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His immovable and unbreakable dedication to the black community and an Afrocentric worldview

further underscored his reputation across the city. In 1969, he fought to create

the Africana Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh



Robert Lee "Rob" Penny

(August 6, 1941-March 16, 2003)

Prized Playwright, Poet, Professor, and  Pan-Africanist activist


By Brentin Mock

City Paper, Pittsburgh



Rob Penny, the Hill District’s prized playwright, poet, professor and activist, died last weekend from a heart attack at the age of 62. No one among his family, friends and colleagues say they saw it coming.

“We were just joking and having fun this past Friday,” says Marcia Spidell, longtime friend of Penny’s and administrative assistant in the University of Pittsburgh’s Africana Studies Department, where Penny served as a professor since the program’s inception in 1969. “He was excited about a new printer that [the department] had just purchased for him.” The hundreds of poems, plays and short stories Penny wrote in his lifetime probably put his old printer out of service.

Penny was born in Opelika, Ala., and moved to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1949. His father had already moved there years before, during the Great Migration that brought droves of blacks up north from the brutally oppressive South. At the time, the Hill District was a sparkling place -- some-parts Motown, some-parts Harlem Renaissance -- for western Pennsylvania, attracting jazz artists and other entertainers from all over the nation. This environment prepared Penny to help form the Black Horizon Theatre in 1968 and the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop in 1976. With the help of good friend Vernell Lillie’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre, these enterprises gave birth to playwrights such as Marta Effinger, Javon Johnson and nationally acclaimed writer August Wilson, who was once Penny’s protégé. During the late 70s Black Arts Movement, Penny wrote and performed alongside Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez.

Though his plays have been performed nationally, garnering heavy followings in New York City and Chicago, Penny never captured the mainstream attention of peers such as Wilson and Baraka -- by choice. According to his wife of 43 years, Betty, Penny once turned down the offer of a group of local white theater owners who promised Broadway and millions of dollars if he made a few changes to his script Good Black Don’t Crack. Betty says Rob responded, “I don’t want to go to Broadway, I want it to go to my people.” The play since has become one of his most traveled and popular.

His immovable and unbreakable dedication to the black community and an Afrocentric worldview further underscored his reputation across the city. In 1969, he fought to create the Africana Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh. His class, “Black Consciousness,” has long been considered essential for any black student at Pitt. Penny fiercely advocated pan-African schools of thought. Many of his close friends throughout the department and the community called him Oba, which is a Yoruba term for “king.”

“The University [of Pittsburgh] probably doesn’t recognize what a gem they had in Rob Penny, who was one of the guiding lights of our department,” says Lillie, who will be working to create a Rob Penny reader. Kuntu Theatre will also proceed with Penny’s last play, Difficult Days Ahead in a Blaze, this summer.

Close friends and family say Penny, who had suffered a heart attack years ago, was big on healthy diets and exercise and in good health in his final days. His wife, with him in his last moments, says she believes he was nonetheless prepared for this attack. He was listening to jazz in his room when he began to call for her. “By the time I got upstairs he was already going, telling me he didn’t think he was gonna make this one,” she says. Penny called her Timamu, Swahili for “she who completes me and makes my life whole.”

Penny is also survived by his three sons: Johnny, Robert Lee Jr. and Kadumu. A whole league of up-and-coming writers -- his “new printers” -- will continue his legacy.

Visitation: March 20, 7-9 p.m., White Memorial Chapel, Point Breeze. Wake: March 21, St. Benedict the Moor Church, Hill District, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Funeral: March 22, St. Benedict the Moor Church, 11 a.m.

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Related files: Brentin Mock Remembrance  Peter Hart Remembrance  Kuntu Writers Workshop  Frances Wilson Remembrance