Something about a new school year keeps me hungry and restless to learn something new. A new strategy, a new framework, a new innovation, a new story. This school year, I am taking lessons from the master storyteller herself. Though she is gone, Toni Morrison’s many many literary treasures continues to teach and inspire and help me soar to new heights, new possibilities, new dreams. Today, I am dreaming of a time when schools began the tumultuous journey to integration. Many may take it for granted that black and white children can go to schools together today. But there was a time this wasn’t the case. Toni Morrison’s book ‘Remember’ is a historical work for young people, full of archival photographs that depicted what happened after the U.S Supreme Court declared segregation in schools unconstitutional.
Through a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of students who lived through the era, Morrison reminds us all to remember because and as she noted, ‘it’s the mind’s first step towards understanding.’ And so we begin a journey towards remembering, towards a time where there was as much hate as there was love, as much anger as there was hope, as many heroes as cowards. This fictional account of ordinary people living ordinary lives takes us to new journey, new friendships, new kinds of fear, and old kinds of emotions. A wide road maybe ahead, but the path towards it was narrow, often closed, before we even see a path. This was also a time when children had to be braver than their parents, when pastors, priests and rabbis walked with strangers. It’s this time that I choose to remember. Not because of the difficulties of this period, but more so for the path that unfolded, the brave people, brave children that walked through them, through closed doors into possibilities that make today glimmer with hope. We cannot forget this time and I urge whoever you are reading this to keep remembering too.
They call it an eloquent flower. A flower full of eloquence. Poems have been written about it. One by Cummings who described it as love, and how it’s love moves with brightness to all places. We noticed it on a walk this week with by baby. I rarely go for walks these days, but something about the group of people I have been interacting with all week, made me seek air and the sun and light. I see a lot better when I walk. I also reflect better and say prayers of thanksgiving during long walks. I owed my maker one, hence the walk to just reflect on the journey so far, the insights so far and all the people I have met along the way so far. It shouldn’t be this easy, I kept saying. It shouldn’t be that we tell the stories of our why over and over again, almost to infinity and everyone we speak to gets it over and over again. So a walk was due. I need to check my blind spots, to stay humble, to listen and see the world once more for there are truly so many wonders to see, on long walks. Infinity stories being on my mind.
For this walk, our eyes were greeted by Crepe Myrtles. Their bright pink colors were hard to miss. They stood out amidst a row of green short and tall shrubs. I initially ignored them at first and kept walking. It has been a while since I walked and so I was focused. But the colors kept greeting my eyes, as if to say hello. Finally, I gave in and greeted the flower back. I smelt it as always and opened my app to learn a bit more. I have shared in prior posts how I have lived blindly through life not knowing one flower from the next. But since I started to walk in light, all sorts of flowers have become my friends. Crepe Myrtle is about to be my best friend.
Not only are it’s beautiful lush flowers appealing, but per my app, this flower is a symbol of eloquence, good luck too. I was in awe and grew closer to see why. In full bloom, it’s flower petals appear wrinkled but full of rich texture that produce brilliant crumbling spiral patterns. These spirals gather together like a crepe, hence the name Crepe Myrtle. But eloquence don’t stop with the flowers alone. Soon, the flowers will fall and it’s leaves will turn glorious gold, orange, red and purple in fall before falling off. Then, it’s bark completes this flower’s trifecta. The bark on many Crepe Myrtle peels in puzzle patterns to reveal smooth cinnamon or tan colors that glow during winter. All of this combined, helps to symbolize Crepe Myrtle’s eloquence. They also help to tell my never ending keeplist of stories of becoming a mom in light. An infinity story in the making.
On the surface, everything seems fine. A family that I am blessed to call my own for all the love, support and gifts of belonging they provide to me. A job that I am grateful to carve as I want, grateful for when things stay and last or fall off as with passing of time or even failed grant attempts. But when you peel my surface, when you come with me and feel my journey, even peel all my outer layers, then you will understand what rounds my trifecta. I am just coming to terms with it. I am a storyteller in all sense of the word. It’s where I get my eloquence, my reason for being, my persistence, my tenacity, my love, even my drive with life. Every single thing I do has a story connected to it.
