Author Jesmyn Ward talks about enduring hurricane season, the South, and what it means to be a MacArthur ‘genius’ She has a deep love for the South, but isn’t sure she wants to finish raising her children there

Winning a MacArthur “genius” grant can be a little bit like winning the nerd lottery.

Not only are you recognized for your intellectual prowess and contributions to society, but it’s publicly announced to every major media outlet in the country that your bank statements will be a bit bigger. MacArthur fellows get $625,000, with zero strings attached, spread over five years.

“It didn’t feel real until everyone knew, and then, of course, you speak to people that you haven’t spoken to in years, and everyone congratulates you,” said author Jesmyn Ward, one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this month. “It’s a huge, huge honor, but it is overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Everyone immediately wants to borrow money.

“Everyone is already like, ‘Oh, so we’re rich now. We’re rich.’ ”

Ward, 40, was already a superstar. Her novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and this year her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is short-listed for it. Inspired by James Baldwin, Ward also edited a 2016 essay collection, The Fire This Time, which assembled thoughts from luminaries such as Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, Clint Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Raboteau.

Ward, who teaches at Tulane University, grew up in Mississippi with modest means. After stints in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York, she elected to return, buying a home in DeLisle, Mississippi, a 57-mile drive to New Orleans and her university job. Salvage the Bones, which followed a poor black Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, was inspired by her own experiences living through the storm. Despite her deep love for her home state and its most vulnerable citizens, Ward is not sure how much longer she’ll remain there.

We talked about writing, the strangeness of becoming a public figure, making it through this year’s harrowing hurricane season, and the hyper-abbreviated nature of black childhood, which Ward explores in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her latest novel follows a 13-year-old boy named Jojo, and his young mother, Leonie, who serve as alternating narrators. They’re poor and live in rural Mississippi with Leonie’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and Leonie’s father. Leonie decides to take a road trip with Jojo and her toddler daughter, Kayla, to pick up their white father, Michael, from prison. Every generation of the family is grappling with death and unresolved loss in some way, but Leonie is particularly striking because of her inability to reckon with the death of her brother, Given, who was murdered by a white schoolmate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What is the moment like when you find out that you’ve been awarded a MacArthur grant?

It’s totally surreal. When it’s happening, when they’re telling you that you’ve won a MacArthur grant, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge award and such a huge honor that it’s never the call that you expect to get. I don’t think it feels real until the announcement. When everyone else finds out, that’s when it feels real. [The MacArthur Foundation] prepares beforehand, because they send a video crew out to your house and you spend an entire day with them.

Most writers are not extroverts. Once you started accumulating this snowball of acclaim, what did that do to you?

It’s difficult, especially because I am naturally a shy person, or at least I was, in high school and afterwards for years. One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak. It’s really odd for me to now have to develop and assume a public persona and to share. I have to figure out how much of my private self am I willing to reveal. How comfortable am I, will I attempt to be, when I’m sharing my life with other people? It’s something that I have to work at.

When did you first realize there’s Public Jesmyn and Private Jesmyn?

I didn’t really realize that I would have to develop a public persona until Salvage the Bones was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s when everything changed for me, because I wrote Where the Line Bleeds as my first novel, my baby novel. A fair amount of people read it, but it didn’t get a ton of serious reviews and I didn’t do a lot of interviews. And then Salvage the Bones came out, and the reception was better, but it was before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Then everything changed, and then of course once I won, everything really changed.

I devoted years of my life to becoming a better writer. I’ve learned how to read like a writer. I worked on my craft and just tried to improve with everything that I produced, with everything that I created, but I never really thought about what it would mean to actually get better and get good enough to the point where other people start recognizing it, and then you’re reaching more people, wider range of people, reaching lots of readers. Suddenly you have an audience.

“One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak.”

Writing is such a solitary thing, so it was a total surprise for me when I realized that my life as a writer would not just consist of me sitting in a room typing or reading.

But you know what helps? Teaching, because I’m a professor, and that helps me a lot. I was put in plenty of situations where I had to think quickly, speak quickly, plenty of situations where I had to attempt to be eloquent and to learn how to talk about something that I was very passionate about, because that’s what teaching demanded.

Is it more difficult talking to a roomful of college students or talking to reporters?

It’s definitely talking to a roomful of college students! This has not happened to me at Tulane, but I’ve definitely taught at other schools where the college students I’m teaching do not think that I am the smartest person in the room, and in fact they think they are the smartest person in the room. That’s always a little difficult to navigate.

What did you mean by “learning to read like a writer”?

For me, that meant reading poetry to attempt to figure out how figurative language can create beauty, how figurative language can make a reader feel. I read poetry to also figure how sentences can create rhythm, how paragraphs can create rhythm.

I read literary fiction to attempt to figure out what was pleasing to me as far as a prose style. I also read literary fiction to figure out how to develop a character, how to make a character come alive on the page. I read literary fiction to figure out pacing and how to balance narration and scene, and what was pleasing to me as a writer, what kind of balance was pleasing to me, whether I liked lots of dialogue and a little narration or more narration and less dialogue.

