Motherhood is not only a noun, but a sound, a state of being, history, culture, memories, mine, theirs, evenings with a sigh, mornings with a smile, all of me, some of them. Something full of complexity, enormity, anything that personifies thing. It’s that thing that is terrible, yet we do in stride, with strength to speak for those yet to speak, stories yet told of loves black line mind who mother in stride.
Like those of my grandmother, a woman, history will never know. Not as a book or a star etched to the ground. Yet memories of her being, bloom in my being. For when I think of motherhood, I see her. My first example of being. Like raindrops falling on my head. The truth nestled within each drop, every single one on my head, is a way of being, she personified so well. Juliana was her first name. Iwegbu her last. Yet, when I speak, you hear her words oozing from my lips, as if she was me in flesh, wearing bones again, and her words break out through me to remind me of all the ways she didn’t falter.
Everything she did was with intention. Even now that she insists we say her name. Juliana Iwegbu. This day was bound to come. She welcomes you in these bones with words that insist on living, a picture of blackness blessed. A picture of the one she birthed. Standing in front of anything. Standing, smiling, saying nothing, doing nothing. But standing. Unapologetic for the thorns that witness how life insists on being born. That to me is motherhood, the idea of doing, being, seeing, not for yourself but for those that would speak of your ways, long after your way of seeing the world, your way of understanding it too, ends, or begins through those who now stand even in the rain.
So I wrote a grant in one day. I know. I surprised myself too. I started yesterday morning after dropping the kids off at school. The topic was clear in my mind but I needed literature to guide the grant writing process. So I spent endless hours looking through papers, for anything relevant. I book-marked papers, got key statistics here and there and tried but failed unsuccessfully with putting even half a page together by the time I needed to go get my kids from school. This was a five hour day wasted at least from the grant writing perspective. In between I had meetings, about 2 of them, one of which was a training program and all of them interrupted my flow with grant writing.
By 2:45 pm when I was getting no where, I stopped, showered and went to pick my kids from school. We got popsicles with his kindergarten class, then went grocery shopping at the African market. By the time we got home it was around 5pm and my day seemed to just go on with still nothing to show for it. We made dinner. I watched as the kids played outside and tried to write but still nothing. Then after dinner, I went to my room and hid myself. Grand-ma was with the kids so told myself to commit for at least 2-hours to get an aims page done.
We did. I was satisfied and went to get the kids ready for bed. I bathed my baby and tucked him nicely in his bed. Then I went back to my laptop to try to write again. It was around 9 and I wrote till around 10:30 pm or so. I took my night shower, put everything aside and committed to at least drafting some of the approach section. By this time I had some aims page and some rough significance.
I also wrote on my blog about something that tickled me earlier during the day. I belong to many academic circles, but one of them has been quite different of late. Imagine all of us writing a paper, but you really dislike me so much that you forget to tag me in your tweet about the paper. I really have no words except to say as I noted in my blog, ignore me at your peril. While they were being petty, I was committing to writing yet another grant that illustrates all the ways I survived and yes I did more than survive that group. Nonetheless, I can be petty too and so I blogged about them, got that out of my chest and went to bed.
I woke up around 5:34 determined to finish some aspects of the grant before my kids got up. At first I was slow. The words were slow and I struggled a bit and kept writing as much as I could. The words started to fall in place. The grant too started to make sense. My kids got up around 7 and I was half way through the approach of aim 2. By 10am this morning, I finished the grant in its entirety, added even the references, took a shower and went to buy groceries.
I am keeping this here because I literally wrote a grant in a day, never mind being a mother to four children and a wife to a very busy guy who literally saves lives. This year has been trying. To think that as the year comes to and end, I am still defying odds keeps me speechless. I still managed to take my kids to piano lessons today and yes, Saturday laundry is ongoing alongside making dinner for tonight. Black women like me are truly primary. We know who we are and we are prepared to show up and show out always. Ignore us at your peril. We are focused on all the things that make us full.
