Yesterday, the great poet, playwright, and American prophet Amiri Baraka passed away after weeks of illness. I remember discovering his work as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, notably his 1968 poem “It’s Nation Time,” which Baraka’s friend, and my mentor, Rob Penny (rest in peace) taught in his class “Black Consciousness.” My friends in that class, many of whom were of the more, er, “radical” variety, were drawn to the line in that poem, “when the brothers take over the school,” especially when we learned that our instructor Penny was part of a Baraka-inspired movement of black students who did exactly that.
On Jan. 15, 1969, they took over the university's central computer room -- nonviolently but forcefully -- at the top of its towering Cathedral of Learning. There, they locked themselves inside and demanded that the university hire more black professors, recruit more black students, and create an academic department for the study of people across the African diaspora.
Before that takeover, black Pitt students were told that there wasn’t room for all they asked for. So Penny and his colleagues had to make their own room, achieving justice through civil disobedience. It was Nation Time.
Most of their demands were granted and Penny became a professor in what would eventually be called Pitt’s “Africana Studies” department, teaching African American literature and theater. He and his close friend Vernell Lillie, both magnificent playwrights, introduced students like me to Baraka’s seminal play “The Dutchman,” and a whole catalogue of other black writers that my friends and I hadn’t yet discovered. Among them was Zora Neale Hurston, the black writer and anthropologist who wrote one of the great American novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She would have been 123 years old on Jan. 7, this week.
It is because of Baraka, Hurston, and Rob Penny that I had the audacity to ever pick up a pen or strum a keyboard to share any words with the world. Everything I learned from those writers informs how I cover environmental justice here at Grist.