And then I read other genres, like fantasy, like sci-fi, like children’s books, middle-grade books, YA books, even romance, because I feel like those genres taught me different things about — I feel like I wasn’t necessarily reading them to learn lessons about prose and about what I felt worked well and what didn’t. I think that those books taught me things about how to create suspense, about plot.

What are you excited to be reading right now?

I have a poetry anthology next to my bed. Czeslaw Milosz. A Book of Luminous Things. That’s nice, to have books that I can open up and read a short piece and get some satisfaction from knowing that I’ve read something.

I recently read a children’s book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which was amazing. In the last two chapters, I was tearing up the entire time. It was insane, but it was such a pleasure to read that because I could just enjoy it. I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit. It’s just a lovely, beautiful book.

You have spent a lot of time thinking about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What was it like for you living through this hurricane season?

It’s been difficult, especially seeing the devastation in Houston, seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico, seeing the devastation in Florida, being witness to the current administration’s ambivalence towards that suffering, and sometimes outright hostility that echoes some of the ambivalence and hostility that at least New Orleans, and somewhat the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that we experienced during Katrina. It’s hard, and I didn’t realize how difficult until I saw Houston was flooding, and I thought, ‘I should write something about this,’ and I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write anything, and then I realized how deeply affected I was and how haunted I was by Katrina and by what happened after Katrina.

And then I realized that again, when we were preparing for Hurricane Nate. Nate was a Category 2 storm, and we were losing our minds. I was trying to get a solar-powered generator. I was stocking up and preparing in a way that you would prepare for a Category 5, and yet so was everyone else. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone else here, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in New Orleans. That’s the long shadow of Katrina. I think that every time it happens, that we’ll react like that, because of Katrina, because we’re still struggling with it. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anxiety and terror that people carry from our experiences in Katrina.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, you bounce back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, who are both young, as narrators. Jojo is forced to grow up faster than his years, and Leonie, his mother, doesn’t quite feel like a real grown-up yet.

I think that black childhood is not something that’s granted to black children in America, and so I think that my characters reflected that. Jojo, his experience reflects that in the present moment, as he’s going through it, but I feel that Leonie is the kind of character who comes to life when a black person has — when their childhood has been denied. When that childhood has been stolen, she’s the result, where she’s sort of stuck in this extended adolescence, especially with her selfishness and her inability to process hardship, to face hardship and to live with hardship and to thrive, really. That’s what happens.

“I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit.”

It’s funny, because then I think about Richie’s character, who is a ghost. He’s a ghost, and he should be nearly as old as Pop is, but yet he, too, is stuck in some sort of adolescence because his childhood was taken away from him, because he was robbed of his childhood.

I think about Mam and I think about Pop, and I wonder why they did not break, why they don’t seem broken in the way that Leonie’s broken, or that Richie is broken.

When I think about Kayla and Jojo, I don’t think that they will be broken people like Leonie or like Richie. I think that they’ll be like Mam and like Pop, and maybe the reason why I don’t think that they will be broken people, and maybe the reason why Pop and Mam aren’t broken, is because there was something there that sustained them. I think for Mam, it was the love of her family, and also these things like black spiritual traditions, voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine. I think that that sustained her. With Pop, I think it’s family. I think that that definitely sustained him, and maybe a sense of community that he has or a sense of responsibility that he had to that family and to that community.

You go so hard for the South. So often it’s discussed as a place where the best thing about it for black folks is that they can leave. What makes you want to stay there?

I am writing about the kind of people who I grew up with. I’m writing about people who are like my family members. I’m writing about people who are like people who live in my community. I think, because I’m writing from that place, that I can love them, but I can also be critical of them. And I think, too, that I’m very aware of how history bears on the present in the South, and of how it complicates people’s lives, and how it is this really underacknowledged force in the region. I want to acknowledge that, and I think that that’s also what is fueling some of that critical eye.

I wanted to come back for so long, and I am here now, but I have gotten to this point in my life where I can’t say that I will stay here forever.

Why not?

It’s just motivated by my kids, because I have a 5-year-old daughter and I have my son, who [is now] 1. I love my kids, and I want the best for them, and I don’t know. I feel like, in some respects, that I would be failing them if we stayed here through the years when they were teenagers, because this is not a kind place, in many ways, and I worry for them. I want them to live, and I want them to thrive, and I don’t know if this is the best place for that to happen.

Is there any place in America that’s safe for them, where they can be children?

I know that there’s nowhere in this country where they could be completely safe, but I do feel like there are places in this country that would be safer, and made safer, because of where I have worked, because of where I’ve gotten in my life. Classwise, I could afford them different opportunities that if I were poor, or if I lived in poverty, and if I were moving to the Northeast or Chicago or the West, they’d face more dangers. But there’s some opportunities that I can give them because of where I am right now.

I don’t know a single educated black person who has risen to a certain place in society who doesn’t have family members who aren’t as lucky.

It’s difficult. I do what I can, but I think that — how do I say this? I do what I can for my extended family, but I think that their ideas of what I have and the demand on what I have are different from my knowledge of what I have and what I have to give. It induces a lot of guilt, because you want to help. When you’re personally in that situation, you want to help your extended family. I feel guilty because I’m in this position, and they’re not, and then I also feel guilty that I can’t do more. But I can’t. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire. I’m a thousandaire.

