Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reflections from the day before the first day of Black History Month: Young, Gifted and Black

My sons: young, gifted and black

"Play" - Jacob Lawrence (1970 - 2000)

To be young, gifted, and black
Oh what a lovely precious dream

To be young, gifted, and black

Open your heart to what I mean
Cause you know

In the whole wide world
There's a million, a million boys and girls

Who are young, gifted, and black...

and thats sho'nuff where its at. . . .

"Young, Gifted and Black" by Donny Hathawa
y (1945 -1979)
Thursday, January 27, 2010

I slid into our weekly Division lunch meeting a few minutes late after finally breaking away from the residents' clinic in the Grady Primary Care Center. I was still shaking off the arctic blast that had hit me when I'd crossed the street from the hospital into our faculty office building where the meeting was held. Every Thursday, this is the place where all members of our Grady General Medicine faculty come together. . . . .sometimes just to discuss business, but most times to get an update on what a colleague is doing or to hear an expert share some new development that will affect us Grady doctors. It's a great place to learn, but also a great place for building an esprit de corps amongst our faculty.

This week the speaker was, much to my delight, my friend, David M. Yay! I settled down into my chair after grabbing a plate from the catered lunch and shot him a wink. David and I joined the Grady faculty the same year, and became fast friends. Upon our first meeting, we laughed out loud for nearly an hour. Both black Americans (unapologetically so) and both pretty darn animated, David and I are kindred spirits in every sense of the word. He is, hands down, one of my favorite people. Our friendship is respectful and meaningful, and because of this our professional relationship has evolved into this reciprocal cheering section. We are constantly pumping each other up for even the smallest accomplishments, and --oh my gosh!--don't let one of us have a big achievement. We miss no opportunity to effusively describe one another to any resident, medical student, acquaintance or even rock that will listen--but most of all, we make every effort to embarrass each other every chance we get, kind of like a proud grandmama does.

Case in point:

David: "I'm just trying to be like you when I grow up! I saw your publication in Annals! Mama, you better DO it!"

Me, quick on the response: "I'm saying, David! All I want to know is which one of us was interviewed by Peter Jennings on World News Tonight before he passed away? I mean seriously, David? Peter Jennings? That's all I'm saying. "

David: "But I need to know, who got two big ol' teaching awards in the same year all while wearing 3 inch stilettos and carrying a Gucci bag? Oh, and while handling her business as a wife and a mama of two little bitty kids! This is what I'm saying!"

Me: "But work with me, D! Those were local awards, and I appreciate the shout out, I do. But help a sista out--weren't you the dude on the President's Advisory Council? No, like the President of the United States, not Emory? The President, David? Seriously? I mean come on, dude. I'm just saying -- what do you do, shoot him a text message when you have something to tell him?"

Eventually we erupt into a hearty laughter, hug, and leave feeling encouraged. It's good to have my kindred spirit rooting for me, and it's great to be able to return the favor. So there I sat, pom poms ready. I was glad that he would be teaching this day.

He stood boldly at the podium, discussing with the division slide by slide his exciting research project. "I'm exploring the psychosocial and mental health components that lead black men to behaviors that may put them at risk for HIV. So much focus is in the U.S. is placed on brothers who identify as homosexual; it makes no sense that we're ignoring this huge population of heterosexual brothers," David said in his melodic voice. I dug the way he was confident enough to say "brothers" in front of our division. It was so David of him.

After marching us through his plans for his study (funded by the huge R01 NIH grant he just won), he was met with warm applause and accolades from members of our group. His eloquent answers to their questions rolled off of his tongue like raindrops dancing from a rooftop; everyone sat at rapt attention. You better do it, Dave! I felt proud as I watched him. . . . dynamic. . young. . .gifted. . .black. I internally waved my pom poms.

"He's so articulate," some person might say, or "My, how well-spoken he is!" another might add-- not realizing how offensive that can be to the countless numbers of well-educated men like David who receive such a compliment.  

