We read bell hooks today. Stood by the mirror and let her words slide through us. There will be days where bad moods will force you to grump, groan, or growl. Whether as a child or an adult. In the end, just let it pass, no need to hide it, let the feelings be.
Some places are inaccessible. For those with heads like velvet blackness, skins smooth like the color night.
Some places are inaccessible. For those with eyes darkly clear, those who look the sun in the face, unblinded.
Some places are inaccessible. For names wrapped with African-ness like a shawl, names like Olisadubem, or the ones for whom God calls.
Some places are inaccessible. For those unafraid and lusty, those with feet destined for infinite processions through paths dusky.
Some places are inaccessible . For those who scream, through every limb, those who let tears fall, unashamedly.
Some places are inaccessible. For those prepared to be truly free, those prepared to unlearn centuries or days of lies.
Some places are inaccessible. For those full of life, black boys, young with sterling and vigorous life.
So make places accessible. For those with laughter, the sweet staccato of black boys.
Make places accessible, for those with electric currents of life, black boys with thoughts like tiny sparks.
Make places accessible. For long days argued away, black boys articulate with provocative assertion.
Make places accessible. For dreaming, debating, aspiring, black boys whose feet echo through windy paths.
Make places accessible. For black boy joy, perpetually overflowing, astounding, indestructible.
Just make places accessible, for boys, black, young, our own.
I was inspired to write this piece following a experience I had today. My 5 year old was kicked out his camp after only 4.5 days in attendance. I initially blamed myself. Blamed my son for his ways that were deemed as problematic after only 4.5 days. Then I remembered I have been here before. It was probably the jolt I needed. Nothing motivates a mother more than using inappropriate labels or descriptors. I have also be lagging behind with boy number 2. I know he needs help. Not enough to kick him out of camp, but more so to make him want to be around you. He plays piano every weekend with teachers who look like him. He can hold a tune and he is 5. He plays tennis with young men that do not look like him. He can swing his racket really far and he is 5. The fact that they felt he was emotionally dis-regulated, after 4.5 days of being in his presence, the one we literally named after God, is the motivation I never knew I needed with him.
I have always reminded him that his name is all he needed. Little do I know that I need it more. And Olisa, will be our guide. Just keeping this here for when the narrative with son number 2 begins to change. I have no idea what the future holds. I am not as energetic as I once was with the regimen I used to help my son number 1 thrive in ways that keep us speechless. He started his own camp today and let’s just say I give God glory. So here we go. Back to the basics with son number 2. The first thing I highly recommend is to get an evaluation so you know where your child stands. Yes these evaluations were not made with black boys in mind and I have my reservations with them. But they help you attain additional resources you may not be able to assess, many that will go a long way towards changing the narrative as you intervene early. Stay tuned as I go back to exploring how to do this again. Only this time, children’s books like these by bell hooks will be my guide. I intend to work to ensure that black boys thrive in spaces that would love to see them cry unashamedly or laugh with the fullness of life.
I wonder on days like today, how we have made you feel through the years. Did we make you smile? Did we keep you hopeful? Or where we full of stress, full of denials for a freedom you truly derserve. I see that with each passing day, we made your eyes stay wide open. Sure there were stressful days, never ending tears and calls for attention from all of us for your superhero ways. Your name Chizoba, means to save after all. So we looked up to you to save us from ourselves, save us from days when the skies hurt, and nights when the stars blinds. We called on you to save us when we didn’t know how, like when all the noises in our head, called us out by name, during moments that were suppose to linger. We are human after all and with you we have seen all the sides the jewelry of emotions display. We have known pain, but felt joy. We have cried, but also laughed. We have fallen, but yet stand because life with you demands we do both. Not just when things are bad but when they are good.
I would love to use today to dwell on the good. Not because it’s the day we celebrate men like you who birthed eyes that glisten like silvery stars, but because you birthed them with your hands. I know joy when I see it and it is you. From the moment you walk into any room, all our fears and worries for the day disappear. You are more than our savior, more than an knight with shinning armour, slaying dragons we would rather hide. You have slashed many of our fears away, slashed our worries for tomorrow too. With you there is no need to think of what tomorrow may bring, no need to wonder what the future holds, no need because the present is far more eloquent. All the joy felt even on a single day with you are like birds flying with magnificent grace. You are grace, and the way you accept all of our ways, is the profound harmony our soul sings today. You presence is all that interests us, all that guides us, protects us, remains with us long after others you are called to save rush to your hands.