Being a mother for example, one of my greatest stories ever told, one some of you may read here on a daily basis. The stories around how me and my greatest joy, my Zobam met and continue to journey through this life keeps me on my knees with gratitude to my maker. He truly saved me. Then there are the stories for how I have navigated pursuing a career in research. To think you can go to school to become a researcher seems unheard of but that’s how I earned my degree at the end for the day. I was literally trained to become a researcher from undergrad even, not in grad school. I owe it to Dr. Cassandra Veney, my very first mentor in undergrad who inspired me to probe deeply too during my days as a McNair scholar. Then of course there their stories from grad schools. Trip to Senegal all paid for by my department, just to get to Senegal and I don’t have a hotel room and I barely spoke French or Wolof. Yet, this trip would forever change me life and inspire me to be a a global health researcher passionate about seeing the world and working with people whether I spoke their language or not.
Then there are the malaria dissertation stories. Even the process of writing my first NIH grant to do this work under the guidance of my doctoral advisor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa has a story worthy of praises for how he pushed me to become enamored by grantwriting. How I got my first job in Paris at UNESCO following graduation has a story. UNESCO itself has a story I have yet to tell but it shaped my resolve for sustainability. How I worked or lived in Paris for 2+ years has a story. Do you know what it’s like to navigate owning an apartment in a place where you barely speak the language or raising a new baby, my Belle with my mother in-law whom I met for the first time at CDG airport in Paris? The stories are out of this world.
Of course there was a growing young family at that time navigating long distance. We have stories to tell. The ones with my first job upon my return to the US are cringe worthy whenever I think about them. They tried, boy they tried to destroy me but little did they know that greater is he. Then there are the stories of how I mastered grant writing from the king himself, Dr Gbenga Ogedegbe. I owe him a lot for showing me things I never even knew existed within me. Or how I met my partner extraordinaire Dr. Joe Tucker. He is truly on another level when it comes to collaboration. Find your partner with research and you literally find heaven. This blog has been privy to stories of navigating a child on the spectrum and raising black children in America. Even cancer’s sting is now a story I intend to tell fully with all my might.
The eloquence of crepe myrtle personifies my life fully. I choose to live it out now, more brilliantly like never before, more brightly too like an infinity story. These stories are my light. Through light, I will move eloquently, one story at a time, to all places. I am a storyteller and I am inspired by the endless eloquence of Crepe Myrtles.
I had a meeting today with a very dear friend and he introduced himself to the group as a storyteller. I was taken aback. This was the first time I have ever heard anyone introduce themselves so confidently as one. Not because it’s what I really love to do, but to describe yourself as one, to showcase how one can use it as a medium to impact people’s life is an amazing feat to me. I told him I will be borrowing that line from here on out because it is who I am. I am a storyteller. I use stories to guide the work I do for a living. I connect better with stories. They help make what I do in health easy to understand.
If you call me to speak to your class about my work or global health in general, I can connect it back to a story or two. My dissertation experience for example with using malaria rapid kits at a time when the kits were $25. I use stories to illustrate the economic side of malaria and how I called the company that made the kits. I really called Binax Now and told them it was insane that a malaria test kit cost $25 when the people that need it the most barely live on $1 a day. I remember distinctively being told but it was for the people like me who travel to those places. That when we return and we become sick and present at a hospital, the hospital would have a rapid kit to see if we tested positive for malaria. The distributor went on to even say they can send me kits set to expire as many hospitals weren’t seeing many patients with malaria. They did and so the story for my dissertation research began.
Telling that story never gets old. It’s the foundation for my passion on innovations and why I think we need to partner more with companies to promote innovative tools and kits in places that need them the most. That same company today now makes COVID-19 test kits. Of course I feel tempted to call them again as this time, their kits cost $20 and most people in places I work have no access to testing of any kind. It’s stories that help me make sense of why I need to really continue what I do in public health, especially in moments where nothing makes sense and there are many moments like this.
It’s stories that keep me grounded. Stories of the youths for example with my HIV self-testing project in Nigeria, passionate about making sure that all young people they know, get to know their status. I may not be a famous or well known public health researcher. It doesn’t matter to me to become one. But a storyteller in public health, especially one dedicated to centering people in their health, takes it all to another level. I am a storyteller and I use stories to put people first. I also use stories to make health programs last. Keep being storyteller in your field. The world needs more of us.
