be seen, if America will ever learn to fully appreciate the gifts black people have contributed to the making of this nation. We have given so much more than we have ever received in return. We can restore balance and harmony in black life, but only if we reclaim the mighty power that has always been there in our hands. Indeed, this is a time for black poetry:
But when I know the mighty power of my black hand
I will snatch my freedom from the tyrant’s mouth,
know the first taste of freedom on my eager tongue,
sing the miracle of freedom with all the force
of my lungs,
christen my black land with exuberant creation,
stand independent in the hall of nations,
root submission and dependence from the soil of my soul
and pitch the monument of slavery from my back when
I know the mighty power of my hand!
**My department Chair, Dr. Amoaba Gooden, asked if I would write a piece on the current uprising that is gripping this country, to provide a perspective for black students, faculty, staff and workers on the Kent State University campus. I pray my thoughts will provide some insight.
**Black United Students [BUS]; Kent African Student Association [KASA]; Dept. of Pan-African Studies [DPAS]; Center of Pan-African Culture [CPAC]; Pan-African Faculty and Staff Association [PAFSA]; Student Multi-Cultural Center [SMC].