The power of Black women like Kamala Harris and my grandma

Race

Special to The Seattle Times

Now is the time to elect a Black woman as vice president, and I need not look any further than my own 97-year-old grandmother to understand why.

Often overlooked, Black women are at the center of the American story: They are and have long been serving in public and private spheres, as backbones of families and communities, as academics and intellectuals, and as political and civil rights leaders. Right now, many are nurses and physicians on the front lines of COVID-19, devoted to fighting a disease that threatens us all. 

The writer Janet Mock once wrote, “My grandmother and my two aunts were an exhibition in resilience and resourcefulness and Black womanhood. They rarely talked about the unfairness of the world with the words that I use now with my social justice friends, words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘equality,’ ‘oppression,’ and ‘discrimination.’ They didn’t discuss those things because they were too busy living it, navigating it, surviving it.”

In 1923, in an America that legalized racism, inequality, hate and discrimination, my grandmother Florence Elizabeth Carmichael was born. As her 97thbirthday approached, I called to ask what she would like as a gift. After a long pause, she said, “Nothing.” Given how much she has accomplished, though, her answer was fitting: She grew up a poor Black woman in the Great Depression who, despite overwhelming adversity, earned a university degree during the Jim Crow era and raised two daughters to become international leaders in their respective fields. What more could I give her? 

Her firm rooting in a family of shared sacrifices and responsibility helped my grandmother overcome countless challenges in her America. One of eight children raised by a single mother in Millville, New Jersey, my grandmother didn’t hear many words of encouragement — but she saw plenty of action. Her mother, with the wrong skin color, struggled to find work outside the home. After many years she found a job as a seamstress in a clothing factory, but the elation she must have felt did not last long. Daily, she would be given a quota of garments to sew; unlike her white counterparts, however, the more she produced the more she was told to make. Despite the grueling work, and her doctor’s recommendations to quit, she returned. Watching her mother dress for work each morning, my grandmother would look up and see immeasurable anguish and fierce determination.

In 1963, Florence earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from American University at a time when few Black women were college educated. Both through actions and words, she instilled the same ambition in her two Black daughters. Ask my grandmother what she did for Alicia and Lucile, and she will tell you there is no formula. Early on Lucile took a liking to science, which resulted in a science kit for Christmas; Alicia enjoyed dancing, which led to ballet class. These were small fires Grandma turned into burning dreams. Florence may not recall what she and her daughter discussed each night at dinner, but the effect of those nightly conversations is apparent. They led Alicia Adams to become vice president of international programming and dance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and her younger sister, Lucile Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., to become the first female Black Ph.D. epidemiologist in the United States.

Why is now the time for a Black woman as vice president? Black women are proven leaders. Evidence of their ability to thrive in the face of adversity, their capacity to inspire and their commitment to future generations is everywhere you look in America. Those characteristics are as necessary as they have ever been and will be pivotal in unifying our country, in showing Americans in blue states and red states that we are one. 

Like my grandmother, so many Black women will tell you they need nothing. We must honor their lived experiences by committing to resuscitate the soul of America, by building a more just and more equal society.

In her long career as a public servant, Kamala Harris has demonstrated her commitment to that cause. She has her own set of scars representative of the perseverance of herself and many women of color. She is the missing thread needed for the restoration of the quilt of America’s soul. And she is the vice president America needs and deserves for the uncertain future ahead.

Is the Road to Becoming A Physician Still Worth It?

adversity, medicine, Mentorship

In a simplistic answer, “Yes, it is. But it won’t be easy.” As my former track and field coach would tell me before an arduous workout, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Many are drawn to medicine with an affable desire to help others, but this task has a significant weight associated with it. Sadly, the mental anguish may lead some physicians to tell hopeful doctors that they should turn away and pursue a different occupation forgetting the excitement and enthusiasm they once felt. 

Naturally, over the course of a time period there are certain parts of our lives that change. One day you fall asleep at 20 years old, and the next day you wake up 21, now considered legally responsible enough to drink, gamble or even adopt a child. In contrast, the road to becoming a doctor is a long series of intentional and mindful decisions. Few of these decisions are big, some are medium and unlike the television shows most are small and boring. If you’re reading this you may wish, as I think I did at times, that we could instantaneously wake up a physician. But, the beauty in becoming a physician is in transforming into the version of yourself that will best fulfill this life of service. This becoming requires sacrifices in the form of no; no to certain parties, trips, weddings, and relationships. Instead, one will say yes to long, unappreciated and unapologetic hours with concomitant late nights in windowless rooms surrounded by books instead of people and silence instead of noise. Sometimes, I said yes to the no decisions and years later had to work much harder to make up for those responses. Furthermore, there are also decisions one will need to make during moments where we are no longer in control. 