How much did the death of your brother figure into Leonie and the way she’s working through Given’s death?

I was worried about that when I discovered Given’s character, when it worked out that Leonie had a brother and that he died when they were teenagers. I was worried about writing him, because I know that readers know about my brother, and I didn’t want them to confuse me with Leonie. I didn’t want them to confuse my brother with Given, but I felt like Given was the key. Given was the key to understanding Leonie. His death was the key to understanding her — who she was, her trauma, and understanding why she does what she does. And so I felt like I had no choice, in some respects. I had to write him.

But then, those fears eased a little bit once I got further into the manuscript because their relationship took on a life of its own. It became real, and it was very different from my relationship with my brother. And so, once I got to the point where I felt like their relationship took on life, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re nothing like each other.’ But knowing that Leonie lost a sibling helped me to really understand her, understand that pain that she basically shies away from dealing with and living with.

You talk about the resilience of Mam and Pop, but I wonder if her cancer is basically her internal grief welling up inside her?

I read an article … that was about health and racism. The article was making the argument that racism is a stressor, and that that stressor affects black people’s health in many different ways, and that when you control for class, that still you see a big difference in the health outcomes for black people at a certain class and health outcomes for white people in a certain class.

That was really striking to me. They’re looking at things like heart disease, like diabetes, like maternal health. They’re looking at things like premature births, and then the health outcomes for the children. The article was really making the argument that racism has lasting effects, health effects on black people. I was thinking about that a lot while I was writing Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Boosie Badazz is more than a rapper, he’s a survivor and he’s cancer-free ‘I was reaching out to the public because I needed prayer; prayer is stronger than anything’

One glimpse at Louisiana rapper Boosie Badazz’s schedule will tell you he’s a businessman on a mission. It’s his everyday battle with cancer and also diabetes that you can’t always see.

What fans witness on any given night of a Boosie performance is an artist who is passionate and dedicated to his craft. But off stage, beyond the bright lights, live mics and the fog of smoky nightclubs, Boosie, given name Torrence Hatch, battles each day to keep going.

There are the doctor’s appointments to ensure the 34-year-old is still cancer-free after being diagnosed with kidney cancer two years ago. There are the daily measures Boosie takes to control his Type 1 diabetes — insulin, three times a day — a regularly scheduled routine since his diagnosis 13 years ago.

He’s also been working overtime in the studio on his latest tracks and celebrating the successes of other artists he has managed, including rapper Yung Bleu, who signed with Columbia Records last month. The entrepreneur has even crossed into the food industry to promote Boosie Juice — his all-natural, strawberry-kiwi-flavored vodka — and pushing the Lil’ Boosie Louisiana Heat potato chips, produced by the Rap Snacks potato chip company. In between business ventures, Boosie is still greeting the fans and delivering high-energy performances to sold-out crowds around the country.

Despite that, Boosie Badazz remains as tough as his moniker and is keeping his health at the forefront.

“Right now, I’m probably healthier than I’ve ever been,” Boosie said by phone. “I’m just trying to stay out here and keep doing what I’m doing, but, you know, the things that I be going through, it just makes me stronger. I never fold. All this s— that come on me … it just makes me stronger. I been going through this my whole life.”

Boosie, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gained popularity in the early 2000s after signing with Pimp C’s Trill Entertainment. There, Boosie, known as Lil Boosie at the time, collaborated with artist Webbie, and the two released their first hit collaboration album, Ghetto Stories, in 2003. After the popularity of the first album, a second collaboration album, Gangsta Musik, was released the following year. Boosie’s solo album, Bad Azz, was released in 2006.

“My music, it does more than make people jump or bob their heads,” Boosie said. “It touches people. … My fans see me and they cry to me. I’m a friend to my fans, and that’s that different music. You can make music that makes you jump, but you’re gonna get tired of dancing. When you make music that sits with people and make people think, it’s different. I have a crazy following, and my fans love the s— out of me. You can’t tell them nothing about Boosie.”

As Boosie climbed to new heights in his career, trouble soon followed. In 2009, the rapper was jailed and sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to a marijuana possession charge and probation violation. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle drugs into prison, which added eight years to his sentence, according to NOLA.com. His sentencing prompted the social media campaign #FreeBoosie, started for and by fans who believed the rapper’s sentencing was too much. After serving five years, Boosie was released from prison in March 2014 and immediately got back to work as if he’d never stepped out of the scene.

“Jail made me smarter business-wise,” Boosie said. “I had to read books on music. I had to sit back and find ways to make it through. I’m way smarter than I was hood-wise also. I don’t do certain s— that I would’ve done back in the day. Once you get a little older, you wise up. Jail made me sharper and made me a more successful person.”

Boosie’s health scare

Smaller health issues, such as his diabetes, remained in check. But in 2015, the rapper experienced symptoms that were much more serious than he’d ever experienced. Physically, he wasn’t feeling well. Vomiting and weight loss were prevalent. Boosie turned to doctors for answers and requested a magnetic resonance imaging scan in hopes of solving his medical mystery. When the results came back, doctors delivered the crushing news to Boosie that his health problems were a result of kidney cancer. Unwilling to accept the news the first time around, Boosie opted to undergo another scan in hopes that there was an error with the first one.

