Mwatabu S. Okantah

Mwatabu S. Okantah was born Wilbur Thomas Smith in 1952 in Newark, New Jersey. He was raised in Vaux Hall, NJ, and graduated from Union High School [Union Township] in 1970. He first came to Ohio in the fall of 1970 to attend Kent State University on a scholarship to run track, attended KSU for three years, dropping out for a year and a half at the conclusion of my junior year.

“It was during my time away from the university when I began writing in earnest and made the conscious decision to become a poet as a career as my career choice. Returned to KSU in 1975. It was also during this period--1973 to 1975--when I also made the decision to change my name. I made this decision after having been introduced to Richard Wright's, Native Son, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X during the spring of my freshman year at the university. Reading those books literally changed my life. I changed my name because my study of the African experience in America affected me--quite to my surprise--on a very profound and personal level.”

In 1978 he earned a Masters degree in the creative writing program at the City College of New York, where he worked closely with poets Joel Oppenheimer and Raymond Patterson. He returned to Cleveland in December, 1981, to begin work as the Assistant to the Director of Black Studies at Cleveland State University (1981-1989).

Okantah teaches now as an Assistant Professor and Poet in Residence in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University, where he also serves as director of the Center of Pan-African Culture. He has taught at Union College, The Livingston College of Rutgers University, Cleveland State University and Lakeland Community College. Mr. Okantah lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife and five of his seven children. His surname, Okantah, means "breaker of rock" in the Ga language of Ghana. "Mwatabu" is Swahili for "born in a time of tribulation or sorrow." He is the author of Afreeka Brass (1983), Collage (1984), Legacy: for Martin & Malcolm (1987) and Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living—published as a limited trilingual edition in English, French and Wolof (1997). His latest book of poetry, Reconnecting Memories: Dreams No Longer Deferred, was released in 2004 by Africa World Press. As a performer, Mr. Okantah has worked in a variety of musical situations, including time as Griot for the Iroko African Drum & Dance Society and in an ongoing collaboration with the Cavani String Quartet. He is the leader of the Muntu Kuntu Energy Ensemble—a four piece performance group. A spoken word and original music CD, Guerrilla Dread: Griot Stylee, is scheduled for release in 2008.

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words we use
by Mwatabu S. Okantah

                       it can be said
                       there comes before
                       word we use
                       a feeling thought.

                       your thought
                       when last you used
                       their word


the voice inside
by Mwatabu S. Okantah

      i am the talking silence
      of years not-
      spoken screaming no
      more words—
                                    i am the silence.

            (“walk together chillun”)

      i am the singing silence
      scattin’ phoenix words,
      improvising sorrow songs
      for urban renewal deaths and no jobs—
      blues riffs for ruined
      neighborhoods rendered
      ghettoes …

            (“don’t ya git weary”)

      i am the meditative silence
      when night is not
      day is
      and frames a blue-
      silver mourning
      sun rise …

            (“walk together chillun”)

      i am the implosive silence
      resounding inward
      resurrecting the condemned
      tenements of our minds—
      the black silence …
            (“don’t ya git weary”)

      i am the remembering silence of years not
      spoken speaking
      i am the black silence.


driving while black
by Mwatabu S. Okantah

                              It is not what you call me,
                                             it is what I answer to…

                                                            --African proverb

driving in my car
black wisdom from the ages is turned on its head:

in my car
what i think of my Self is of no significance
(save in my own mind …)
because i am always black while driving
and i know they are there waiting lurking
for some one black
like me.

i am a black man driving.
i have my own and countless other blackmenintheircars
                                 stories to tell—
it is the same story; new chapters from works in progress
out of America’s deep black story well.

      i am blessed.
i have driven through my youth
and into my elder years—
i am still driving.             they             are
      still             there             watching.
their fears are always near.


                                                      old news
                                                      by Mwatabu S. Okantah

            “The axe forgets, but not the tree…”

                                                      --African proverb

      my tears
      flow freely with each new story.
      my pain
      that same ache
      each time
      i see that same look
      in another victim’s eyes …
      the news is old
      when it is the same news (one old man
      remembered “the time in ‘27 when they
      used black men as sand bags
      to hold back the levee …”)
      and the same news
      is no news at all:

      new pictures of black folk suffering
      in America is
      not news—
      is nothing new.

      to acknowledge that America’s white
      and black
      looking at the same thing
      see different
      is the oldest news of all …



piano poem
by Mwatabu S. Okantah


            Underground ‘Round Midnight


            ivory teeth

      playing breathed

      s p a c e d


            notes OVER


                  g l i d i n g

            tenor horn.


            Straight, No Chaser…