(Cultural Competency Sidebar: Most folks who graduate from Princeton like David M.--or from anywhere for that matter-- usually have a pretty good mastery of the English language, regardless of race. I'm just saying. . . . . for future reference to anyone who might inadvertently say such a thing to or about a black man.)

David M., black history in the making

dope (adj.): cool, nice, awesome (courtesy of urban dictionary)

In defense of the person who does remark on his speaking ability, it is definitely fair to say this: David M. is an amazing public speaker and his presence is rather remarkable. Here is this young Haitian-American man who has dedicated his entire career to researching factors contributing to the HIV epidemic in black men (a pretty courageously narrow area of focus)--and not only that--he's an authentic guy in every way. Dave is transparent about his preference for men as intimate partners but is equally transparent about his refusal to allow himself or patients like him to be placed in boxes of any kind. He's what my friend Tracey H. would call "dope." As I watched him teaching and answering questions, I found myself wondering, What makes a young man so okay with himself and so convinced that his voice is worth listening to? What makes him so. . . well. . ."dope?" I stuck a post-it note on the bulletin board in my head reminding myself to explore that with David at some point. As a mother of sons, I'm always interested in what makes a manchild feel whole when he grows up.

The following day, David and I walked down the street to the Sweet Auburn Market for a quick lunch, and I knew I'd get my chance to pick his brain. Amidst the chaotic lunch crowd made up of mostly Grady employees and patients, I launched into my exploration of what made my friend tick. "Dude. . . .how did you get here? I mean, like this? How did you become so okay with you, you know? It's really something to see, David. You're so comfortable in your skin. It's like. . .what every parent ultimately wants for their child. . .to be confident, fulfilled, and fearless." 

In other words, how'd you get so dope?

He chuckled at the question, and started with his thoughtful answer. He talked about several things--his parents, life experiences, and role models. Mostly general stuff. I guess it all made sense. I suppose I was waiting for some pivotal experience to be pulled out of his pocket and slammed down on the Formica lunch table in front of us. Instead, it was nice, but a lot less dramatic than I'd expected. I wanted to know who the linchpin was or what thing was the piece de resistance that made him throw his shoulders back and stand just a little bit taller.

"A lot of things,"David said while breaking off a piece of salmon croquet. For now, that would have to do. The conversation then went to our usual topics. . . . friends, work, home, news, family, patients. We finally found ourselves talking about a recent experience David had on the wards.

"There was this young brother I was caring for in my clinic that had been having diarrhea for several weeks. He had been seen in three different emergency departments and was even admitted once. He called me and said,'I just don't feel right. Everywhere I go, they keep saying nothing is wrong with me.' Wait, did I already tell you this?" I shook my head 'no'. It wasn't unusual for us to accidentally retell stories to one another. Depending on the time and the length of the story, sometimes it was worthwhile to just hear it again. But this was not a story I'd heard. I sat there quietly nudging him to go on. "He has really low T-cells, so I mean, he really could have had something going on, you know? Since he's my patient at the Ponce Clinic (Grady's outpatient center devoted to care of patients with HIV/AIDS) I made an executive decision to directly admit him to my team. When we ran through his labs, it turns out we found a positive stool study--totally explaining why he felt so bad. Nobody had believed his symptoms. He was so relieved to find out there was an explanation."

"Nobody but you," I replied. "Wow. It's a good thing he had you as his doctor."

"Yeah. . . "David said softly with a distant gaze. Suddenly he grew surprisingly quiet. He shrugged his shoulders and added, "He just needed somebody to believe him. Sometimes you just need somebody to believe you . . . .and believe in you."

"Hmmm," I murmured while nodding. I narrowed my eyes and took in what he was saying.

"As time goes by, I'm starting to see that this is part of why I am in this position, you know? To believe in my patients." David cleared his throat and then took a bite of his lunch to break up what seemed to be mounting emotion. Hmmmmm.