“When I found out I had it, it was a hard time for me,” Boosie said. “I wasn’t feeling confident at all. I had just lost two aunties and an uncle to cancer. Anything else I’ll take it all head up, but with cancer, I was worried a lot because I had just lost a couple of my people. I ain’t never fight nothing like this. I was losing so much weight. I lost like 20 pounds in 13 days.”

With the news settling in, Boosie, going against the wishes of his label and family members, reached out to his fans. In an Instagram caption, which was later deleted, the rapper asked for prayers.

“I need all my fans to pray for me,” Boosie wrote. “Doctor just told me I have cancer on my kidneys. Prayer is power, that’s why I’m letting the world know prayfaboosie.”

“I was reaching out to the public because I needed prayer,” Boosie said of the moment. “Prayer is stronger than anything.”

Many of Boosie’s 4 million Instagram followers vowed to do as requested while leaving messages of encouragement and support under the rap star’s heartwrenching caption. There were others who not only questioned the authenticity of Boosie’s post but also accused the rapper of fabricating the story and wrote it off as a publicity stunt.

Boosie paused on the other end of the line before letting out a short, heavy sigh. A slight change in the tone of his voice indicated that those accusations still bother him today.

“I was upset when I heard that,” Boosie finally said. “Why would somebody want to go through some crazy m—–f—ing s—t like that? I went against everybody. I went against the label, my family to post that. This s— didn’t need to be in no damn closet. I went and typed it myself that I had just gotten diagnosed with cancer.”

Whether the messages were typed with ill intent, or simply submitted by stunned fans who were in just as much denial as he was about the recent diagnosis, Boosie didn’t care to find out. His health was most important, and surgery would be the next option. Although Boosie tried to remain strong, especially for his children, the ailing star was beset with worry.

“I was praying, but I wasn’t being strong,” Boosie said. “I was letting it worry me so much that it was taking all my weight from me. And the cancer was too. I just kept praying and telling God, ‘Don’t let me die yet.’ ”

A month later, Boosie underwent successful surgery to remove 30 percent of his kidney. Through it all, music remained his constant companion. Three weeks removed from surgery, Boosie remained too weak to walk on his own. So he rolled into the studio, writing music and recording tracks from his wheelchair.

“Well, when I was going through it, that’s when I made the Out My Feelings in My Past mixtape. I had a lot on my chest.”

Today, nearly two years after the grim diagnosis and successful surgery, Boosie continues to live life knowing tomorrow isn’t promised and remains focused on being the best version of himself. Although he admits that exercise could be more of a priority, Boosie takes his required medication to stay balanced.

Boosie is also looking forward to shopping around a movie he’s written about his life story, from birth till now.

“It took about six or seven months to put together,” Boosie said. “I’d write a chapter on the plane, or a chapter in the bed, whenever I could squeeze time in. Life is busy, but what keeps me motivated is giving my kids a better life, a childhood, than I had. Being able to bless them with the life I never had. I’m always there for my kids. That’s what brings a smile to me.”

Through it all, the rapper knows now that he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I used to always say I wanted to change this or that, but everything I go through, that’s what makes Boosie,” he said. “If I hadn’t went through things, then I wouldn’t have had it to talk about on a record. So I just feel like everything happens for a reason. I always feel like that.”

This organization is dispelling the myth that black mothers don’t breastfeed Black Breastfeeding Week highlights health benefits and personal empowerment of breastfeeding in the black community

Last week Melanie Jones, a mother of two, learned it was Black Breastfeeding Week through Facebook. When the new mother (age 36) and science teacher found out she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter Maycen, the decision she and her husband Ted made to opt for breastfeeding was a no-brainer, as long as her body would allow. They later welcomed a second daughter, Madycen, who is also breastfed.

“It saves money,” Jones said.

According to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, families who incorporate breastfeeding practices can save about $1,500 that would go toward formula in the first year.

Melanie Jones nurses her daughter Madycen. She is thrilled that Black Breastfeeding Week is an awareness campaign and hopes that numbers of black mothers who breastfeed will increase.

Photo by Jennifer Clements Wells

And the economical outcome is just one benefit.

Despite discouraging numbers, many mothers like Jones see the total benefits of breastfeeding and many organizations are taking time out to bring awareness to the nationwide topic.

Black Breastfeeding Week was established five years ago by Kiddada Green, Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka and Kimberly Seals Allers. The weeklong campaign continues to embrace breastfeeding in black families. The national awareness campaign ran this year from Aug. 25 through Aug. 31 and its goal is to highlight health benefits and personal empowerment of breastfeeding in the black community.

“For years, our communities have been viewed as places of deficiencies and lacks, but we reject that narrative and have full faith and confidence that we can create the solutions and support to improve infant and maternal health outcomes and save our babies,” said Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder and author of The Big Letdown – How Medicine Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding Kimberly Seals Allers said in a press release.

Using this year’s theme, #BetOnBlack, the weeklong celebration was created in response to the unacceptable racial disparities in breastfeeding rates that have existed for more than 40 years.

