An Open Letter to My Department of Pan-African Studies' Colleagues and Students and to the Kent State University Community at Large
May 14, 1997
I returned to KSU as an adjunct professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies (DPAS) in 1991 at the urging of former chair, Dr. Edward Crosby. After seven and a half years as Assis- tant to the Director of Black Studies at Cleveland State, I had resigned in August, 1989, to refocus my career in writing and the performing arts, and to complete work on a major creative project. Ultimately, I came back because I was ready for a new challenge; because I wanted to give something back to a program that has meant so much to my own development; and, because I wanted to assist in the transition into the post-Crosby era. In this present, I could serve as a hying [sic] link to a dynamic past, as we chart a course into our future.
I remind my students, almost daily, that I have the unique experience of having been a part of a group of committed, militant students who dared to dream that one day there would be a black presence in Pan-African Studies classes here at KSU. My students are special to me because they are here in the present in concrete fulfillment of that dream. I stand before them a witness to a past that some would ignore or forget, and others would distort or destroy. I have returned to Kent because the real measure of a true African centered institution is its ability to survive and flourish beyond the lifetimes of its founders. I have returned to do the hard work of insuring that the Institute for African American Affairs (IAAA), the Center of Pan-African Culture (CPAC) and the Department of Pan-African Studies (DPAS) will exist for the ages.
The Africans say, "If you know a man's history, you can predict his future." Given my under- graduate experience at KSU, I did not return totally unprepared for whatever circumstances that might present themselves. I do not necessarily look for trouble, but, I recognize it when it rears its forever ugly head. In the Spring 1995 special edition of Uhuru I wrote, "It is sweetly ironic that I find myself back at Kent State; and, once again, it is here where I am compelled to 'dig in' and fight. This particular round of the same old battle has been twenty-four years in the making."
Now, it is 1997 and we are experiencing yet another spring of our discontent. No longer to be dismissed as an untutored student, I am realizing that all of my preparation, to date, has been for being here to accept the challenge of THIS very moment. Once again, the circumstances of the moment demand that the department's Griot speak. My words, however, weigh heavy on my heart for our ancestors are restless in their eternal sleep. I hear them. They are angry. I hear their siren screams wind-whistling in these cold, northeast Ohio spring breezes.
Oscar Ritchie. Fela Sowande. Hulda Smith. Wiley Smith, III. As conscience and keeper of our "sacred lore," I can no longer manage this personal anguish I feel in the face of my prolonged public silence. It is time to speak out about the obvious. All of the whisperings, the rumblings, and the rumors about DPAS must be brought to some kind of resolution and closure. Our internal struggle has already become a matter of wide speculation and debate; that DPAS is not THE ONLY department on this campus going through internal struggle seems to not apply in our case. There seems to be a second set of rules when it comes to Black folk at KSU.
Our ship is being tossed about on storm troubled waters. The transition into the post-Crosby years has not gone well by any stretch of the imagination. We are a divided house. It is said. I said it. In a very real sense, our divisions mirror these same conditions afflicting us as a peo- ple in the 1990s. We will not move smoothly into the next century if we do not finally fashion our own criteria for recognizing Black excellence. We will not send our next generations pre- pared into the 21st century if we do not provide them with workable strategies that will enable them to identify and deal effectively with Black incompetence. Our real enemy is our unwilling- ness to deal with the true diversity within ourselves as a people. Our "double consciousness" remains unresolved. We struggle to understand and relate to others on levels that we fail to do the same for ourselves. Even here in America, we are divided into new "tribes."
An African proverb says, "It is not what you call me, it is what I answer to." I have never answered to the titles of the university. I am Baba Okantah. I am a poet-griot who teaches. Job security has never been an issue for me. I am a poet-griot for life. And, how secure can any Black man or woman in America be? If I am forced to choose between keeping my "day job" at the price of my silence, or losing my "day job" and speaking my poet "riot's truth, there is no choice to be made at ale I em born into this world to BE who I am. I have worked too hard to know what I have come to know. I will always refuse to allow so-called "terminal degrees" to be the final measure of my contribution. I em writing now because I cannot appear as a hypocrite in the eyes of my students. No relationship within any university community where I have ever worked is more important to me.
