Duke graduate shares advice about college life



Levi Brice Edouna Obama, a 2017 graduate of Duke University, at Duke Chapel. Photos by: Mahnoor Nazeer.

Four years ago, Levi Brice Edouna Obama was a newly-minted graduate of Osborne High School in suburban Atlanta.  One of my church members, Danice Wilson-Bates, suggested I write about Levi in this space because he was such a dynamic and driven young man.  While at Osborne, Levi led recycling drives and encouraged his classmates to be good stewards of the environment. He was class valedictorian and made his parents — who moved here from Cameroon in West Africa — very proud.

A few weeks ago, Levi graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina with a degree in biology. He’s taken the Medical College Entrance Test (MCAT) and plans to attend medical school after completing a year of clinical research.

Duke presented its share of challenges,  but Levi loved his experiences there and has some clear ideas on how to be successfully at an academically rigorous university.

One of his biggest adjustments involved the intensity of the coursework.  “You have three classes a day but they are jam-packed with so much information,” he said.  “Students shouldn’t wait to ask their professors for help, they should seek it immediately if they don’t understand something.

Learning to ask for help when you’ve never had to in the past is a huge change. But your success at a school like Duke depends in part on checking your ego at the door.

“Do not wait until a week before an exam,” he said. “Seek out people to help. Form a study group. You gain so much more through learning from others than you do by yourself. It took me about eight weeks in chemistry class to find the courage to raise my hand.”

Levi made an easier transition to the social and intellectual community at Duke.  “I loved to sit and talk to everyone and hear about their experiences because it was so far removed from what I had experienced. Duke’s student body is largely white and upper class. I didn’t realize how much wealth played a role in education so that was a huge thing to wrap my mind around.”

He worked as a resident assistant, served as a volunteer at Duke University Hospital and studied tropical biology in Costa Rica during the summer before his senior year.

His experience studying abroad was, “the first time i went anywhere by myself to a place outside of the United States.  I got to study with Duke students and students from other universities. Learning together and getting to know each other was amazing.”

Levi marched with others on campus when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo. decided not to indict the officer responsible Michael Brown’s death.  During his sophomore year, he was stunned to learn that an international student had hung a yellow noose from a tree on campus as a joke.

“For every black student, there will be a race incident,” he said of life on a predominantly white campus. “And you will have to come to terms with the fact that some people in your college community do not care about the issues you have to deal with.”

In his last semester at Duke, Levi’s father died of prostate cancer after a four year battle with the disease.  His father didn’t want his son to worry about his illness.  “He just told me to focus on what I had to do and that’s what I did. I did what I could for him when I was home. I tried to do right by him.”

Reflecting on his time at Duke, Levi says: “I honestly don’t know if i could have gone to any other place. It is so integral  to who I am now.”

For students heading to college in the near future, Levi offers this advice:  “Pick an institution based off the faculty and the opportunities provided to you.  You may have a faculty member who is a Nobel Laureate in literature or engineering. Or pick a college that has the major you like or that has a really great theater department.”



Goodbye creamy crack; here’s to combing my hair with my fingers

I packed away my curling and flat irons recently.

I packed away my curling and flat irons recently.

My colleagues know better than anyone where I can be found every Friday morning without fail. I don’t get my nails done and rarely get the brows waxed but this girl loves to get her “hair did” in the words of Missy Elliott.

Many of us back women have a thing about our hair. It’s an essential part of our individual swag. We invest hundreds of dollars each month making sure that our hair is on point. If need be, we will sit in a salon for hours for the right cut, braids, twists or up do..

And let’s not even talk about that creamy crack. Chris Rock coined the term in his documentary, “Good Hair” about black women, our obsession with hair and the booming weave industry. It was an ode to his daughters and his message was clear: our hair is beautiful as it is. Creamy crack refers to the chemicals we apply to our hair to straighten it. As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get a perm.

For those of us of a certain age, the quest for straight hair began when we were kids with that dreaded hot comb our mothers heated up on the stove. My sister and I would wince when our hair sizzled or the straightening comb clipped our ear. We we got a bit older, we’d head to Wigginton’s Beauty Shop off Georgetown Road in Lexington where Mrs. Betty Ann Williams and Mrs. Dora Sanford did their thing. We loved going to the shop and hearing the ladies gossip. We joked that when we left Ms. Betty Ann’s chair our hair was fried, died and laid to the side!

To this day, I will wear a pair of shoes until they fall apart but I will not neglect my hair. My stylist is one of my best friends. I’ve been in her chair once a week for 20 plus years.  I trust Janet Savage so much that I barely glance at the mirror she hands me at the end of each appointment.