“When we Bet on Black we will always win,” said Green, Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder and founding executive director of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association in Detroit.

Sangodele-Ayoka said, “We say ‘Bet on Black’ this year as confirmation of the passionate, tireless and innovative work being done by communities and families to protect the first food and this deeply nourishing tradition.” Sangodele-Ayoka, also a Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder, is a nurse-midwife in North Carolina and breastfeeding advocate.

The week included community events and a large social media presence. According the Black Breastfeeding Week, more than 60 local communities participated across the country. This year’s theme speaks to the growing need to create community-partnered solutions designed by the black community. Instead of looking to outsiders, researchers or other traditional “experts” to increase breastfeeding in the black community, the founders of Black Breastfeeding Week are calling on all to #BetOnBlack for solutions.

The trio knows it takes a deeper conversation and will continue to spread the word yearlong.

Meanwhile, other researchers are also in on the conversation. Regina Smith James, director of Clinical and Health Services Research at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, recently wrote an article that stresses the economical and health benefits of breastfeeding.

“When it comes to providing our babies with the best nutrition ever, breastfeeding is not only economical, but it has positive health effects for both baby and mom … Breast milk is uniquely suited to your baby’s nutritional needs, with immunologic and anti-inflammatory properties,” she stressed. “Breast milk not only offers a nutritionally balanced meal, but some studies suggest that breastfeeding may even reduce the risk for certain allergic diseases, asthma, and obesity in your baby, as well as type 2 diabetes in moms.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of women who initiated breastfeeding was 64.3 percent for African-Americans, 81.5 percent for whites, and 81.9 percent for Hispanics.

James added that research shows the racial disparities in the African-American community occur for several different reasons.

“Healthcare settings that separate mothers from babies during their hospital stay; lack of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of not breastfeeding; perceived inconvenience of lifestyle changes; the cultural belief that the use of cereal in a bottle will prolong the infant’s sleep; and embarrassment — fear of being stigmatized when they breastfeed in public,” James wrote.

Shalandus Garrett, new mother of 4-month-old daughter Logan agrees that breastfeeding is the best economical choice for her household and she appreciates the time spent with mother and baby.

“I like the bond it creates and the closeness,” said the 34-year-old cancer researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. She is employed in a “super mom-friendly environment” that provides a nursing room and supplies for mothers who work and are away from their children but need to periodically pump milk throughout the work day.

While Garrett has an overproduction of milk, she noted that other problems exist for many women who attempt to breastfeed. These issues include low production of milk and infants not latching on.

Shalandus Garrett stores milk she pumps into her freezer. She overproduces breast milk and is exploring ways to donate her extra milk.

Garrett recently connected with her two cousins who are also new mothers at a family reunion. Joi Miller and Jessica Fitzgerald-Torry both opted to breastfeed but had to stop.

“After not breastfeeding my first child [who is 13], I was adamant to breastfeed any children after,” Miller, 33, said. “It was the most bonding experience I’d ever felt, skin-to-skin is a beautiful feeling, but [also] looking down at my nursing baby girl. I never felt so needed or accomplished. Well, until three months passed and I didn’t produce enough, leaving feelings of inadequacy. But now four months later, all she needed was a couple of months and she still latches on to me from the mere smell of me entering a room. For my first child, I just didn’t value the advantages to breastfeeding. But note my son is still very attached and quite brilliant, I must say.”

Jessica, 26, attempted to but had problems with Legend latching.

According to an article posted on National Institute of Health’s website, “African Americans continue to have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation, 60 percent, and continuation at 6 months, 28 percent, and, 12 months, 13 percent, compared with all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States.”

Although improvements in breastfeeding rates for African-American women are evident from the 2000–2007 National Immunization Survey, African-American mothers are still 2.5 times less likely to breastfeed than white women. Organizations such as Black Breastfeeding Week are working tirelessly to change the narrative and turn a weeklong awareness event into a lifestyle.

Nazr Mohammed isn’t retired, just prepared for his next phase in life He’s started a foundation to focus on bringing awareness and money to multiple causes

Chicago native and NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed has not officially retired after an 18-year stint in the league. And he doesn’t have much to say about when that announcement will come.

“I realized a long time ago, seeing other friends and teammates go through it. Only the great ones actually retire. The rest of us get retired,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need to officially retire, but I am retired. What I mean by that is, you know, there’s always a situation you would play for, but after a year has passed, I’m not really thinking in that mindset as far as playing again. I’m looking more into the business of basketball. There are things I want to do as far as looking for the right situation that can teach me the business of basketball and put me in a position where I have an opportunity to learn as much as I can. My dream is to one day run my own organization, whether it’s GM or as the president of an organization. I think I can manage and help build a championship team.”

But Mohammed is a multidimensional thinker whose skills have stretched far beyond the court. So for the next chapter of his career, he’s continuing to give back to others and teaching life skills to young girls and boys through his foundation. His off-the-court endeavors include the Nazr Mohammed Foundation, a fundraising organization that focuses on bringing awareness and money to a cause of his choice while hosting its own programs.