I have this memory, etched forever in my minds extremity, of tears, of chaos, and vows that I made, as winds rustled by, that you my son, the one God gave to us, the one that taught life’s extremities, those that flair up on their own, those that rhyme on their own, those that bang, those that tick, all of them that occur during nights without stars. I remember all of them so vividly, moments with no roots, to nourish us, no stems, nothing, just detached and naive about life and all its extremities. Yet these extremities took their own time to flower, took their own time to reveal the budding promise we made with the wind years ago, that come rain or sun, come rainbows or spectrum, the flesh of my flesh, and the bone of my bone, will one day surpass the tears we cried so long ago. To see that day come, even a glimpse of it, is to see a dream come through. One without fear for a tomorrow so near. Keep believing even in tears.
How might we create the conditions for a soulful life. I am learning this every day. In a quest to do my most audacious work, I found myself strolling down a never ending hole of what it means to live your most authentic life whether at work or at home.
For starters, and everyone will have to discover this for themselves, but it means doing work necessary for your soul. Not for profits, not even for pleasure, but for all the possibilities that exist when you know your soul.
It means being open even when you would rather be closed. It means thinking and speaking in images, like how rivers change their course and so can you. It means paying attention to your dreams, it feeds your soul. It means being aware of where you are going, even when the road seems long and unwinding. It means having a litany for survival, knowing you were never meant to survive. It means knowing when the rain began to fall on you. It also means learning how to carry water and air and anything that seems free and light for only a free mind can make a free world.
It means giving your life all the beautiful things it needs, like watching two birds spread their wings and soar at the glimpse of your arrival. It’s the soaring part you keep, knowing that every time you fall, the alternative is to rise. It means stepping into your eternity, your own kind of paradise where the sun and the moon rise to greet you. It means aiming for the fullness of life, it’s emptiness at times, but it’s fullness most times, like in Spring when new flowers start to bloom. It means creating conditions that allow your soul to live, even if it means turning things upside down and stepping away from that which depletes your soul. There will come a time when you will have to leave this world. We will all die one day. Until that time comes, do what makes your soul happy. As for me this mere moment of reflection is all I never knew I needed. Welcome to my most soulful year.
There was a time, all I did was fail with every grant I wrote. Welcome to a new month. I woke up to an email sent to the entire university celebrating a recent success today. I am honored and grateful but I can’t help but remember the times of failure. Yes, failure. Sure the messages and all the well-wishes, have been heartfelt and words fail me. But it’s the failures that I want to dwell on today. I want you reading this to know that success comes at a major cost. For me, with every one grant you see that is successful, there were close to 7 (in my beginning days, but now 2-3) that were not successful. So when I see this beautiful write up of one success, my heart goes out to wrinkles along the way. All of them that paved the way to make this one success come through.
So with the story of STAR, what many may not know was that it was written after a major loss. I had written a grant called, I-ARISE. I love naming all my grants by the way and everyone writing a grant should always be intentional with their names.
I-ARISE was over $13 million or so. It was and still remains the most expensive NIH grant I have ever assembled. It also failed. I went into depression. I still remember seeing the news of it’s failure that faithful July month and just being in a rot for days. I didn’t eat. Just slept in my room and cried and cried and wondered why such a beautiful grant failed. When I got through the sadness, I got our team together and we immediately started taking pieces of it apart. What many may not know was that I-ARISE became LIGHT (see here:LIGHT), which was literally a sidenote on the grant. I turned one massive failure into the thing that gives me joy everyday.
With the beginning of LIGHT, came thoughts on what else to do that would literally bring more light. Enter STAR. I-ARISE is also STAR and much better. We began writing that grant in August (please I do not recommend writing an NIH grant in a month. I just have a decade of experience with plenty failures).
We were also writing an NIH Fogarty D-43 at the same time. I tend to write 2 grants with similar deadlines. It seems to help me see things better. The D-43 was aptly called I-RISE, and yes it was my self-care attempt at getting over the failure of I-ARISE. The name alone got me through the failure. I worked on the D-43 literally feeling like I was rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.