There have been plenty days when all we hoped for a full uninterrupted day, to sit, to question, to share. There were some we knew mattered most for the people in need. Heads in need of blood flow, despite our need for life flows with you. We watched you sacrifice so much, your time, your life, us, to heal others whose last name you barely know until they arrive at your hands. Both the presence and absence of you, both the coming and going you do so often, every single thing about the joys and pains of healing, is felt with you. We use today, the awe and reverence of a day everyone joins to celebrate the primary importance of fathers, to let you know that you are our sun when it cries, our stars when it blinds, our skies for all it tends, and our air for all it whispers. A day with you is better than a thousand sunsets. A day with you is life, joy, laughter and tears running down our face unashamedly. You pull so many emotions from us all at once that even days like today are not enough to speak of your extraordinary ways. You will always be the ignition that lights up our lives, always be the air we breath, always be anything we dream, because you first gave us you.
For that we lift you up to the one who first made you, declaring that not a single thing above or below, will stand against you so long as you breathe. Not a single person, black or white, old or young, will come against you when the rivers of Niger and the crocodiles of Kaduna, all the rivers and lands your feet have sailed and will sail through belong to you. Your hands will always save, always know bravery, always heal. You will always be our seed, our soil, our water for all time. You will always be our beginning, primarily saving, before we knew we needed a savior. This is what you are to all of us, and you are like no other. Happy Father’s Day, Zobam.
Our ancestors are our first audience. Christell Roach reminded me of this yesterday. They have stories long forgotten and must be told by us their legacy that remain. So here is my attempt with that.
I have tried to understand my creation story. Tried to know on whose shoulders I stand. My father’s side has plenty empty holes. Of his father, his mothers, and all the ancestors that came before him. The only thing I am left with is his surname, Iwelunmor , an Igbo name which means ‘anger never reaches my soul.’ So from him, I am never supposed to be angry. And if I ever get to the point where anger hijacks my thoughts, my words, my actions, then I must stop short still with letting it reach my soul. That is the extent of my father’s side that I hold on to too. It gives me hope.
My mother’s side, has holes too. Mainly with her father, but especially with her mother. I am always drawn to every single thread of information I glean about her life. For starters, she was an orphan with 2 siblings, a brother and a sister. I am unclear of when her parents died, except she was young and was subsequently raised by her uncle. Then we were told she married my grandfather, a chief, early and without the support of his people. So their marriage was never fully recognized. Their marriage also never bore any children in the early days which gave my grandfather and to the joy of his people, the right to marry more women. He did. Not just one, but two. They would go on and give him numerous children and my grandmother, watched all of this and even joined in raising those children. That she still persisted to have her own is the creation story I long to complete for myself.
I know she persisted as we are the evidence of her persistence. I would not even be here writing this at this moment if she gave up. So nestled within my DNA, long before I would become, is the insistence to persist. That creation story had gotten me through many periods of self-doubt and despair. I exist literally because my grandmother persisted. So who am I not to do the same. But even with this story, there is still an aspect of her life that I still want to know, the how and why? The how because it took her 20 years to give birth to my mother and why because 20 years is a long time to never give up. The how too because this was a time of no artificial insemination. There were no hospitals and, well, a water goddess has a hand in my creation story. So I exist because my grandmother met a water goddess who gave her some potions that enabled her to give birth to my mother. I stand before you, in full bloom, birthed by the hands of a water goddess.
So now I am obsessed with this story. I long to bear witness to this power of persistence and Christell Roach and her lecture on Storytelling as a tradition on witness, is my guide. Our light festival did more than I could ever imagine yesterday. It got me up today thinking in essence about child birth in a time where women were lucky to have any form of hospital or maternal care. That my creation story is tied to maternal, child health is my muse now with public health storytelling that all I can say is stay tuned. I am in the business of storytelling now and I will do like Outspoken Bean suggested and begin anywhere. Welcome to the fire that our first LIGHT festival has lit within me and stay tuned for next year. We are coming with more fire.
Welcome to the transformative force we call LIGHT.
Welcome to its flame
Welcome to its fire
Welcome to its ray
Welcome to its shine
Welcome to its spark
Welcome to its utter brilliance,
Welcome to its radiant reflection
Welcome simply to a day we hope to clarify that the public in a field called public health, matters.
I start with these words from the poet Lucille Clifton’s description of LIGHT, because it is what, I hope, you leave with today.