The air is full of possibilities these days. Full of grit and full of persistence when you remain rooted in knowledge. The winds are changing too. And when they blow, things will move too. Something about the start of the new school year almost always feels like a cleansing time for me. Time to get rid of old and in with new. Time to change also, for the wind is blowing. It has been a very difficult summer for me and my family. But as I get ready to start my first week of teaching, I am ready to nurture this delicate balance we call life to the fullest, one story at a time. A purposeful quiet is brewing too, potentially making the new school year one filled with possibilities even in distant horizons.
My life is not my own. So I give myself away so you can use me. This song by William McDowell is my keep as I start this week. This is the week where I learn whether it’s time or not for God’s plans to be fulfilled in his child. So if God then is for me, who can be against me, is the song I sing. If God is with me, whom shall I fear when everything is by his design. Also the fact I could never make this on my own. So I literally give myself away.
When I look back over all I have done the past few months, I realize with each passing day that I never could have made it without God. So giving myself to him is easy. He has always been before me. Psalm 139 reminds me that he knew this week, this day would come when I was still being formed in the womb. That’s the part that keeps me in awe, win or lose. Everything is according to his design. There is no one like him. Who can ever stop us when our God is greater, stronger, higher than anything even awesome in power. It has always been about him after all. It’s his plans, it’s his work, it’s his words, all written through me, but for his glory.
I am stronger because he allowed me to use the gifts he gave to me for his glory. I am wiser because I would do it again whether I fail or even win. I know how to still win even when I fail. That part keeps me grounded. Failure is always an option with God on your side. It’s all for his glory still and I am just a vessel that he uses to bless his children, uses to light a path, blaze a road through a vast forest of nothingness. I could not do any of this without him ordering every single step. So win or lose, being discussed or not, is all a reminder that if he is for me, who can be against me. If he is for me, whom shall I fear. And if no one knows me, he still adores me and I will do my part to remain his light. For a city built on a hill cannot be hidden. I cannot be hidden. Keep giving yourself away to God.
I remember the day we met. I was summoned to a meeting at a faculty office by the Director of Health for Student Services. He was a close friend to my family. I say summoned because I tried to excuse myself from it. My excuses too were valid as I was on maternity leave. I just had my second child a month ago. I knew he meant well when he said it was for a student and she needed help. I arrived at his office promptly. Something about helping out a student in need keeps me standing always. Upon my arrival, I met the student and her uncle. They explained her situation and asked if I would take her on as a mentor for her masters degree. I felt I had no choice seeing that I was summoned and reluctantly said yes. I had no clue as well where to begin, as I would be on maternity leave while she navigated being a student. That was nearly seven years ago.
Today, that student, boarded a plane to begin her tenure-track career as an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. Our relationship has now come full circle. We worked together extremely well in ways that make me even wonder how I would fare as she leaves. I remember the beginning days of writing with her. She has always been a writer but need a little bit of finesse. It took time, with revisions, and discussions, all from a place of wanting to bring out the best in her. She listened, revised, listened some more and wrote and wrote.
These days, all I do is give a sense of the topic, and she is off soaring. I don’t even have to discuss much, let alone revise. It’s perfect. That’s what I mean by full circle. That as mentors, those we guide, will do better than us, greater than us even, and beyond our wildest reach, our deepest depths. I have come across mentors who prefer you remain a mentee. Some are also willing to stifle your drive because you dared to thrive. Possibly without them too. Yet, they too forget, that the greatest gift they can give to those they guide is the circle. Once it’s complete, mentees should become ready to soar, even if they stumble along the way. Still rise on eagle’s wind and soar.
That’s my keep for you today. That as you start this new journey at Wake Forest, as you close one chapter of your life and open another, that as you complete this circle and begin another, that you will always rise like an eagle and soar to new heights. Reach to for what is highest within your capacity and quietly make your name known. You may be overlooked, even underestimated but the future belongs to those who dare fly. Fly Dr. Ucheoma Nwaozuru. It’s your future.
The sounds of the times are changing. Stop a while for a moment and see how we refuse to bend to your unchanging. See our power. See our audacity. See our brilliance. See our grace. See as we turn our backs to your places and spaces. See how we elegantly uncover all our hidden secrets, all things that make us sacred. Our black has always been excellent. Always been graceful. Always been brave. Always been bold. Open your eyes and see for yourself.