While writing the D-43, I came across the NIAID R-25 announcement. They were both similar in nature, only that one was for my work in Nigeria, while the other would allow me to finally give back in the US. It was no brainer. I am a Penn State McNair Scholar, a Penn State MHIRT scholar, a Penn State Bunton-Waller scholar, all of which were geared towards helping minority students succeed at Penn State. McNair in particular was my first foray to research with Dr. Cassandra Veney, a woman studies professor, as my very first mentor ever. Dr. Airhihenbuwa was my second mentor. The two of them are the foundation upon which I stand.
I wrote the D-43 and R-25 at the same time. Deadlines were very close. D-43 in August, R-25 in September. The D-43 failed. It wasn’t even discussed. In fact, reviewers said I had no business or experience writing one, my paraphrase of their summary statement. The R-25 is what we celebrate today. I share this story because behind every success, there are failures and honestly I made crucial mistakes with the D-43. I saw them while writing the R-25. I needed to write the D-43 in other to get the one that was meant for me. I am nothing without my failures and I hope they inspire you to keep yours too. They will one day inspire your success. You can read the successful story here: STAR R-25 Grant . I only want you to keep all your failures in mind.
The news of the Queens death came to me yesterday in the middle of work. I paused to immediately reflect on the number 70 and the age 25. Here was a woman who ruled her land for over 70 years, a land she inherited at the age of 25. Legacies are built this way, young and over a long period of time. Like many though, I also tried to imagine all the things that legacy carries, the good, the bad, the unspoken, the hidden, the hurdles, the joy, the pain, and whatever may personify love. Such a legacy, one built over 70 years includes all of this and more, many in full view for all to see and many we will never know. Independence also immediately came to mind as images of what happened when African countries, like Ghana, Nigeria asked for their independence under her watch. I imagine those conversations were not easy, probably disturbing and ultimately met with agreement. To also rule over that legacy kept me both numb and uneasy about her passing. Places we call home have a history that includes the Queen’s legacy, a history that is often told from one point of view to the detriment of other points of view.
So yesterday all the unknown stories about this 70 year legacy came into my mind like a flood. They say when an old person dies, a library dies with them and truly I felt like a trillion libraries died with the Queen yesterday. I still have questions, some I know the answers will not be easy, some I know will never be known. But for all her legacy, how she kept all this intact is my keep for today. That and what is your legacy and what are you doing to keep it whether 2 years or 70 years later. Are you also speaking things unspeakable to your situation, reveling in the joys and hurdles of life, or will your story, like your legacy die the moment you depart? These questions are among the reasons why I ask anyone I know to try to keep something about themselves, their way, so their libraries remain, long after they are gone. The full picture of your life will never truly be known, but at least you will have a say is what is to be told about you, when words fail you.
For me, I have been writing for two years, the only way I can. I call it my ‘What’ll keep.’ Part reflections, part poetry, part notes, some little, some long, but all worthy of being kept. I began this list as a form of detour from the trauma of homeschooling a child on the spectrum during a global pandemic. I wanted to give a sense of the beauty, the hurdles, the joy, the truth about life as a mother and life as being black and female in academia. I wanted to also reclaim my essence beyond the narrow confines of academic world view.
See, I am more than whatever academic paper you will read about me. I have always know this. I also know my role within academia, what to do and not do, all in the name of survival. I wanted to take all the pieces of me, those known and unknown, those I am discovering and uncovering, every single thing complicated and uncomplicated about my world and give them a space to breathe, all on their own. My one mission was to give attention to all aspects of my life that are often hidden, but yet central to what I do as a parent and professor. I also called it finding my light.
I have been in darkness for too long. You will, if all you use is the master’s language. So I sought other styles, created this space, just so all of me could flourish as I wanted. This blog will always be the best gift I gave to myself and my career, two years ago. That I continue to celebrate this recalibration of my career is no small feat. It may all seem like a long list of things to keep. It’s intentional. It may seem disjointed, not connected as finely as any introduction, methods, result or discussion section would suggest. It’s intentional. It may also seem like I’m unproductive from an academic standpoint when all my energy is spent on few words or long essays that I can’t even cite on my CV. That too is intentional. It was never for my CV. Never too for academia even though it has so many academic undertones.