The transformative force of light for a field that has put its public in the dark for so long, with our conferences that often exclude the public and our peer-reviewed publications that are often read by us and not the public we purport to serve.
This is a journey that began with fear, failure too, as it was intended to be an avenue through which we deliberately bring anti-racism into public health to achieve the social justice we all need and deserve with our healing.
Every time I remember how all this began, I remember our failure, our fear too.
I remember how fear has held many people back.
We have all been here before, myself in particular, I have been held back by the fear of.
If it isn’t this, it’s that.
If it isn’t stormy days, then it’s the perfect tornado, rain, hail, all of them mashed up into an eye of a storm. Only that it’s coming for you.
The storm that fear allows.
Yet, you keep walking through the storm,
many you dare not speak of.
But I’ll try today because I know fear.
Know what it requires too. In fear, you will find sadness, frustration, sickness.
I have been there too.
Leaned so much into fear that it’s despair became normal.
I let fear usher in headaches, and stuffy nose and eyes that would rather close than see another day or night go bye.
Fear has pushed me to places that I have never been too, thoughts dark, and spaces equally dark.
Fear let dark valleys become like shadows of death like Psalm 23 forewarned.
Fear has taken me to the dark all sorts of dreary places in need of light.
And even as I leaned into fear, feared fear too, fear took me, through the dark to light.
Reminded me that if there were no darkness, there will be no light.
I learnt that the moment I arrived at the home of fear. I saw that even in sickness or pain, fear will welcome you in with arms so wide that all you need to do is nestle your head at its bosom.
Plant your feet by its streams and let your body rest in its arms like a baby.
My heart, my soul, my body and my mind too, all of us has snuggled deeply into fear.
We meet you all today, greet you too with these opening words out of fear.
Wondering what today would be like.
Would we truly bring light?
Are we sure in the words of Toni Cade Bambara in her beautiful book, The salt eaters, that we want this light?
What happens when light never comes and all we still know when all is said and done is fear.
I meet you today in fear, knowing that even in fear, even in the darkness that I still feel for the journey ahead,
I can still expect more.
Like what is coming after this, nothing, or air or light, from all the speakers we have assembled for you all today.
Today requires, that we see fear, acknowledge its existence, and yet move past it to light.
So welcome to our annual LIGHT festival.
Our goal is to bring light even in the midst of our fears, your fears, and most importantly all of them with healing, my healing, your healing.
We bring light even as you question whether it is possible.
We bring light’s brightness, kindle, splendor, glow, fire, because this moment, past a pandemic where public health was rendered mute, requires it.
The fire we bring, all of the light, is work that cannot be done alone.
So I want to illuminate the implications of this work for you and for us all within the LIGHT team: It will be messy, it will be rough.
There will be threats to our peace, our sanity.
And fear will always be lurking around reminding us that we do not deserve this light.
All the inside pieces will frighten us, make us want to hide back in the dark.
But We cannot.
Not when our name is called LIGHT.
So this moment, meet LIGHT, just you all know the name implies.
Meet Leaders Igniting Generational Healing and Transformation.
I close in these words paraphrased from Audre Lorde, LIGHT alone will not protect us.
We are aware of this. But yet, we choose LIGHT because our field requires the public to be heard.
We choose LIGHT to clarify and to be as eloquent as possible, that the public in public health matters.
We choose LIGHT because with the advent of today, we have learnt to work and speak when we are afraid.
Even though we respected fear, we choose LIGHT because we refuse for the weight of darkness, the weight of not letting the public into public health, we refuse for the weight of their silence to keep choking us.
The fact that we are here, the fact that we meet today, is to bridge some of these differences between us,
for it is not our difference which keeps the public in the dark, it’s our silence.
And for that reason, welcome to our attempt at breaking the public’s silences for too long.
Welcome to this space we call LIGHT.
What a day! Thank you to everyone who made this year a success.
