What’s so nice about our home in the evening is that everybody is there. Dad in his blue scrubs, sitting on a chair. A child on every chair and grandma too. Rice on the table with fried plantains and fish stew. All of us, smiling, as we eat, hoping the night lingers as we sit, hoping we stay awhile, until the at least the last plantain is gone.
I have been re-reading Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s simplicity is stunning. I love everything about this book, Eunice in the evening being one of my favorite as it reminds me of my own home too these days. Dinners together are a treat, one we cherish on days when Dad happens to be home. It inspired my thoughts above. Keep evenings with your family.
Some things help us to keep life as is. Things like a visit to an emergency room for the same cuts, same stitches too. Life forces us to continue, things planned and unplanned, those that depleted and those that persist. How many have stopped when tracks lead to places unwanted. This past weekend demanded I continue life as is, continue with a second trip to the ER, all within 24 hours. I could either complain or continue with my day as if an ER visit for two days were part of the original plan. I didn’t complain and went on with my day. I attended meetings I could attend, tended to my boy while the stitches were placed and replaced. Somethings truly cause us too continue life as is.
We spent two days at the ER back to back with my son. On day 1, which was last Friday, we went to stitch a massive gash he had on his chin. The next morning, he pulled out his bandaid and all the stitches came right out. The gash was open and so back to the ER we went. At the end of day 2 and nearly 10 stitches later, what I admired most was my son’s ability to go on too as if, he didn’t just get 2 sets of stitches within a 24 hour span. I initially didn’t plan to keep this. In fact I skipped it entirely. But I am coming back to keep it because of the simple lessons it gave. With life, some things will take you down a path unplanned. You can either complain or continue to meet life however you find it. I choose to meet life as is, through ups and downs, and impossible places, it takes, stitches and all.
Words that flow, like eyes that see the bluest moon, leave me breathless. Lavishly they give meaning, a justice that endures. Where they begin, clear and steady, leaves a wide range of emotions that is ushering these words I write in praise. I see windows within my soul open up with these words. These are not words deep or profound. No need for prose that deplete. Rather these words lift like air when eyes read them out loud.
Wherever they erupt, every time, they emit fire, these words fight battles that burst open a heart’s desires. These are not words uncombed or falling apart. They are not words untied like shoes or caked in dirt from mud. They are words that stare, those that burrow deep, questioning nothing, but asking everything. Neither unblinking or unabashed, these words neither hover nor settle like flies where dead things lay. Rather the breathe of each word, every single letter used, like lipsticks on lips thick, is unflinching as it is bold.
Each word forces you to look at everything. Insist that everything looks at it too. Words we know and those we don’t. Those that speak truth and those that seek it too. Those that begin things, a dream, another way of living supreme. Words naked like light or those perishable at night. Those that uncover rotted leaves, or those that shovel out all our disbelieves. Words for the dust that rises or the dirt they hide. Words that imprint, those that delight, those quiet, those strangely pleasant, all the ways they cling together, lifting off pages, together, intoxicates.
The one who who write these words, how they build them like nest, stick by stick, word by word, all the ways they make it their own, brash and brazen, daring and dashing, not weak, but wild, not cautious but courageous, every single time leaves me breathless.
Keep them and their words.
I have been re-reading Toni Morrison’s The bluest eyes with a new lens. I read it a long time ago and kept my copy for a moment like now, when all I want to do is study how the masters play with words. She is one I wish could come back again and again to teach and reach every single crevice where I hope words can begin in me. Her gift is unlike no other and The bluest eyes captivates as it stirs. Re-reading it again, but this time with a lens focused on things to keep, leaves me drunk with all the words she deftly put together to tell a story. I’ll break my thoughts about the book one day, but in the meantime what I wrote above is in praise of this woman, who still teaches what to keep, long after she took her last breath. She is the master of this thing I mean when I say what will you keep. You might as well keep your stories or words that leap out of pages. Either, I am studying the master and she truly intoxicates.
A womb tells the beginning of your story. Life forgets it’s continuity. Yet, if your stories, instead of theirs, your life, instead of their own. All your gains, instead of defeat. Your pain too, instead of deceit. If your lillies bloomed in any way. Your roses only registered thorns. Your days are as days. Your nights too, like nights.