Writer Anne Lamott, once penned, “When God is going to do something wonderful, he always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, he starts with an impossibility.”

From a post-baccalaureate, non-traditional, student studying in a Starbucks coffee shop in Manassas, Virginia to addressing the audience as student body president at the Ohio State University College of Medicine graduation I had to navigate my failures to arrive at my successes. However, each piece of adversity I faced sculpted me into a more compassionate and understanding person and ultimately a better physician.

The first African American patient I treated, sixty-years in age, told me he had never seen a physician who looked like me—like us he meant.

If this dream will make you happy and give you the life you desire, then this field is for you. No one can answer this question for you, and no one should. The time will go by regardless. One day I walked into the auditorium for my first medical school course. The next, I was performing a nasal intubation in a patient with severe Down’s Syndrome readying the patient for the dentistry team to extract his diseased teeth. There is nothing like what I see or do on a daily basis. It is simply amazing, frightful, enlightening and humbling all in the same breath. As I said before, “Yes, it is worth it.” But, it’s up to you to decide that for yourself.

What I Learned From A Two-Time Olympian

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What I learned from a two-time Olympian…

“Mom, the Olympic trials are on!” I yelled upstairs. When you combine my mother, sister, and I, almost 30 years of running track fandom avidly stared at the screen. “Bang,” the gun sounded on the tv, and there appeared Khadevis “KD” Robinson, 4-time U.S. Olympic Champion, out to set the early pace. Prior to the start of the race, the commentator announced his 8-month-old son, Zion, was in the crowd watching. That pressure didn’t seem to faze him, as he took the pace out hard with his unique upright stride and robotically pristine form. 50.33, the clock read, as the crescendo of the bell rang signaling the commencement of the second and final lap. KD made a strong move to increase his lead as his fellow Nike teammate, Lopez Lomong, began coming up on his shoulder. 200 meters to go before the finish, KD’s powerful stride crushed the track underneath him. Strong finisher—Nick Symmonds—in the back of the pack had now found some room to maneuver. 100 meters to go—a straight away to decide who would be representing the United States in Beijing, the pack began closing the gap on KD. First, Nick Symmonds flew by, and then six-foot-five, Andrew Wheating, a University of Oregon product, galloped pass Khadevis. As the line approached, it was between KD and Christian Smith, another Oregon Duck, for the final USA Olympic team spot. At the line, Christian Smith hurled himself over as he crashed to the ground.

Symmonds.

Wheating.

Smith.

Those were the ones going onto Beijing. It was an Oregon sweep—1.2.3.

Years later, I read out the name “Coach Khadevis Robinson” on the door. A smile began to form from my lips. My standing in front of that door was thanks to one person. Coach Karen Dennis, one of only 5 female Directors of a Power-5 Track & Field conference program, became a mentor and mother figure from the moment we were first introduced four years ago. She knew more than anyone my love for track, coaching, and mentoring, and so, she gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. She spoke with Coach Robinson and he agreed to bring me on as a volunteer assistant coach in my last semester of medical school. I had dreamed about this over and over—the opportunity to coach at The Ohio State, to run alongside the young Buckeye athletes, to tell them I believed in them right before their darkest moment and hardest set. However, the dream never dared to include working with one of my track and field idols. I remember our first encounter like it was yesterday. Two enthusiastic men embracing as we began sharing our experiences about the sport we treasure. I asked him multiple questions about his training philosophy which he returned with answers followed by questions revolving around what type of doctor I wanted to be. After that meeting, I knew he respected me as a man, a former student-athlete, and a medical student but I wasn’t sure he fully trusted me as his new assistant coach. Early on, during a workout, when one of our athletes seemed to slow her pace down prior to the expected finishing point he thought I had told her to stop. I mentioned to him that I had not, and we moved on. As I reflect, I realize he was taking quite a risk bringing me on-board because if we had not had a harmonious relationship the student-athletes, the team & the coaching staff would have suffered from a potentially negative environment.