I met fear this past week. Danced around in its oasis. For once, it left me without words. Instead, the words were painstakingly put together as a grant. I spent this week writing what maybe the greatest grant ever written. I know I say this a lot. All my grants are like blue skies on a sunny day. Everlasting, beautiful, great. And this one was different. It took me to the shadows of hell and back. Took me to the center of my fears, the space often hidden and out of view. It made a fool of me. Asked me if I was sure this was the life I wanted. I am so sure. So it proceeded to make a fool out of me. Took me to depths I have never know, knowledge too, I lacked and people, I dare not speak to because words won’t do. I spent the week instead harnessing all the words I knew for this grant. Spent it buried deeply in literature that wasn’t only foreign but truly out of my league. I felt elementary this week. Felt like I needed to get back to a version of school where only blankets were allowed. I found one, black and took it all around the house this week. Took it with me to my desk as it was all I knew, and the floor nearby. If I am being honest, even the thought of a shower or food to eat seemed insurmountable. None of that mattered except the words I was putting together in this grant. All the words hijacked me, took me as a hostage in my own mind, my own space too. Until today.
Early this morning, they finally let me go. Finally let me see the beauty of a day. The rising sun in all its glory. Early this morning I moved beyond fear to a space I will now forever cherish, with a team that is truly unconventional, unconquerable and everything that personifies the word love. We met each other in a space where identities didn’t matter. Just the coming of ideas in ways that bring out the best in the ideas. I dwelled with them through words. Let their words too nourish me like a balm. They helped to soothe the tension in my head for this week that I am still in awe of their love. I still lack the words to speak of the utter grace they all provided for me. My heart is full. Angi’s test will become a reality one day. Only that it started the day fear let me go.
My eyes judge your fullness in delight. Ten years of coming into your light. On the day we dedicated you to the universe, the day we raised you up to the one who first loved you, surrounded by all those who loved you, I imagined this for you. I still do for today and tomorrow.
That you will remain as beautiful as the day of your birth. That your days will be as as lovely as the sun. And your nights as majestic as the moon. That you would shine as bright as the stars and remain as breathtaking as the clouds in the skies. That you would remain as gentle as the morning breeze or as heavenly as summers rain. That you would soar beyond your wildest dreams and tower above the tallest trees. That they will speak of you in distant places and marvel at your kindness and gentle spirit. That your smile may melt the hearts of people and your presence enrich their lives. That you would dance like angels dance and let the most high guide you every step of the way. That you will succeed in everything you do and never give up when things become hard. That you will never forget who you are and cherish every beautiful moment on earth. But above all, may your rhythms continue to capture our spirits. May you continue to bloom within, like peonies in Spring. May grace, joy, peace, love and happiness be with you always and may good things and beautiful things follow you all the days of your life.
Seeing you today, seeing all of you, was a joy to behold. Belle, on this 10th year of your life, I pray you never forget the joy you felt today in this city of love. Seeing all of your melody and light, your laugh and stride, every single thing about you was the peace our soul needed. You are peace, and love and you make life easy to love. You make life love, with a breeziness that makes all around you feel good to be with you. You made us all feel good today. You made our hearts swell with joy, our lips quiver with laughter. You were more than a day. More than a groove that made us all move down Faiderbe to Trocadero, Palais Congress and back to Bercy village dancing to a tune you play so well. Only you are like jazz. You never worry about how your melody flows or your love shows. You gift it to everyone around you. I pray you keep playing this tune of life, your way. Keep playing it past this 10th year of life and beyond. I’ll remember love in June, remember the joy of so many we met in the city of love, because all of you, is unique and love. So do not be afraid. Your name and love is all you need. When you pass through deep waters, remember your name and love. Even if fires burn, remember who you are. We will give up everything for you. Belle you are precious to us. We will give up all we own for you. Belle you are loved and honored, from every single place on earth, including the tallest towers that greeted you warmly this morning. You put a lot of beauty into life. For that we are thankful and pray you never forget just how beautiful, how blessed, and how loved you truly are.
To know love, bell hooks, once suggested that we must first surrender to it. Discover it. Choose it. Practice it. Respect it. Voice it. Listen to it. Nurture it. Admit to ourselves that we want to know love, be love, and dwell in it. I have spent the past week doing as bell hooks noted and loving every single moment I discovered love in the city of love. I have walked steps I once walked in love over 10 years ago. Touched faces and places long forgotten, all to rediscover for myself and my love, why our love matters. It’s the eve of our birth. I am still full and choosing and nurturing and listening to love with my Belle.
I went to Bamileke Kingdom today. It was of course at Musee Quai Branly. But honestly, I went on a journey to ancestors and beyond. So much to tell but for now, I learnt about beads and cowries today. Their connections to queens, and all things powerful and of value. I learnt about how their techniques are always the same, always the threading of beads or cowries, few at a time, then stitched together in time. I saw how inspirational the colors and patterns of beads can become. Always together, always in awe. Truly I saw you.