If only you spoke of all the ways the rain fell on your head. A clear view of your flood. Those that deflated or those that manifested into all the sum of you. If you ever disappeared, even if for a minute, in your thoughts or in reality, all the moments, distant or near, that are simultaneous with your years. If there were no colors in your life, no dash of pink in Spring, or yellow in the summer, if only black and blue, then the telling of that will do. If there were hours unaccounted for. Labor unpaid. Tears unknown, joy undiscovered, desires unfulfilled, even delight unspeakable, only insight may salvage all the residue that remains.
So then tell all the arcs you know. Those that bent all the way to the ground, those that lost the ground or those that flapped up to foreground. Tell all the moments flowers made you smile. Dahlia’s or daffodils will do. Remember the rain, the depths of the fall or floods. Remember too ending hours of your existence, the earth beneath your feet, ideas that persisted, or encounters that made you rise, all before your sun sets.
When the hours of your existence have been accounted for, what will remain? I woke with this need to ask myself this question. Who will tell my story for me, just the way I would want it to be told? We die, that may be the meaning of our lives, said Toni Morrison. But we do language and that maybe the measure of our lives. So when your time is up, how would your life be measured? With the things you did and as told by those behind, or with your own words and as told by you.
I want my words to do the talking. I want it to talk back even when I’m gone. I want it to speak of all the ways I lived, the flowers I kissed, or the storms that persisted. Either way, our memories are all we have and we can keep them now, even as we breathe.
So to those wondering whether it’s worth keeping, these moments of our living, know that your stories are worth it. Keep it.
I spent the day at the ER with my 5 year old son today. I got a call around 10am to come get him from school because he fell and may need stitches. On getting to his school, the gash was deep and well off to the ER we went. I was actually fascinated by the experience of getting stitches. First we were told we would get a glue and should then be good to go. But the cut was pretty deep and the doctor felt stitches would be better. We waited close to 2 hours before the time came. He was given medication through his nose to keep him a bit sedated but not to much. They had already numbed the area of the gash since our arrival at the ER. Overall, he was brave through it all, while I cringed and held my breath.
The process seemed seamless, a thin clear wire was placed through at the tip of the gash and the passed through the other sides. He was awake and didn’t feel anything through the process. When we were done, the sedation was still in his system, he was cranky and refused to sleep. In the end, we still went back to school, nearly 4 hours later because it was Catholic Schools Week and he refused to miss out on the ice cones promised to all kids at school today. I still processing the whole day and becoming a mother of boys. I have been told getting stitches is common with boys, well some. Either way, I’m glad we are finally home and he seems to be doing well.
As if the stitches experience wasn’t enough, on our way out, we were told to pick a book and I saw one that caught my eye. It was written by Aja La’Starr, a former councilwoman, who also dabbles in children’s literature in Saint Louis. I was mesmerized. I love folks that are intersectional and deep. Her book teaches children and everyone how to celebrate who they are, something I am teaching my son to do now with his stitches. The images were great and the reminder to love all our quirks for they are a part of who we are, stitches and all. Keep rocking who you are.
Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? This question has always haunted my spirit. It’s from Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, The Salteaters. It is also apt for today. That and what does being well mean for the public’s health, from a social justice lens, radical wellness too and not from experts alone, or those who have credentials, but from you the general public and with your fiction or nonfiction?
Who are your go to references for being radically well and how do you even begin to define wellness for yourself? Of course it led me down a rabbit hole, one where I am now obsessed with how people, those in fiction and non fiction, those with expertise and none, define what they mean by wellness.
I have been struck by the myriad of ways people define wellness, especially those focused on people of color. It matters to me these days that for the public, we define what wellness means, not just from what the dominant literature may tell us, but from everyday people who continue to struggle with answering the question: ‘Are you sure, sweetheart, you want to be well.’ So, from what I gathered from the Bettina Love’s profound book ‘We want to do more than survive’ wellness is:
A type of freedom that comes when you let go of your fears and move your anger into a space of healing.
Wisdom and being well is hard work.