The truth is that it was for that divergent part of my brain, the part that knows our worth and refuses for us to be boxed in one corner or described as such as such, the part that loves writing, grant writing in particularly, the part to that would rather write and fail than never ever write a grant again. For that part to flourish, then it would need a break every now and then and this list of things to keep have been the perfect gift to me. I am in awe of all I have written down in 2 years. In awe too of how writing in this way keeps giving and giving to my intellectual life.
It’s been 2 years of relentless pursuit of something to keep and this fearless unearthing of all I choose to keep, my way, is the clarity with life, that I never knew my soul needed. I truly appreciate the grace each keep offers. They are my legacy, my words, my way. Here is to two years down and many more to go. Happy Anniversary.
Stroll like kings and queens through sunrise, unending.
Someone of us have histories, unknown.
Some stories by moonlight, untold.
Some of us sing songs, unrecorded.
Some dance around masquerades, unrecognized.
Some of us carry weights, unbearable.
Some march for rights, unequal.
Some of us remember names, unnamed.
Some sound horns for them, unbroken.
We gather now together, for paths unfinished. Telling stories still unreal.
Of people, and places still unsung, still unseen.
Of how they strolled like lions, free and unforgettable.
This one is in honor of Ernie Barnes painting which just sold this week at Christie’s auction for $15.3 million dollars, money I wish he saw in his lifetime. Still I’m inspired by this story as it reminds me of why what you do today matters. It’s for the legacy you are leaving behind for tomorrow. So again, do what makes you smile. Words, art, do it unafraid. Do it whether unknown, unseen or uncelebrated. History will celebrate you one day. History will tell your story if you don’t story your story today. I keep all this things because I want to get ahead of the story it will tell. I want to tell it my way. That I lived like the woman in the red strapless dress in Ernie Barnes painting. I lived and danced to the rhythms of my life, unafraid, undeterred, heck even unknown. But I lived my way, unfettered, unforgettable, with every single thing I choose to keep.
I keep wondering too why this painting would evoke this more today.
Maybe it was the dancing. Every Friday and Saturday evening. A girl in dark red strapless dress, gyrating her body to good times. A man in blue pants, moving as if filled with the Holy Ghost. I imagine these were good times at the sugar shack. Big daddy Rucker playing music as if the world is coming to an end. A woman in a blue dress and red shoes swings her hips to all the blues she feels. This dancehall isn’t a dream. I remember once stepping in a club like this in Philly, surrounded by black and brown lives dancing to music that moves your soul. I know this feeling of joy. Spirit-filled moments like this are rare. I’m glad it’s frozen forever even if for a moment at the sugar shack. I am glad I am freezing it for myself too, even if through words I keep, unafraid.
Supreme Court Justice Ketanji, woman to woman, I know many who look like you. They look like me. You illuminate our ways for all to see. Uncover cherished dreams long gone with the wind. Remind us to persevere too. We see you and whisper sweet prayers of thanks. Many will never fully understand what it takes to sit in the seats we sit on. Many will never fully get how we touch each other in secret places through a look, a smile, a word, or a sigh. We do not come speaking as if we are afraid. We are not. We do not come waiting for your praises. We are not fools. They stay rigid in denial. We remain a burst of light. Where they reside in a rage for finally seeing a black woman in stride, we stay perched up knowing there is magic in our stride. There is. We see it across our screens. We feel it too.
We know the boundaries of our desires. Our eyes fill up with tears for finally being seen. Call it what you want. Let them do their best to remember the old days when we cleaned and not lead. But we hope their eyes do not hurt in pain for still seeing us. And even though we shine brightly, we still know our blackness is rich beyond today, our womanhood supreme and beyond fear, and our head, held up high like the mount of Zion. Our entire being even in your spaces is sharpened like knives, unresisting, unwavering, unyielding, not when we are called to lead. We are called. There is magic in our stride even in this season. And like baobab trees, we will stand erect forever.