If you understood David's panel of patients, predominantly all black males with advanced AIDS and many of whom have had male sexual partners, you'd realize how powerful that statement could be. You take a patient from an economically disadvantaged setting, blend it with being of a historically oppressed race, and complicate it with a poorly understood and often poorly accepted lifestyle--oh yeah, and if that isn't enough, you throw in AIDS, too. It's probably hard to have somebody believing in you or much else your concerns when you fall under that umbrella.

As I sat across from David in the market that afternoon, a fleeting thought of a young, Jamaican transgendered patient that I once referred to him crossed my mind. He was new to the area, had just been diagnosed with AIDS and was totally terrified. "I have the perfect doctor who will take excellent care of you," I remember saying as I referred him to David. My confidence in David seemed to allay some of his fears. That patient needed someone to believe in him, too, and that is exactly what David did.

"That's a pretty awesome statement," I responded while staring into his now glassy eyes. I wondered where all the emotion was coming from. Hmmmmm. "It sounds like you're walking in your purpose, David. Somebody must have really believed in you for you to be able to do what you do for your patients."

David clenched his jaw and swallowed hard. "My father," his voice trailed off for a minute and then came back," My father always. . . . he has just always--" he interrupted the statement with a sigh--"he has just . . . there have been times when no one believed me. . . . and. . . .he. .he did." He stopped talking for a moment and just looked straight ahead. I decided not to nudge him much further 1, because we were sitting in the Sweet Auburn Market surrounded by Grady people, and 2, the last two times I heard a brother trying to talk about how much he loved or appreciated his father, it got real, real ugly. . .and involved some breaking down and crying -- real hard. I decided to ride it out for at least a minute or two.

We sat there quietly for a few moments, both just thinking. Then came the ah hah moment. You are giving to them a piece of what your father gave you. Aaah hah. I broke the silence and said, "So that's it. That's why you're so dope." We both laughed. I smiled and thought of the picture of his Haitian father that sat lovingly on the shelf in his office. "That's why you're so okay with yourself and your voice. Now I get it."

He sighed again and offered me a wistful smile. I could tell he was still thinking about his father. "Yeah," he managed to eek out. "Yeah."


So today, I am reflecting on the powerful testimony our lives become when someone believes us. . . and believes in us. Belief gives us wings to fly. It gives a scared patient the courage to get the care they deserve, it gives a medical student the confidence to step boldly into that same patient's room to participate in their care, and it even gives a same gender-loving black man from upstate New York his voice. . . . . .his audacious, intrepid, fiery, and unapologetic voice. Somebody's belief turned a mirror on him and convinced him that being his authentic self was perfectly acceptable. And regardless of what anyone else thinks about the details--I think it's a good thing to be alright with yourself.

Like I told David--now, I get it. Being loved, cherished, and believed helps us to get as close as we can to being whole. But most of all, it helps us to believe in ourselves enough to pay it forward to someone else. And at the end of the day, that's sho' nuff where it's at. :)

My daddy played this song by Donny Hathaway for me on his car stereo when I was a just little girl, and I will never, ever forget it. I still remember him shaking his head to the haunting melody with his eyes closed, and telling me to "listen to the words and to believe them." This song really symbolizes how hard my parents worked to make me believe in myself, how they fought to never let any self-hatred set in, and explains a lot about why I am the way I am. When I hear it, it transforms me into a seven-year-old again and still makes me so proud of who I am, that I cry.

Today, at the threshold of Black History Month, I am playing this song for David M. . . . . for my own sons . . . . and for all of our young, gifted and black Grady patients who may never hear these words anywhere else.


  1. I feel so privileged that I get to work with you both.

  2. Awww, I love this one! YOU believe in me... so I'm thanking you right now!
    PS-- Always nice to see a picture of David as he is quite easy on the eyes :-) Thank you for cheering me up with that picture!

    Love ya, Bumble Bee

  3. I needed a good cry today!! :) Thanks for believing in all of us!! xo

  4. . . .that I do, Jaime. . .that I do. . .

  5. Oh, wow. This is so so good. Thank you for explaining it this way. Much love from many states away - Brandi


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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