Part of social justice work.
An inner life that refuses to be treated less than human.
Finding the roots of your own Black Joy, Black love, and humanity.
Choosing to see ourselves beyond illness or disease.
Having an inner self that can be quiet and enjoy life.
Recognizing the pain of our ancestors knowing the beauty and resilience of that pain lives on in us.
Knowing who you are regardless of what is thrown at you.
Different for different people.
Healing that is unrecognizable to White people and different from them.
Being your best self while fighting injustice.
Fighting racism with life, grace, compassion.
Having mental space and freedom to dream, give hell, and retreat to one’s community of love for support, fulfillment, and nourishment.
Bringing your full self.
Joining others in the fight for humanity and antiracism in love and solidarity.
Confronting internalized White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Isamophobia, fat phobia, classism, ableism, and the rage that comes as a result of these hateful ideas.
Keep doing more than surviving with these radical wellness definitions in mind.
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.
I have spent the past 2 days sinking into Toni Morrison’s knowing so deep essay. It’s my go to essay when I try to understand my place in this world. The wisdom, accuracy, relevance of her words are worthy of being kept every single day.
If black women are to survive, if we are to truly brighten our future, while building strength for today, then we need to constantly shape this untenable reality of a life we want. We need to mold it, sing it, reduce it to manageable transforming essence, so that change itself can occur. We are what the world needs. A disturbing disturbance that is not hawk nor stormy weather, just us, rustling like life. We are life.
This knowing so deep has comforted me the past two days. It’s my keep for the day and all through this year. Keep knowing black woman, especially black mothers, that your sweep is grand. Continue to Rest in Peace Tyre.
I think about us today. Black mothers wherever you are. I think about the thoughts we have for our children. The fear we have too. I think about what tomorrow may bring. What today brings. I want to say it will be better. It may not be. I want to tell you to dry your eyes. You can cry too. I want to only see love and life in your eyes. Though I see hate and death too. How did we get here too? When did we turn on our own in this way too. Another death, another life. By our own hands. With our hands. How did we get here. The universe keeps turning they say. We keep spinning too. Round and round and round and back to where it all began. The failure to relate to others. When others fail to relate. Young black men full of hate, howling hate, for each other. How did we get here? Life now imprisoned, death now, our best offering. The thinking that history happens all the time. Only this time, his name is Tyre. He called out for you, his mother. Mama, Mama, he said. Today will be hard. Tomorrow too. But listen, you are still the rim of the world. Your horizon is grand. Without you, who will they call. They will call you, always, mama and you will rise again and rise again to catch the sun, your son, rise again.
Keep black mothers in mind, all of us raising black boys in America because I don’t know how we got here, how death is our best offering to those that look like us now. The system is rigged and racist. I get it. But to each other. No one thought hey, that maybe my own brother. That is the part that has my heart in pieces. We don’t even see each other anymore. So I really want to know how did we get here. Who are you besides what you do and why didn’t they see him as their own brother.
I spent 2 hours today learning, absorbing, and exchanging wellness, healing from what it means to be black and woman in academia. Many of us have been battered. The weights of all we carry chokes and continues to choke. But the power of our narrative, the gifts we offer and the knowledge we provide, our very essence which Toni Morrison once’s described as the ‘rim of the world,’ all of the the pieces of us, are valued, visible, no longer on tiptoes but standing tall and erect because we choose to transform our silence to action. The meeting was for a future podcast with Health Promotion and Practice. I was open about my experience and time as a public health researcher. Something that happened because of this blog.
Early on in the pandemic, I re-read Audre Lorde’s transformation of silence into language and action. In fact, it was my first attempt at facing myself as a black woman in academia. There have been many casualties along the way when we think of the black woman’s experience within a system we were never meant to survive in. There have been few warriors too.
I wanted to be one of them. So that meant I needed to confront the words that I did not yet have.
I knew there were things I needed to say. I knew I had swallowed so many things that even choked me in silence. So I choose to face my fears. I started my blog, as well as writing letters as we published in the journal, to acknowledge that I too, I am a Black woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, myself, doing the necessary work of transforming my silence into action.