At a time when Black students in particular, but all students in general, are demanding role models, it is important that MY students see ME practicing what I teach. More importantly, they must SEE me hying what I preach. For me, it has to be: "what you see is what you get." It is my job to show my students that I take seriously the information I share with them. It is my duty to exhibit behavior that is consistent with the criteria outlined in the DPAS hand-out, "Role of Faculty, Staff and Students: The Mwalimu/Mwanafunzi Relationship." I think our current dilemma stems, in large part, from our own slackness. As a Pan-African community, we have all strayed from this original blue print. Its terms are no less relevant today.
It is extremely important to me that my students understand we operate in the real world at all times. They must KNOW that I can only teach them about African life-principles to the exact degree that I do not compromise and/or trample over those very principles. There is more to this African centered movement than giving lectures, writing, traveling overseas and hanging African motif art work. I cannot "be direction for the young . . . exemplifying the Black Value System — Nguzo Saba" if I am not a living example of that value system. If I am asking stu- dents to apply what I teach outside the classroom, I am charged to do no less.
Because I am their elder, I am charged to do more. I cannot teach students to face and resolve their personal fears and contradictions if I am not willing to face and resolve my own. It is too evident to me that our students are looking to us, their elders, to resolve our petty differences so they might learn how to resolve their own. They are looking to us to articulate and transcend our very real philosophical differences so they might learn how to do the same. They are looking to see how we handle the intense pressure of crisis. Sowande warned us years ago that we cannot give to our students those things we, ourselves, do not possess.
For the first time in my professional career, I am being accused of "blind ambition" and "naked aggression." I am being labeled deceptive, dishonest, and "totally void of professional ethics and integrity" by an immediate superior. My "involvement in the life of the university" is being questioned. I am being accused of "a history of isolation and self-imposed collegial segrega- tion/ separation." I have also been branded as paranoid. Relative to my relationship with my students, this is no time for me to become "over-awed by authority." This is not the time for me to stray from what has thus far been my own 30 year pursuit of truth "no matter the cost." I cannot deny that the situation in the department has degenerated to the level of personal attack. The attacks on my character were made in two memos that WERE NOT addressed to me. Fortunately, there are people at KSU who do keep my best interests at heart. I am more connected to the fabric of this university than some people realize. I should also add that sentiments that are meant to be kept secret should never be committed to paper in a volatile university environment. I am responding in a public way because that has always been my method of doing things. And, because a public forum is the only real defense that I have at my disposal. It is painful having to admit I am witnessing things happening here I never thought I would ever see. It is unfortunate, but, relationships developed over years of interaction have been damaged. I am now able to confirm that I have a chairman who not only lacks respect for my career and my work, but who harbors personal will as well. I also have at least one col- league who has made an open declaration of war; a colleague who I hold in mutual contempt.
As poet-griot, I answer to a higher calling. My real concern is with my relationship to our ancestors. Although I willingly work in a university environment, I do not look to the university for validation. While I have always enjoyed working in academia, I am committed to my place in the vanguard of today's African centered movement. Having spend most of my teaching career as an adjunct, I have also managed to avoid university politricks. Dr. Garrison's opinions of my character notwithstanding, I am confident that my career accomplishments speak for themselves. I am also confident that my reputation will survive the true deceitful and deceptive nature of his memos intact. In the end, the old folk are right: "What don't come out in the wash, will come out in the rinse."
I am writing, then, because I am committed
to our historic struggle to proclaim and control our own destiny as a people.
We exist as a proud, Pan-African institution here at Kent State as a part
of that larger struggle. In 1997, the nature of the struggle has not changed.
It has always been about principles, about ethics, about self-determination,
and about power. These issues continue to be confused because we are not
playing on a level playing field, and because the encounter is framed within
the inherent disparities of black vs white in this society.
Oscar Ritchie Hall IS "the house that BUS built." We can never say this enough. To the degree our present generation has forgotten, or, has not been told this fact, it is time for them to reclaim ownership of their house. It is home to the IAAA (1969), CPAC (1972) and DPAS (1977). We are the only entity on campus created BY students FOR students. DPAS is the only department on this campus that is housed within a cultural center. This distinction is cru- cial if our mission is to be understood. I repeat: we ARE NOT a department like other depart- ments on this or any other campus. In this regard, we are unique among other Black Studies programs as well; another fact our new chair fails to comprehend.