Ooh and we are so brave, so full of grace. We are a bright light in a world that’s fallen far from grace. Though you may choose to remain the same. We know, that we are at a critical junction where being bold and brave is our middle name.
The moment to reckon with black women in academia is now. We are not some butler at a party, opening the doors for your arrival or all you allow.
It’s our party now.
Come in and stay awhile if you may. Eat our jollof rice and barbecue ribs with fried plaintains if you may.
Drink our palm wine or chocolate beer if you may. Dance to our music, ooh dance and no do, no do, shakara for me ooh. That’s the song we play.
Laugh, yes, let your soul laugh as you play with our children. They are our very own butterflies. Get to know how they make us fly.
And while you mingle, take a good look at all the other people in our inner circle, our interior life. Every one of them is a testimony of our strength, our tenacity, our perseverance, our power, our brilliance, our hidden secret, our reason for being, our greatest treasure, our life’s work, our legacy.
Like an Hibiscus flower at dawn, we bloom because of every single person we call our own, even single person ready in their battle gear, to fight this battle, just so they too can say we won. We do not fight this battle on our own.
Ooh and we won.
Every single person walked a thousand journeys with us just to help us win this battle. They cried too when we cried, for every time your insults were belittling, every time you questioned our credentials.
They carried us when we fell, when we stumbled, when we broke down under the weight of the pressure you felt was essential. They nursed us when we were sick and because of them we rise on our heels. Our bold rise today is because they lifted us up yesterday.
We are so powerful beyond these words we choose to speak with to you. Powerful beyond what you think you may know of us. We know our worth and are prepared to be audacious to leave spaces and go to places where we will be celebrated and not tolerated. Places that will help us thrive and not stifle our drive.
And why not. When we can cook and clean and write and sleep, all while running to make mango popsicles for our children, our butterflies, our greatest legacies.
We know whose we are and by God, we will be bold where we are.
You can’t stand in the way of all that is designed for our destiny.
You may wonder if this is the right moment, pacify us to keep mum for this moment. But what you forget, is how he alone knows the plan he has for us. Something great still will come out of this moment.
You may view us a a symbol of love and hate. But we are human beings too. You may view us as difficult too. Try to keep us mute too. But this is our supreme moment of destiny. This time is so long overdue.
So make your decisions. Decline, offer, deny, call it a difficult decision. Nothing will stop what is ours.
We will boldly decide and fight for what is ours. Even if you think it’s within your power to deny what is ours.
It is still ours. Our destiny. Our story. Our song. Our blessed assurance for a changing time where only bravery and boldness are all we know. One where praises will be sang by all the people gathered around our table, all the day long, including you.
Keep being bold and brave Black woman in academia. Thank you for showing us how Nikole Hannah Jones. And read her statement for rejecting tenure under her own terms here https://t.co/eMgYqRXbTL?amp=1
There is an Igbo saying that states: The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household. It’s voice though is the property of the neighborhood. Every single thing we do in life, has a ripple effect. Our actions maybe ours alone. But they too matter for others. I remember growing up listening to a cock crow. It’s was one of my favorite things to start the day. Long before the day took it’s toll, the cock made you feel at ease. Made you feel prepared to take on whatever the day may throw your way. It may have belonged to one household, but it’s voice was for all of us. So too is this thing called mentoring.
When I look back at my career in public health so far, I have been surrounded by mentors, whose power continues to reverberate for me. Every time I speak to them, I feel wise in all sense of the word. It’s an immense gift that literally keeps giving. One person in particular was the first person who took a chance on me when I was clueless with life. The first person that taught me about culture and why it matters. The first person that made being different and learning to accept failures, appealing. The first person that allowed me to claim and own my space whatever I wanted it to be. The first person who helped me make sense of my journey in academia. The first person that made me feel like a leader and not a follower. The first person who continues to help me as I finally come to my calling (I laugh, but my true life’s work is just beginning). The first person who literally planted and harvested in me. Everyone calls him Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. He is the intellectual Father my God created just for me. All my ideas have truly awakened in his hands. The eye of my mind were given wings to fly away from the moment I first met him as an undergraduate student. I have been flying ever since. I am who I am today because he first saw it in me. He took the time to plant things in me that are only now starting to ripen. Some may think I have done my best work. Truth is, it was a planting season. Everything is finally making sense. To think that I have been in a limbo paying my dues to get here makes me humble. The season was not a waste.