“You know how so many start a foundation and they have one particular cause? Just with me, it’s so many different things that I believe in and so many different causes that I’d like to support,” Mohammed said of his multilayered unit. “I decided that, you know what, one cause just isn’t enough, so I keep my foundation pretty broad.”

The University of Kentucky standout was selected in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz right after his junior year. Utah traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers, with whom Mohammed spent the first two seasons of his NBA career. The 6-foot-10 center was an integral big man for the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats, Oklahoma City Thunder and his hometown Chicago Bulls. He played for the Thunder last season.

Mohammed attended high school at Kenwood Academy in Chicago and grew up in a big household led by his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana.

“There’s 10 of us. Three brothers, six sisters. I’m like fourth from oldest,” he said.

In February, he shared information about his life, his childhood and growing up in a Muslim household in a blog post about religion and politics. He wrote about his experiences with online racism, and his story picked up national attention.

“It’s funny, when I do my blog, something happens that’s just constantly being talked about on TV, and I knew I had an opinion,” he said. “I do plan on doing the blog again. I don’t know when, I don’t know what it’ll be about. When there’s something to talk about, I just have some things I need to say about it, and I just start writing and put it out there.

“The funny part is I never thought I was a writer. I actually didn’t like writing a whole lot, but after I get started, I think I’m getting better. I enjoy it, and once I get started I can’t stop.”

Meanwhile, Mohammed is busy running The Village Project for boys and girls ages 14 to 18.

“What we do is we get up to 100 kids. We try to get about 50 girls and 50 boys. We go through different things and different situations that kids may be going through from bullying to etiquette, financial planning, etc. We create the curriculum according to the what we feel are tools they will need to excel. Then come in and talk to them about financial planning so they can get an understanding about how to handle money, how to save, what bills to expect. When you’re young, no one ever really talks to you about money and financial planning. I think that’s something, especially in the black community, we kind of have to learn on our own.”

Mohammed spoke with The Undefeated about his foundation, family and his overall journey.


What was the idea behind starting your foundation?

I was trying to do something for my high school. I wanted to do something where I help them out academically and athletically, so I decided it was time to start up my foundation. I can kind of use my platform, my name, to try and help to raise money or have fundraisers for them.

My first fundraiser we raised a total of $40,000 for my high school. It helped them upgrade a couple of academic areas. We were able to upgrade some things in their main gym. My second year, I decided to change it up. It was a couple of organizations that I felt that were doing some outstanding things in Chicago and I wanted to highlight them. One of them was Sue Duncan Children’s Center, a place I attended in elementary after the school day to play ball. Back when I attended it didn’t a have a name, so we called it Sue’s. It was at a church; Sue made us read then do a book report before we could play. The other option was to read to some of the younger kids. Sue’s son, Arne Duncan, later became the superintendent of Chicago schools. President [Barack] Obama later named him secretary of education. We donated money to Sue Duncan Children’s Center. Also a place called CircEsteem. It’s an organization that is an afterschool program that kind of keeps kids engaged. They are teaching them like circus tricks. And another one was called Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. In the third year, I switched it up again. This time I did a big fundraiser for Kovler Diabetes Center with the University of Chicago. And the reason I chose diabetes was because of a couple of people in my family suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. And I wanted to just kind of give back and bring awareness, because we all know how prevalent it is in the black community.

We would help them with the things they were doing as far as research, and they had programs where they were helping people pay for their medicine. In our fourth year, we decided to do something for autism. We did a big fundraiser to raise money for a couple of groups that were helping out in black communities, and communities everywhere. In the fifth year, we also donated to a couple of local organizations.

So that’s kind of what we do. We’re all over the place. If I see something where I feel like it’s a credible organization, or they’re doing great work and I can lend my name, or I could do something and raise money for them, I kind of just do it.

What’s been the hardest part of fundraising for you?

The hardest part is, it’s kind of sad. … You have so many people who say they want to help and they want to be part of what you’re doing, but they really want to help in certain ways. They only want to do certain things. So finding people who are willing to donate their time, or money, or their expertise, it’s been hard. There have been times where people have had their own agendas.

Which cause is the most like heart-tugging for you?

Honestly, all of them have been pretty equal. With autism, I had a friend who had two of his young children on the autistic spectrum. I had another friend whose son in high school was autistic. So that was something that was close to me. As far as diabetes in my immediate family, I have so many that are Type 1 and Type 2. Cancer, at the time I decided to do my fundraiser for cancer, I also had one friend pass from a form of cancer. I had another friend, his mom just found out she had cervical cancer, and I had two friends dealing with breast cancer, so that was something that was really close to me. With each fundraiser we did, there was definitely something that meant something dearly to me at the time and still does. I do have to admit, it is very rewarding doing The Village Project just because this is where we can help teenage kids, we can help young kids, and give them some directions.

As a ‘Windy City’ native, how do you feel about some of the community issues that have been plaguing the Chicago area?

