Unbelievably sad news that Wangari Maathai has passed on. I read her memoir earlier this year and was moved by her activism which included imprisonment, but also by her stories of being a mother, an academic, and someone who survived a rather ugly divorce. There is no way to talk about her strength and vision without resorting to hyperbole. May she rest in peace, and may we never forget her.
I am in Tacoma, Washington for two years, teaching at the University of Puget Sound. In addition to living in a new location, I am without family for the first year and it will be interesting to see how this affects my writing. No more excuses! I'm hoping that I will write a lot and be inspired by the landscape, the ocean and new colleagues. These are pictures of Mt. Rainier taken from a Target parking lot, a pier on the sound, and the sidewalk on Union where I like to take morning walks.
I am at the age where the death of friends and relatives is not shocking, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. Today is my godmother’s funeral at Mayflower Congregational Church in Detroit. As I try to make peace with this reality, here is what I want you to know about her:
Her name is Velma Lewis Ward.
She was born December 27, 1929 in Salem, Michigan.
She was not raised by and did not know her parents.
She was raised on a farm by a black man, born in 1892, who was a gentle spirit and deaf later in his life. Everyone called him "Gramps."
Aunt Velma milked cows as a girl.
She attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
She had freckles, wore glasses, and had thick, beautiful hair.
She is survived by one child, a son, whom she raised alone.
As a girl she wanted to be a doctor.
A counselor at her high school, Northville High, suggested a career in cosmetology instead.
Aunt Velma was one of the first black women to get a PhD in biochemistry from Wayne State University School of Medicine.
She thought that the failure to use black people in medical trials had negative effects on our health and the diagnosis of illness in our community.
She said “molecules don’t give you the whole picture” of a person.
She became a Medical Anthropologist.
She did research on coronary disease in older African Americans and contributed greatly to understanding the role of ethnicity in the health care experience.
She never talked about her accomplishments.
She had friends from all walks of life.
She believed in astrology.
She didn’t really care for the shape of her nose.
She was a feminist.
She authored or assisted in numerous scientific publications.
She told me as Capricorns we were susceptible to problems with our joints.
Upon seeing my oldest child as a baby, she remarked, “He’s perfect. Keep that formula!”
She researched the cultural impact of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.
She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
She was the first African American to address the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
She had an uncanny ability to remember many facts, data, details, and dates from the recent past and decades before. Her son has this ability also.
She was a member of The Royal Society of Chemistry as a Chartered Chemist.
She lived for decades in a house on Littlefield in Detroit.
She loved music.
She said in a 2004 interview, “Whatever talents you have, you need to use to the best of your ability for humanity.”
She mentored and influenced many younger people.
Her voice was soft and you had to lean in to hear her when she spoke.
She left this earth on September 2, 2011.