Now the harvesting begins. The sweetness of the fruits being harvested in my life these days keeps me in awe. Things I barely even know I possess, are ripe. Ready for harvesting. Public health for me, has always been messy. Complex too. But I learnt from the best to remain comfortable with being uncomfortable with the mess. If it’s makes no sense, then you are on the right course. If it’s complex, even better. Complexity is your middle name. True, you may have failed. You may still fail and fail again. There is a lesson there too. Ooh and try again. He once told me to fail brilliantly too. I have been doing that also and with no regrets. Everything was for this moment in my life. My entire career has this as a foundation. All because I was blessed with a cock that crowed in the morning. Though his voice may belong to many, the thought that I’m in the household where it emerges from keeps me grateful. Keep being grateful for mentors who plant and harvest in you. They are like cocks who crow in the morning.
When generations look back at the history of this nation, they will ask questions? Like why is the story of this country so incomplete? Why do we know so little of what it truly meant to be enslaved? Or why did it take 156 years for us make Juneteenth a holiday? They will also ask tough questions too? Like why were people so scared of critical race theory? Or why were black women absent in leadership spaces in academia? Or better yet, why did they leave academia? Of course only time will tell, how our generation chooses to answer these questions but for today I want to dwell on excellence. That’s the story I want to leave for generations to come.
That the black women who remained focused on being excellent. Even those that left did the same. We did so knowing that our efforts may not be praised or celebrated. We did so staying true to our vision, our sanity, and what matters first to us. We did so lifting others as we climbed. We did so because we knew that through us, our humanity, our presence will reverberate for generations to come. We did so knowing that our lives, and those of our children’ children matter. Which is why I want to keep Clef Club in mind for any woman, black woman in academia today.
In 1912 James Reese Europe (what a name by the way) and his Clef Club orchestra made musical history by performing at Carnegie Hall on the 12th of May. It was a remarkable orchestra raved the critics. One splendid in its rhythm, swing, power and singing of its gifted members. Their goals: ‘to preserve music of the Colored Race,’ the only musical production led by Black people at that time. Not only were they bold, the choose to be daring at a time when there were no others. That’s how I liken being black and a woman in academia. You are bold. Chances are you will go along this journey alone. As you go, be daring in your swing and temperament. Do everything with pride knowing you are a leader, an innovator and you will doubtless grow to become the necessary light destined to lead people to higher grounds. Your boldness will transform lives. Clef Club did so in 1912 against all odds. You can do it today you bold and beautiful black woman in academia. ( Ref; The Black Book).
Her art teacher told her to draw a jungle. The instructions: Draw a jungle and put whatever you want in it. She listened. She wanted to draw extraordinary things or things not typically seen in a jungle. At least to her. So she drew a penguin. You wouldn’t find a penguin in a jungle. They prefer cold climates and not those typically seen in a jungle. She drew a dog. You would not find a dog in a jungle. And if you do, they won’t be typical. It is not normal to find dogs in a jungle. But far off to the corner, she drew an elephant trunk. You would not notice it unless you look closely. She didn’t want to draw the whole thing as it would take up the entire space. So she drew an elephant trunk as it tried to spray the top of the dog’s head. Finally she drew the sun. That’s typical and an extraordinary necessary condition for any forest. That and all sorts of vegetation suitable for jungles. That her imagination propels her to new height is an understatement. For whom is she drawing? In what mindset does she draw? And to what end?
These questions stay with me everytime I see something my daughter took the time to draw. An inescapable feeling arises too, waking whatever dormant spirit I possess to new heights where anything is possible. So I ask questions. What provoked this art form? Always eager to learn, my daughter proceeded to narrate the opening sentences of this keep. Seeing life and it’s many ways through her lens is pure delight. She dwells in a perpetual abyss of imagination and creation, of silence and glistening sound, of thoughts provoked by feelings full of new ways of seeing and being. She is her own masterpiece. To her mind there is no limit, no lines drawn or boundaries marked, not with dreaming or imagining, with her creation or her narration. To her mind, even a jungle can be filled with penguins or blue birds with elephants spraying water of the heads of dogs. To her mind anything is possible. This is my keep to her today. That as she turns nine, there was a time when anything was possible. And may she never forget that she is the jungle of her dreams, a den full of possibilities, full of passion, full of love, today, for tomorrow and always.