Since I don’t live there full time, I can’t say it directly affects me. But being in Chicago, you just feel it. Growing up in Chicago and playing basketball, when I played, you almost had like an athlete pass, where if you’re doing good, you’re the good player, you are pretty much allowed to go play here and play there, and going to different neighborhoods and no one pretty much messed with you. The saddest part about the violence that’s going on in Chicago, you no longer see that pass. In the last couple of years, there’s been a couple of prominent high school athletes from Chicago who had been killed. When you talk about my city, I want you to talk about it for being a great city, it is. With all the violence that’s going on, the murder rate being so high in certain areas.

I think it’s time that I try and figure out what I can do. I’m as bashful about what exactly you can do with most people. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’m actually trying to find the right organization that I want to partner with, see where I can help.

How do you feel about rappers like Chance the Rapper and Common and others who are speaking out and taking a stand for what’s going on in the community there?

What Chance has been doing, it’s just been amazing. Just to be such a young guy. How intelligent and how passionate he is about the city, putting his money where his mouth is. It’s just been amazing. Some people forget Derrick [Rose] gave a million dollars to an after-school program in Chicago. It’s not talked about much; once it’s done, people forget quickly. Derrick put his money where his mouth was too. There’s people stepping up, people trying to support the city in whichever way they can, whether financially.

Are your children aware of and involved in your philanthropic efforts?

Yeah, definitely. I try to have them involved in little ways whenever we can. I definitely have them around when we do the big group stuff so they can just see what’s going on, letting them help fill gift bags, little things like that, just so they got a feel for what’s going on and kind of be part of it. I have a 14-year-old daughter who will be starting high school this year, 11-year-old son who will be in the sixth grade, and an 8-year-old daughter will be in third grade.

What’s been the most interesting part in being the giver?

I hate to say it, but one of the biggest reasons why I do it is when you give, that’s an opportunity to be selfish. What I mean by that is, when you give … I do it because it makes me feel good. At the end of the day, knowing that you’re in a position that you can help others and you can give and the smiles that you put on people’s faces and the happiness that you bring to others. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel good about myself, so if I can make myself feel a little bit better by giving to others, when I have the opportunity, I try to do it.

How has being a Ghanaian player in the NBA been for you?

It’s funny because I’m just doing my thing, and they’re so proud because I was the first Ghanaian in the NBA. So they’re so proud of it, but at the same time it’s one of those things, because I’m American-born, some people feel like, ‘We don’t know.’ Both my parents are from Ghana. I can’t pick where I was born. I feel like it just had a great impression on me. It’s a quality, and it’s something that is ingrained from different things for me. You know, growing up being the African kid in the neighborhood. You’re treated differently. People look at you differently. Your parents speak a different language but hear the accent.

My father, he really wanted us to understand the difference between being poor in America and Third World poor, how he grew up. We just got different culture and different view on things. Being included, once I became a good basketball player, having that background, my Ghanaian part and just being an African-American in America. I just got a chance to develop so many different views and be a part of so many different groups. That’s something I touched on in my blog about religion and politics.

How has your culture shaped you into the man you are now?

It’s in my DNA. My pops was a hardworking, smart, whatever it takes to be successful, whatever it takes to feed his family. It rubbed off on all of us, all the kids. It’s just part of our culture. You do whatever you have to do, especially being the man of the house. You feed your family, you keep a roof over their heads, you work hard, you try to achieve as much as you can, you learn as much as you can. It definitely shaped me into the man I am today. My father, he did it all first off. It’s kind of hard to explain what he did. During my lifetime, he owned gas stations, he’s done all types of things, but during my lifetime, he drove a cab first. He drove a cab in Chicago, then he wound up went into medallion. Medallion is the right to have a cab in Chicago. A friend of his wanted medallion, but he couldn’t afford to put it on the street, so my father bought his medallion. So now he had two cabs. He slowly put together where he at one point owned 11 cabs. He was a jack-of-all-trades, he did it all. We had a restaurant for a year or two. My pops, he would just work hard, get it out there, try to accomplish it.

If it fails, get backup. Try to figure out another way to accomplish another goal. He always told us, if you can, don’t work for anybody, work for yourself. I’ve always had that in my mind, but of course I haven’t been able to achieve considering it’s kind of hard to be on a team and work for yourself. I’m trying to figure that one out now.

Did you experience any racism growing up?

I feel like at some level, you can always question the way someone treated you, is it some form of racism or prejudice, but you don’t truly know. I found social media, that’s a wild experience. Most of my racism is through … I don’t really count that though. I haven’t experienced much racism that I can confirm in person. No one has called me out my name in person. It’s been more like you’ve had this feeling. And that this person could have been a racist or could have been prejudiced, prejudiced against tall people, black people, whatever it may be, Africans or in which box you want to check for me.

Entertainment mogul Damon Dash’s new Dash Diabetes Network is all about healthy living From music mogul to streaming service, Dash keeps reinventing himself — this time, he’s doing it to save lives

Entertainment and media veteran Damon Dash is now in the business of advocating for others to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle and a better quality of life.

The star was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 15 years old. Shortly afterward, he lost his mother to asthma. That’s his motivation for his new venture: the Dash Diabetes Network.

Diabetes appears in two forms, each of which affects the body’s ability to maintain insulin levels. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is unable to create insulin at all, while Type 2 happens when the body struggles to control glucose levels.