Whatever my past achievements were before, he taught me that success is non-transferrable. I don’t mean you can’t be successful in multiple fields because you can. But just because you are successful in one field, it doesn’t automatically transfer over to another. You have to earn respect in any fresh sphere with which you enter, with each promise fulfilled, one step at a time. Despite having garnered All-American Collegiate accolades, being named captain of my university team and being an assistant coach at my high school alma mater, I had to prove I could be successful at this level—to him, to the athletes and just as importantly, to myself. My greatest asset to the team and my student-athletes was my energy and enthusiasm as evidenced by my 6:00 AM boisterous yells booming across the infield covering all four sides of the track. If the student-athletes weren’t awake when they arrived to practice they certainly were by 6:10AM. But, in conjunction with my blaring voice I had a softer, gentler voice I used to encourage athletes dealing with adversity, reassuring them that their goals were just on the other side of their adversity. As the season continued, Coach Khadevis & I continued to grow closer. It wasn’t only the time on the track that transformed our relationship. It was the casual conversations during meals, the track & field team trips together and the jokes we created that made all the difference. Whether it was from our back & forth taunts about whose fraternity was better, to Coach KD’s incomparable dance moves to Coach Karen having to yell at us both to not run alongside our athletes during competitions due to our mutual excitement, a unique bond formed.

Two Big Ten Championships, many laughs, and two seasons later I sat in his office a few weeks prior to leaving for Oregon to start my medical residency. Talking casually, Khadevis brought up that Olympic race from 2008 which was the very race I watched 10 years ago with my mother. “I had to come back,” he said. “There was no way I could let my son see me fail. No way was my last race going to be anything less than me making another Olympic team. So, I let my setback set the stage for my comeback…

And I made the Olympic team in 2012.”

KD & I

Sent From My iPhone

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“We have reviewed your application once again for admission to our school of medicine and we regret to inform you that you have not been granted an interview at this time.” I scrolled down & it was signed by the Director of Admissions—a name with M.B.A behind it. And then I scrolled down further and read the signature…

“Sent from my iPhone.”

A tear streamed down my right cheek. I felt like a volcano that had erupted—full of frustration, anger & sadness. I was devastated. The words, “Life is hard for those who dream” kept scrolling through my head. I was in the downstairs bedroom of my parent’s home. At that moment, it was very likely that my mother was upstairs above me, just a few feet away. I don’t know for a fact, but I felt like there was a mirror image of myself upstairs at the dining room table in the form of my mother. Of all people in the world, she was the one I did not want to disappoint desiring so badly to carry on the legacy she has scuplted.  The first African-American woman in the country to receive a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. Despite her many accolades, at that point in time I think the only care in the world she had was for her son to be accepted into medical school. When I had graduated from Emory and was enthusiastically off-track, if you will, she spoke with one of her colleagues; a medical school advisor she knew well asking that he bestow upon me guidance and direction. And was it too simple to think the University that she works so hard for so many hours of the day, leading their mission of improving health disparities would at least offer an interview to her son? By title, She is the Associate Dean! If having one’s parents as alumni can help secure legacy status, what was going on here? Was that not customary? I rolled back onto my bed in the fetal position. What’s next? What could be next? This is the institution where I envisioned my white coat ceremony, match day ceremony and graduation occurring. But all I can remember is the thoughtlessly blasé “Sent from my iPhone.”

I was like many other pre-medical students at the time. I felt that since I had gone to a stellar, well-known undergraduate institution, the same would occur for my medical school education. But one thing I had to recognize was that your undergraduate institution doesn’t automatically lead to the medical school you enter—nothing is guaranteed. I have learned many things as I approach thirty years old, but nothing as sincere as the notion that entitlement is precarious, perhaps even dangerous. We fall into these easy expectations and if they do not come to fruition, we fall apart & don’t know how to pick ourselves up again. The moment you feel like you deserve something is the moment it slips through your grasp. In that very moment when you look up wishing & praying a leaf falls that was meant for you to catch, it may or may not but let me tell you about my leaves. I interviewed at Ohio State on January 22nd. Heading to the airport, I looked back at the large OSU Wexner Signage feeling as though I was actually leaving my home rather than my interview. A few weeks later, I signed into my newly-created Ohio State portal only to find a “wait-listed” next to my name. Many months later as I was tutoring a high school student, my phone began buzzing on the desk. I quickly uncovered it and saw a number with a 614-area code. There it was, the call I had been waiting so impatiently for. The director of admissions at Ohio State College of Medicine asked me, “Jason, are you still interested in Ohio State?” “Yes,” I exhaled. I felt like I had been holding my breath for 5 months and finally I could breathe again.

I drove home one breath at a time.