But know that your straight up sharp, single handled ignorance of my light, whatever you choose to call it, will not provoke this fire burning within.
Not when we are legions.
We are not bent or broken when life insists on us.
To be black, female and invisible in academic spaces. That’s my keep for today. I have always expected it. Audre Lorde warned me about this in her book Sister Outsider. I have even reflected on it in my medium page here. But to go through this experience over and over again makes me angry. Not because I know it’s not fair or that maybe I should be the loudest so that I won’t be invisible but more so because of the price we pay. This experience remains rent-free in my head for awhile. I have gotten it from white counterparts, funders and senior research scientists alike. My take home. Know that your silence will never protect you. As a black, female in academia, keep flourishing in academic spaces with love and light the way too.
Of course the system is designed so you remain behind the scenes. I share this because the one of today is so insidious. Imagine being in a meeting with faculty and fellows and a senior research scientists decides to put all the faculty on the spot. Every single one available is called up except you whom your last name even implies difference. Imagine again too where you are the leader of a group, which means every single planning for the groups meeting should have your blessings and yet, somehow, the meeting agenda is formed without even your Oxford Comma. I don’t mean to brag, but lord knows I am the hardest working, baddest implementation science researcher I know. Some of the things people are talking about today, I have written them as grants and yes failed at them long before they became mainstream. My hard work ethic has no description. I can write a grant in the morning and go to a tennis match in the afternoon with the same vigor as the morning. I literally write academic papers, especially if the results are ready in 1-2 days. Writing is a gift for me. One that I am grateful for the source. So when I get dismissed or undervalued, I keep saying to them, your loss. Like really, your loss. If only you know where I am coming from, if you then add to the fact that I was not meant to be, then you will understand that my presence is a blessing to you and your life. We, all the ancestors that came before me and me, literally bring light to your dark world in every single way you can imagine. So we will not be silent. Just because you think we are invisible. We are legions and like Mary, we are blessed among men and women alike. Keep knowing that which is in us is truly lit for you. And without us, well darkness is all you will know.
I long to be word’s happiness in places, where happiness is instant. I long to feel word’s peace in places where peace is instant. I long to embrace word’s beauty in places were beauty is instant. I long to know word’s change in places where change is instant. Happiness, peace, beauty, change, all flow easily, when words are buried deeply in your soul.
I have been writing and deleting the start of an imaginary book yet unwritten. As if afraid to walk into my moonlight. Yet, fear is the last thing on my mind. So I keep writing. I call it ‘Black Mom Light.’ A coming-of age memoir for rising as a black mom from darkness to light. An anti-racist memoir on being a black mother in today’s America. I also call it ‘Brown Mom Listing.’ The second name is from Jacqueline Woodson ephemeral memoir in verse, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming.’ If her memoir were full of poems that were profound and moving, mine, are full of lists, a keep list, equally profound and captivating. I am obsessed with the style of her book that it inspired name number 2. I imagine my keeplists, what you read here every day as listing or the act of putting words, or stories into lists to keep. I also envision them as being focused on what truly matters and keeping that for myself, for yourself, for my people, for your people, for humanity. These lists span my days like a wide bridge, wild butterflies too, forever ready to spread their wings and fly, forever ready to move to new heights, to new places, so many wonders to see, in the words of my daughter, my forever muse.
