Keep Nkemjika in mind, whether you succeed or fail!

One of the first priorities I learnt early on in academia was survival. Armed with the determination that my career and journey would have shape, I enlisted the support of other women and men too. Maybe it’s the fact that they were women, mothers themselves, women or men of color, I knew they would lay bare the expectations inherent in survival. For far too long, Black scholars, particularly Black women have had to carry the burden of other people’s desires. We are always working on other people’s agenda, whether it’s with their diversity and inclusion criteria or with their desire to become more equitable. No other scholar in academia, carries such burden. We are accustomed to being ignored, accustomed to repressing our feelings, accustomed to feeling invisible within a system that demands we remain silent. Afterall, we are the lucky ones. Yet, many of us are beginning to learn and relearn that even our silences will no longer protect. That and the fact that nobody will tell our stories our way, whether we succeed or fail.

So I started telling my own stories to bear witness to my survival. In Chandra Ford’s bestselling book on Racism and Public Health, I began the journey to uncover hidden experiences and long overdue silences of life as a female Black scholar in academia. I recalled vividly the day a colleague, another faculty of color, informed me of my predecessor’s departure from our department. She was the second Black scholar in the department at that time. She left the program and a position as an Assistant Professor for a post-doctoral position at another institution. Her sharing of this experience, deeply ingrained in my soul a sentiment once shared by Audre Lorde, that ‘we (Black women) were never meant to survive’ in academia. That a Professor would feel compelled to regress her position made me alert to the difficulties of a successful career in academia for Black women scholars. The candid conversations about my predecessor’s departure with faculty members of color made me reorient attention to myself. I knew that if I constantly focused on what academia does to Black women scholars, then I would give it more power than it should have.

Granted academia is a powerful institution, but I believed in my heart that I was more powerful, even if the journey feels lonely at times. I used affirmations, particularly powerful Words to enlighten my inner self. Still very few can escape the firm grips of the institution. So I decided to pivot, to move in an oppositional direction, towards what strengthened me. Like the image of the sole figure with the red umbrella below, I surrounded myself with people, like tall trees that I knew would provide cover for me. If the Western myth noted that Black women scholars are never meant to survive, then it was up to me to deconstruct the notion of survival, to create my own shade, my own strategies through the academic jungle. The strategies I employed to survive were designed to feed me, nourish my soul, my serenity, the spaces where my intellect resided. Nkemjika, or the idea that what I own is the greatest, steered me through the jungle. I decided early on that I wanted to have a career that was meaningful to me. Like a pot of soup, I wanted to be permitted to put in ingredients that make sense to me and not others. So my academic soup became full of ingredients focused on nourishing my soul.

This image by Ekene Kokelu, a dear friend and sister, vividly captures my journey through academia. I am forever surrounded by trees who provide shade, people, willing to support and guide me through!

The first ingredients were my family. I am nothing without my family and from the beginning they were and remain the center of my life. Everything revolves around them. The fact that I was a woman of children bearing age in the beginning of my foray into academia meant that motherhood was central to my being. In fact by the time I started my career at my first academic institution, I was a mother to a 15 month old toddler and pregnant with my second child. I wasn’t going to withhold motherhood for anyone’s purposes, not even tenure. Still I recall being told to attend meetings, to make more efforts to present the outward front that ours was a diverse group of individuals passionate about inclusion and equity whether 8 months pregnant or not. I did my part to help maintain the front and appear collegiate. But the I took took it a step further, to claim my space within the institution. I reoriented and recommitted my attention to getting my own resources through grant writing. Prior to the start of my academic position, I was a predoctoral scholar at my doctoral institution, having worked under the guidance of my advisor to put an extensive grant portfolio together. After two tries, the portfolio received funding and I became hooked. Grantwriting was my most crucial way of surviving academia, my knowledge that what I owned was the greatest. Nkemjika!

From the moment I learnt about the significance of bringing your own resources to an academic institution, I became determined to triumph at or fail at putting grant portfolios together. My assumption was that people who don’t like your work will never fund it. But when you come across those who do, if you can convince them that you are onto something, then that something, however you choose to define it, is the greatest. What I own, Nkemjika, as my Igbo culture would insist, is the greatest. Grantwriting was my Nkemjika. It was were my curiosity for learning flourished, where my love for endless questions thrived, all free from the encumbrances of academia. If academia was on a mission to destroy my essence, grantwriting was preoccupied with saving my soul.

Every grant I wrote, the few successful ones, made me realize that my knowledge was powerful. But it’s the grants that I failed at, the many, many grants described by strangers as ambitious, lacking merit or impact, that enabled me to survive academia on my own terms. The battles within the system are many, by Nkemjika, what I own, even my failures, are the greatest. This is because every single failure was mine. Every failure helped me reorient my consciousness to the power inherent within me. Every failure moved me into new heights, new ways of thinking, even new insights on my abilities. Every failure liberated me from academia’s tight grip. Many may be committed, obsessed even with attaining yet another grant. That isn’t me. I am determined and continue to remain committed to get better at grantwriting, whether I succeed or failed. But Nkemjika! Even my failures, all of them will always remain great to me. Keep Nkemjika in mind, whether you succeed or fail.

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