by Len Lear
Khaliah D. Pitts, 27, a lifelong resident of Mt. Airy, started writing poetry when she was just 10 years old in the fifth grade. “We got an assignment to write a ‘Tanka,’ a Japanese style of poetry,” she recalls, “and I was so completely into it. I really liked the idea of sculpting a scene with words. So I told my mom how much I liked it, and she handed me this old-looking red leather spiral notebook; it became my first poetry notebook, and that was that.”
Since those early years, Pitts has become a supremely talented poet, co-host (with her sister) of a radio show, a sexual health and nutrition educator, and a Masters of Public Health candidate at Temple University, concentrating in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Currently, Khaliah is also completing her first poetry manuscript and writing a science-fiction novel.
Pitts has become one of the area’s most popular performance poets but is admittedly inconsistent “because I have somewhat crippling stage fright. So mostly, I get asked to perform at events, either personal parties or fundraisers or awareness events. Occasionally, I might pop up at an open mic. A Poet’s Art Gallery in West Philly hosts a few, and the crowds there are so loving and just hungry for poetry, so perhaps that will be my new home.”
A graduate of Philadelphia High School for Girls and Temple University (in 2011), Pitts became a food educator for two-and-a-half years for the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, teaching culinary, nutrition and agricultural education at four Philadelphia high schools, focusing on African American foodways and traditions, history and justice. For a little over a year, she also taught LGBT and Sexual Health at the Mazzoni Center in the center city “Gayborhood.”
Since Khaliah is a poet and performer, why did she become a health educator? “Poetry, writing in general, was always supposed to be my passion project, never a source of income. So I had intended on working as a nurse part-time and dedicating my free time to writing, but instead of getting into nursing school, I wound up switching my major in college to public health and found that I really loved it. Once I worked a few internships and jobs, I realized how much I loved to teach.
“And the reason I teach is the same reason I write: because it’s a way I can reach people and ‘spread the news.’ I consider myself acting in the tradition of the griot, which in some West African cultures is the person who spreads news, who tells stories, who documents life. Teaching is another way I can do that, and classrooms are simply another stage for me to perform on. And I genuinely love my folks, so I want them to be healthy.”
In the summer of 2015, Khaliah began co-hosting “Young Voices Young Minds,” an offshoot of “Connecting the Dots” on HarambeeRadio.com with her younger sister, Ayanna, who will be pursuing a Masters in Social Work in another year. (HarambeeRadio.com is an online radio channel for and by the African Diasporic community. Pitts’ father hosts a show on Fridays, 7 to 9 p.m., “Connecting the Dots: Science and Technology, Beyond Human Dignity,” one of the station’s most popular shows.)
Khaliah was also recently awarded a grant from the Leeway Foundation, which gives grants to local women in the arts who qualify. “My own favorite authors,” she said, “are Octavia Butler and Michael Crichton. Crichton, for me, is a quintessential sci-fi storyteller, probably just because he created my favorite story, ‘Jurassic Park.’ It kind of reminds me that reality is quite, quite scarier than fiction. And Butler, I just didn’t know that Black women wrote science fiction. Butler is such a good storyteller, and her reasons for writing each story are beautiful and interesting.”
Pitts’ goal as a writer and as an educator “is the same, and that’s to make sure that my loved ones and my community are fulfilled, knowledgeable, healthy, happy and free. So, I’m just trying to spread the knowledge and spread some love. Which is cheesy, but that’s my motivation.”
What is the hardest thing that Khaliah ever had to do? “At this moment, it seems like the hardest thing I ever had to do was answer your questions.”
If Khaliah could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? “Underwater. Or in a rainforest. Or some other hermit-like, uninhabited location. I don’t know, though; I’ve felt at home in many places, so maybe I just want to live in as many places as I can.”
If Pitts could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be? “I don’t know if this counts because he’s passed, but for years I really believed that one day I’d meet Gil Scott-Heron. The way he paints these vivid images of the black experience is, I think, incomparable. And we would really dig one another. And we would talk politics and philosophy and music and poetry, and I would cook for him. And then, we would create beautiful art together. That was my little dream. As it stands, he’s no longer with us, so making dinner with ‘Pieces of a Man’ playing in the background is as close as I’ll get.”
Ed. Note: Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011, was a popular spoken word performer whom I often ran into and chatted up when Gil and my wife and I lived in the Mayfair House, Lincoln Drive & Johnson Street in Germantown in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.