I hoped that through the blog and letter, other women like me would face their fears. These words from Ms. Lorde were the torch light for me: this idea, ‘that you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent.’ And to survive, each of us needs to learn first that we were never meant to survive. I channeled that knowledge into strength, and created a space where I have been chronicling all the ways I survive and continue to survive within a system I was never meant to survive.
So the fact that we are here, and we have this blog and now letter as a paper, even the podcast was our attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, knowing too for so many women that look like us, there are so many silences that need to be broken. Keep breaking them. You can download the paper below or read here: Dear Health Promotion Scholar
Each day, nearly 28 women die from cervical cancer in Nigeria. Angela Akumuo, my sister-in law, was one of them in the summer of 2021. She was 53 years old. Her death, like those of many women who continue to die from cervical cancer in Nigeria and globally, could have been prevented. It was also discovered late. She lived in pain for years, and died within 3 months of finally opening up about her illness. There are so many effective evidence-based tools to prevent, diagnose or treat cervical cancer. Research too, with the field of dissemination and implementation science, my chosen field of study. Yet, why are women, like my sister in-law, in the prime of their lives, still dying from cervical cancer in Africa?
Look at the state of cervical cancer in Nigeria and many other African countries and you’ll understand. With an estimated population of 206 million individuals, Nigeria has over 56 million women aged 15 years and above who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, with 67% attributed to HPV 16 and 18. As a result, the government recommends screening for cervical cancer from aged 30. Young girls and women are recommended to get vaccinated as well from age 9. Yet less that 10% of eligible women are screened and 14% of girls are vaccinated. Is it any wonder that cervical cancer remains the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, also one of the most preventable?
In 2020, nearly three years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and 194 countries, pledged for the first time to eliminate cervical cancer by pursing three key steps: vaccination, screening and treatment. A recent costing exercise by WHO for the Nigerian government’s strategic plan on prevention and control of cervical cancer estimated that $18.1 million will be needed to fully immunize Nigerian girls at $3.98 per girl aged 9-13 years, $919 million will be needed to provide 24.8 million screening services and 2.2 million pre-cancer treatments, while $59 million will be required for cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliative care. Right now, Nigeria dedicates 5.75 percent of its budget to health with about N81 billion naira (roughly $100 million dollars) to health care services, all of which are insufficient to help the country reach its global goals for cervical cancer elimination by 2030. The cost of vaccination, screening and treatment remains an obstacle for many Nigerian women and girls. So, it’s no surprise then that Nigerian researchers and key stakeholders are turning back to Nigerians themselves to find innovative ways to lead the national response to eliminate cervical cancer.
Enter For girls and women by girls and women. This new crowdsourcing program led by myself and researchers at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research led by Dr. Oliver Ezechi and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by Dr. Joseph Tucker, is the latest from our, for youth by youth group, that has spent the past five years working to promote HIV self-testing with Nigerian youths themselves using crowdsourcing open calls, 48-hours designathons, month-long innovation boot camps and subsequent implementation of finalist programs in community settings. Crowdsourcing allows large number of people to become involved and engaged in developing solutions to health issues. Our program, now in its fifth year, boldly displays how Nigerian youth themselves can be partners and leaders with HIV prevention interventions and not just beneficiaries of interventions designed by researchers alone. Interventions created by the group, has led to an increase in HIV self-testing from 29% at baseline to 90% at 3 months follow.
We are striving to repeat the same success but this time with HPV vaccination among girls and HPV screening among their mothers or female caregivers. We know that the thought of cervical cancer may strike fear in people’s heart, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But it is possible to act against it by partnering with us to lead the design and implementation of HPV campaigns, particularly HPV vaccination of young girls and HPV screening of eligible women. Our crowdsourcing open calls will be launched in Nigeria this January and it is our hope that through our program goals, Nigerian girls and women can become prime leaders in designing, implementing and evaluating interventions that increase uptake of HPV vaccinations and HPV screening, while eliminating cervical cancer as we know it.
Angela Akunmo may have died from a disease so preventable. However, through the launch of the crowdsourcing open calls for HPV campaigns for girls and women by girls and women, her death will not be in vain.