The thought of what to keep, what to list each given day is a treasure for each passing day. They give me strength for days when none is left. They help me attend to other things too, like my other obsession, grant writing. Every lists carries my heart and my thoughts to somewhere. Maybe flowers. They are also my forever muse , forever brilliant, forever of use. Maybe trees. I have no names for all I see, but they too help me attend to all I need to do. Tall luscious trees and their graceful abundance are bound to make you dance as the make me dance. Maybe my children. My forever muse. Not a day goes by without being caught in their spell, their wants, their blissful gifts, that lift to new abyss. But hidden at the root of all I choose to keep is a desire for legacy, for light, for rising above what society says we should or must do as parents, as professors, as people. Yet for every thing I keep, there are some I still don’t share here. Some written even at the same time. Like the one written right before I shared this one. Those ones are part of what I describe as my extraordinary lists. We are all extraordinary people in the end. No one else exists as me, with thoughts like mine. I would rather I live life in extraordinary ways than ways destined to be ordinary. I wasn’t made of ordinary. So this list is my attempt at that. One keep at a time. The destination remains unknown. We are moving beyond the rigidness of your vision. If this is our first meeting. Welcome. The vision for this keeplist is extraordinary. Every list is in place of the vision society may have for women like me. A keep of sorts, of conversations we are not having, of refusals to be silent. This woman maybe black or brown. But her voice is shrouded in light and with each day, she walks out into moonlight to touch her power.
The words rise up. I note them. They come on their own, with their own nodes, own goals, that unfold one note at a time. They come with their own meaning everytime. I am obedient to the sounds that flow, the insights that grow, within minds long in need to ignite, in need of light. I am light. Like a tree that grows higher, and higher, branching out in different directions, like thick branches with lush green leaves full of water. I am green. I sit, listen, and let the words sway like trees on a windy day after hurricanes that stroke with water-like canes. Still these tree rise up and grow. For where trees grow, water flows. I am water. So to are my words. I have been discovering for the past year that where words flow, stories flow. I am stories. For one year, the stories in my mind, in spaces and boxes I once carved as private, have been flowing like a river. I am a river. A naturally flowing river, in search of an ocean, or a sea, a lake or another river. I have arrived at my destination. Words are my water, collected now in a river that flowed through a complex meandering path I called keep lists. There were no short paths. Every thing that mattered were loosened and dislodged like the rocks along the sides of river beds. I became loose with words that deepened my riverbed, eroded my hard phases, and elevated my soft places, all with grace. I am grace. An amazing grace, once blind but now open to all the spaces that make me whole. I poured myself into this space, poured my soul to the possibilities of this phase, of writing something to keep, words to keep, in a list to mold and shape as my own, in a list to own. And through this list, my words became fast-flowing. A source of energy, of life. I became soaked in the opportunities and form of each word, each list of things to keep. I am a list.
I have been reading a lot lately about lists, about why people use them in the first place. Most people write lists, to-do lists for example, to stay organized. Some write lists to stay in control, ticking things off when completed or moving things around to track completion. The first time I saved a list was in the middle of the pandemic. There were nothing to do with my lists. Nothing to track or even complete. My lists were focused on what to keep. A keep lists of experiences. The only objective: to write one list a day. The list was expected to make sense of life as a mother, a black working mother in academia with four children, one born in the fifth month of the pandemic. There were no organization necessary. No length was too long. Or to short. Everything was allowed in the lists. My thoughts, the news, my work, my family. Writing long lists was gratifying. So too were short ones that cut right to core. But lists about meaningfully people in my life, like my children, my students, my mentors, even the experiences of my husband on the frontlines or the last days with my sister in-law and her battle with cervical cancer were extra fulfilling. The pandemic and it’s impact were intense for all families. It was also equally frustrating, equally challenging, yet equally mesmerizing, and equally joyful. Not for the illness it brought or the deaths or sorrow it left behind, but for the discoveries, unexpected ones, like making a list, a virtual keeplists of time in a pandemic. There were no end in sight too. The pandemic held us all in a tight grip. And so the list grew and moved beyond the pandemic itself to capture life as we lived it one day at a time, all to preserve and protect all that mattered in a time where living was truly fragile.
Today marks the one year anniversary of this list. Words still do not fail me. They have become my everything, my hope, my joy, my hurdles, but yet my triumphs. I thank all of you that have read anything I wrote here. I thank you for coming on this journey with me. There is still no end in sight. Only that where my words still flow, my stories will surely flow.