When I leave her shop, my hair is tight. I throw on some earrings and a little bit of lipstick and I’m ready to take on the world. I love Fridays for that reason. Jan was one of the first people I called with the news that I’d cut the perm out of my hair. You did what?  She’s been trying to get me to cut my hair for years but I never had the courage to take my short cut down to less than an inch. I’ll still need Jan to keep my hair trimmed. And I wouldn’t trade my Friday fellowship with her and other ladies for anything.

My father and husband were the first to react. “Why did you do that?” asked my Dad. “Your hair always looked so nice.”  Their reaction likely has more to do with my hair being super short.  They are traditionalists. I’ve also heard from a few friends who’ve asked what product I’m using. I’m thinking those comments mean my hair may be too kinky or dry-looking for their taste.

But, hey,  I love the freedom this short, perm-free cut gives me.  I just wake up, wet it, apply some curl cream and run my fingers through it.   Now if that’s not liberating, I don’t know what is!

My daughter Imani has taught me a thing or two about rocking the natural look with confidence and flair.

My daughter Imani has taught me a thing or two about rocking the natural look with confidence and flair.

Rachel Dolezal was right to resign from the NAACP, but not because she is white

Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal

Lies and misrepresentations are always harmful. But whom among us hasn’t told a white lie or two?

When I first heard about the curious case of Rachel Dolezal,  a white woman pretending to be black, I wondered how that made her different from entertainers and actors who embrace and celebrate black culture.

People like  Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke and Gary Owen, an actor and comedian who happens to be married to a black woman, giving him a unique window into black culture. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a culture that brought the world Etta James, Muddy Waters and B.B. King? Or Muhammad Ali, Usher Raymond and Beyonce?

I have always been proud to be an African-American. Next month, our family will gather in Atlanta for our 57th annual reunion. It’s a place to share love,  recognize academic achievement and celebrate our heritage.

But when I found out  Ms. Dolezal identified herself as African-American on job applications, my opinion changed. We don’t know Ms. Dolezal’s full story because she is dodging reporters. On Monday,  she resigned as president of the Spokane, Washington N.A.A.C.P.  That’s a good call on her part. Her lies have damaged her credibility and made it impossible for her to continue to lead.

American history contains several instances of white people who gave their lives in the fight for civil and human rights.  In 1964, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, two young, Jewish men from the Northeast, were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi along with native son James Chaney as they attempted to register blacks to vote during Freedom Summer.

In 1965, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a wife, mother and N.A.A.C.P. from Detroit, was shot to death in Alabama by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she worked to register black voters.

And let’s not forget the fearless Freedom Riders, hundreds of black and white Americans who in 1961 were beaten and arrested in South Carolina and Alabama; and  jailed in Jackson, Miss. on the ridiculous charge of  “breach of the peace.”  Their goal was to test the enforcement of federal laws prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel.

Ms. Dolezal’s case reminds of us a time when light-skinned black men and women passed for white to avoid such violence or to gain employment or a better education. Typically, they were the descendents of slave masters who raped black women they considered nothing more than property.

These painful facts may help explain why so much anger is being directed at Ms. Dolezal.  Our history is undeniable; and no matter how many times some folks try to rewrite it or justify it, the facts speak for themselves. They are part the reason we still have such much trouble talking about race in America. It’s personal, especially for southerners.

You have to wonder why Ms. Dolezal, who was so active in an organization whose goal is fairness for all people no matter who they are, chose to be someone she is not.

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were reported missing and later found dead in an earthen dam. They were shot and buried by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were reported missing and later found dead in an earthen dam. They were shot and buried by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

ViolaGregg Luizzo, a wife and mother from Detroit, was murdered by Klan members while helping register voters in Montgomery and Selma. She was shot to death while driving with a black man in her car.

Viola Gregg Luizzo, a wife and mother from Detroit, was murdered by Klan members while helping register voters in Montgomery and Selma. She was shot to death while driving with a black man in her car.

Another Mother Speaks

I was on vacation last week and got to catch some of the testimony in the second degree murder trial of George Zimmerman.

Early on Friday I posted my thoughts on the testimony of Sybrina Fulton, who spoke for her 17-year-old son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin. Zimmerman has admitted to shooting and killing Trayvon as he walked home from the store last year in a Florida condominium complex.

In a masterful move by the defense, Gladys Zimmerman was called to the stand to represent her son at the end of the day Friday.

As affirmatively as Sybrina Fulton identified the screams as coming from her son, Gladys Zimmerman said she too was certain the screams were those of her child, George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman’s defense is that he acted in self-defense.

No mother wants to believe their child murdered someone in cold blood.

Regardless of the verdict, two families have been blown to bits.

If Gladys Zimmerman’s son is found not guilty, he will remain guilty in the minds of some and his life will be forever changed.

If Gladys Zimmerman’s son is found guilty, Sybrina Fulton’s son still won’t ever walk through her door again.

There are no winners; only mothers who believe their son’s screams pierced a rainy Florida night just before shots rang out.