A product of a social movement external to the university, our program was created in defi- ance of the will of the university. Here at KSU, those original BUS students took advantage of the integrationist/civil rights agenda of the 1960s and built a nationalist based, Pan-African institution. We are an African centered institution, and herein lies the true nature of our strug- gle with Dr. Garrison. We have not failed or refused to consider his vision for this department. We reject it. We in no way feel obligated to apologize for our history on this campus, or the terms we use to define our existence on this campus. A vision existed for this program before George Garrison arrived. If that vision is to be changed or altered, it must be done through con- sensus. The larger university's attitude toward this program has always been ambivalent at best, and predatory in its worse manifestations. Even now, KSU essentially does not know how to see and take advantage of this unit as one of its primary assets. Most administrators seem loathe to admit that "diversity and multiculturalism" operate in practice inside Oscar Ritchie Hall. A true African centered curriculum is humanity centered at its core. We did not need to create new code words to express this fundamental reality. Why does the university not acknowledge the actual numbers of non-Black students who enroll in our classes? You will not find a more diverse student population inside any other building on this campus. What prevents the university from acknowledging that our introductory courses in the Native Ameri- can and the Latino American experience are already in place? Again, the real issue seems to be who will exercise the ultimate power to define our reality.
Some people are so focused on labeling us "separatist" and "anti-white," they conveniently fail to acknowledge just who does live and work in our house. Why is it only integration when non- white people are in the minority? Why is it not integration when Black people constitute a majority? When will white people question themselves as to why they are so uncomfortable being around us? That Dr. Garrison would come to KSU and embrace the status quo distorted view of our operation IS the problem; that he expresses his true feelings in memos to others is a more accurate barometer of why he is being challenged inside this department. For one who claims to be working toward "The Beloved Community," why does he not practice such values with the people who hired him in the first place. The Prophet of Peace would have treated us with more respect.
This struggle is over the future direction and content of this program. Dr. Garrison's blatant disregard for our foundation principles must be confronted. For me, this is not personal. Although I stand in opposition to Garrison's leadership with others, I am writing as an individ- ual. I am speaking as a committed Pan-Africanist, and, as a founder/alumnus of this program. At bottom, I am speaking out because Dr. Garrison has acted to call my personal character into question. He has denigrated and misrepresented the very history that has made his posi- tion here possible. Those former students, faculty and staff who have labored tirelessly over the years did not struggle to see this program reduced to its present state of dysfunction and strife.
In fairness to Garrison, all of our inner turmoil cannot be traced to his routinely closed door. As such, his removal as chair will only constitute the beginning of both a healing process, as well as a much needed reordering of our collective priorities. Sadly, however, Garrison's lack of sensitivity and insight has only served to make an already problematic situation worse; that he was hired in the first place indicates there were flaws in the original selection process. And, if Dr. Garrison, a full professor, had done his homework, he would have known this community would not just roll over upon his arrival. He would have had a much better sense of the Crosby legacy. As a philosopher, he would have familiarized himself with the work of Chief Sowande. He would have understood in clearer terms why we do the things we do here. The real ques- tion has become: what vision for this department has Dr. Garrison revealed to others that he has not shared with his faculty? We are not blind in ambition or faith.
In an October 15, 1996, letter, the BUS Executive Board writes, it is disheartening to find DPAS at a crossroads. For two years now BUS has stood idle as our Elders have failed to present a unified front. Thus, our department is disintegrating before our very eyes . . . BUS is calling for the DPAS to align itself with the principles upon which the discipline was founded. We urge our Elders . . . to put aside their personal differences for the greater good of our com- munity of both today, and tomorrow . . . We only hope that our Elders . . . can unify themselves for the betterment of our community. If not, we could lose the only home we have within the con- fines of the university." Our students have eloquently reminded us of our reason for being: We are not just an academic unit. No other entity on this campus has been charged with the mission of creating and maintaining a home for Black students. The general environment for Black people here at KSU is no less hostile today than it was some 27 years ago when I arrived as an incoming freshman student. The more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. From our perspective, we have not isolated, or, separated ourselves so much as we have created a safe haven from which to operate here at KSU. It has always been about creating a safe space for ourselves; a space where we can let our guards down and be our true selves.
