By MARTY LEVINE
Watufani Poe came by his twin roles as activist and academic almost as an inheritance, it seems. “That was really what my family, and my extended community that I was raised around, instilled in me,” says Poe, who came to the School of Education this summer as a faculty member in language, literacy and culture.
The son of a schoolteacher and a professor who have both been pan-Africanist activists, Poe has worked with LGBTQ youth nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay area and gained his Ph.D. in Africana studies from Brown University.
He grew up in Philadelphia, since his father is now at Lincoln University just outside the city. He would have been at Pitt a year earlier if he hadn’t been busy doing his postdoc work at Amherst’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry, turning his dissertation ("Resisting Fragmentation: The Radical Possibilities of Black LGBTQ+ Activism in Brazil and the United States") into a book.
In his free time in the Bay Area, Poe organized with local young Black people while his research aimed to answer the questions: What does Black/queer/trans activism look like? How did participants determine their politics? What does the public expect from a Black queer or Black trans person in a political or other public role? What is expected of them before versus after election? What is identity politics? How do views from outside the mainstream of society affect how people view the world and act upon it? How do Black/queer/trans activists see the link between ideology and action?
His dissertation research looked at “how ideas around race, sexuality and gender are constructed drastically differently in the United States and Latin America,” Poe says, and how the Black communities have connected concerning the histories of race violence in their different countries.
All of this work will lead to two courses Poe will teach in the School of Education this fall. The first, one of the school’s freedom seminars (one-credit courses geared to helping students navigate the changing political, cultural and social landscapes of education), is “For an Afro-Latin American Feminism,” which will examine the ideas of different thinkers in that field.
Poe’s second course will look at Black/queer studies through the lens of a groundbreaking book about the two fields’ intersections from the early 2000s.
Apart from being taken to Pittsburgh by his father to see a KRS-One concert in the late 1990s — which he doesn’t much remember, he says — this is Poe’s first time here.
Poe says a lot of the preconceived notions he had about Pittsburgh — all Steelers and steel mills — “were largely debunked the first time I visited” just prior to his hiring. “I was really blown away the first time I came to Pittsburgh” — chiefly by the beauty of the landscape. “It reminded me a lot of an East Coast Portland.
“It seems that I’ve come at a time when the city is rapidly changing,” he adds, with his new neighbors commenting on the gentrification all around him.
But he points to the recent election of Ed Gainey as mayor, and the primary victory of Summer Lee, as indications of positive change. “It seems like those sorts of contested political moments … are turning points in the city,” he says.
As an undergraduate, Poe recalls still having to decide between Black studies and theater arts as a major. It has been a while since he was in a theatrical production, he admits, but still loves performing arts of all kinds. This fall he is thinking not only “how can I incorporate that into my classes?” but even of getting into local productions.
“I’m also excited to come to Pitt when it seems like there are exciting changes happening,” says Poe, pointing to both the faculty union and changes at his school: he is already on a committee planning a possible Ph.D. in freedom studies.
It’s also exciting, he says, that the school is today examining everything from “What is knowledge?” to “Who do we turn to, to think through knowledge communities?”
“This is the kind of place where I, as an Africana studies scholar, could thrive,” Poe says.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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