Our original mission has not changed for it has not yet been fully accomplished. Chief Fela Sowande has outlined that mission in his essay, "The Africanization of Black Studies." He writes, "I see the Africanization of Black Studies as requiring the restructuring of black studies — a total restructuring if need be — so that it rests on the traditional thought-patterns of tradi- tional Africa, which thereby becomes its reason for being, its life-essence, the actualization of these thought patterns in the day to day lives of common folks being its specific objective, to achieve which nothing will be allowed to be an insurmountable obstacle."
Unfortunately, George Garrison has become the chief obstacle to this program's forward pro- gress. Sowande also warned us that "this Africanization is not to be regarded as a political platform or a new ideology; it is not to be approached in the manner of the chef who adds a little more of this or that to the soup that is all but cooked on the stove; it is not to be con- fused with the adoption of African names or dress-styles, although these may have their place in it, but Africanization means the total adoption of the world-view of traditional Africa as the foundation on which to build. Such adoption will require substantial changes in our ways of thought and of action; it will require the jettisoning of many of our prejudices and fond beliefs, and it is here that the real problems will arise."
Again, it is on this level that Dr. Garrison refuses to understand we are not a department like other departments. We are the first to realize we exist within the larger university. However, we do not look to other departments to learn how to govern ourselves. We bring something to the university's table that has traditionally been lacking. We bring innovation. We understand that our struggle has served to make Kent State a better place. Garrison does not understand our mission because he has never taken the time to sit down and talk with us about it. It is quite revealing that he would caution "outsiders" about intruding into in-house DPAS business when he himself has chosen to remain the ultimate intrusive outsider.
I can honestly say attempts have been made to welcome Dr. Garrison. I have made them. It is truly unfortunate that he has never really seemed comfortable being here. Philosophically, he is not one of us, and, this is not meant to suggest rigidity or conformity. We each have individual approaches to our discipline. Our disagreements can sometimes be intense. In the end, we achieve consensus because we all embrace the fundamental principles of African culture as our foundation. We can agree to disagree because we all subscribe to an essential African derived world view. It is not necessary that we all be on the same page, but, we do need to be in the same book.
Personally, I can coexist with Dr. Garrison as a senior level faculty member and colleague. In this regard, I think he has a contribution to make. In his own way, he is probably a nice man. However, I think he is both temperamentally and philosophically unsuited to lead a true Pan- African institution. His actions, as well as his comments, reveal he does not believe in the efficacy of our philosophical orientation. Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual points out that at least two major streams of philosophical thought emerged within America's black community: integration/civil rights as well as nationalism/Pan-Africanism. There are no monolithic thought patterns in our community. That Dr. Garrison is not a Pan-Africanist is not necessarily the problem; that he cannot work with people who are Pan-Africanists is the real "bone of contention" in this conflict. If this were a marriage, they call these problems: "irrecon- cilable differences."
Dr. Garrison never understood that his closed door sent the loudest signal of ale It announced that he was unapproachable and aloof; that whatever it was that was important to him did not include us. I stopped counting the times I saw a student look at his closed door and then leave the main office. Our students operate by feel. Their current phrase of affirmation is, "I feel you." For them, closed doors never feel good. They never suggest welcome. Rather than try to know us, he looked at us "through the eyes of others." Rather than talk TO us, he chose to talk ABOUT us to others. Mistakenly, he apparently thought we would just passively accept his views and his judgement calls.
Closed doors and autocratic methods may have played well in Nebraska. Here at Kent State, and, especially here in "the village" that thrives inside Oscar Ritchie Hall, such methods can never work. We are striving to recreate that traditional African style village where there were no doors to lock. There was no need for doors. Everyone belonged to one of the family clans. Everyone was at home. There was peace in the village. When the dust clears, there will be peace again.
/s/ Mwatabu S. Okantah
Mwatabu S. Okantah, Poet in Residence