According to the American Diabetes Association (the focus of a sharp Netflix documentary What the Health, named for the group’s failure to provide proper dietary information by diabetes risk factors rather than the general population). African-Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes. With 13.2 percent of all African-Americans age 20 or older diagnosed with diabetes, black people are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. The website also notes that African-Americans are significantly more likely to suffer complications common to diabetes, such as blindness, kidney disease and amputations.

That being said, millions of diabetic Americans live healthy and uninhibited lives maintaining their diabetes, and the 40-year-old credits What the Health for prompting him to make some serious dietary changes.

If the multilayered Dash had a traditional resume, it would list a wide variety of accomplishments. Music and entertainment executive — check. Talent discovery agent — check. Record company co-founder — check. Fashion and lifestyle expert — check. Art gallery owner and director — check. Reality TV star — check. Movie director and producer — check. Beverage brand manager — check.

“I might not be a doctor, but I’m in a doctor’s state of mind,” Dash says in the intro of episode one, which aired Aug. 7 on his streaming service at www.damedashstudios.com and on the Dash Diabetes app.

With the Dash Diabetes Network, he uses his influences, his career and his struggle with diabetes as an opportunity to fuse health care and entertainment. The ten 20-minute episodes feature other filmmakers, holistic doctors, musicians and artists to showcase new advances in medicine, recipes, and fitness and wellness tips. Shorter segments are available on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest.

The more Dash evolves, the more he makes history. He was co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 with Jay-Z and Kare “Biggs” Burke during an era when East Coast rap — some say — may have saved hip-hop. During his time with the then-flourishing label, new artists emerged and hits were made. He discovered Kanye West and had his hand in cultivating the careers of Cam’ron, Beanie Sigel, DJ Clue, Memphis Bleek and others.

Dash later went into the fashion industry developing the ’90s urban clothing line Rocawear. He was part of the team that outright purchased Armadale Vodka. He later formed the Dame Dash Collection, an upscale clothing line. He also created the clothing line State Property for Beanie Sigel. He produced the critically acclaimed independent film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon and David Alan Grier, and worked with Lee Daniels on Shadowboxer, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren. In 2009, Dash added theater producer to his resume. He produced the Hip-Hop Monologues for rapper and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop’s standout Jim Jones. Dash also opened an art gallery and a digital media company (Creative Control) and has had three stints in reality television (Ultimate Hustler, Family Therapy with Dr. Jenn and Growing Up Hip Hop).

Dash says he doesn’t consider any day for him to be normal.

“On average, I’ve worked really hard in architecting my life where I can take care of my children, and make my dreams come true at the same time, without compromise,” he explained. “When I wake up, I go test my blood just so I can recalibrate my Dexcom, which is my glucose monitor, and then I usually take the insulin that I need. Then I go work out. I gotta do a lot of 30- to 45-minute workouts.”

Every morning, Dash takes one shot of a drug that provides a long-lasting dose of insulin called Toujeo, which helps with blood sugar control. He also takes Afrezza, a fast-acting insulin that helps control postmeal blood sugar spikes.

“That’s the one I inhale. And they also sponsor the Dash Diabetes Network.”

Then he hits his pool and hot tub.

“I’m not putting on a shirt before 5 [p.m.]; probably it’s gonna be swim trunks, or until I’ve gotta pick my kids up. And it usually entails me looking at content, talking to the staff.”

The world has recently lost entertainers, including rapper Phife Dog and nationally syndicated radio host Doug Banks, to diabetes. According to ranker.com, the history of stars with diabetes dates back to affluent entertainers such as jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald, Gimme A Break! star Nell Carter, Good Times mom and actress Esther Rolle, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and singers Curtis Mayfield, Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King.

Meanwhile, Dash and other stars are doing the work to maintain healthy lifestyles. Actors Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams and Anthony Anderson, Randy Jackson (American Idol), Sherri Shepherd, Patti LaBelle, actress and singer Della Reese and comedian Jay Anthony Brown have all opened up to the public about their diabetes diagnoses.

Dash spoke with The Undefeated about his journey, his health and how he desires to continue to inspire others.


How have you stayed so relevant in the entertainment business, and how do you continue to keep reinventing Damon Dash?

I think probably because I’m not so concerned about it. You know what I mean? And I just continue to make history, ’cause I’m only doing what makes me feel good. I just try to continuously do cool things. And I like to do innovative things. And I like to do things that are honest and authentic. And I think I tell the truth a lot.

So, if you talk to different people about who they know, and what they know about Dame Dash, you might get one age demographic that will talk about Roc-A-Fella, one age demographic that will talk about Rachel Roy [Dash’s ex-wife and mother of his two daughters, Ava and Tallulah] and the fashion, one demographic that might talk about the movie with Kevin Harder, Lee Daniels, one demographic that’s gonna talk about the information I distribute every time I’m in a public platform, like The Breakfast Club, and how I’ve been very upfront about who to look out for and what to look out for within our culture. And now, people will probably talk about my directing, and also the Dash Diabetes Network.

It’s just, as I evolve, the projects that I do evolve with me. And my mentality changes a lot. I tend not to try to stay … I get bored after I’ve accomplished something, or I get to a certain place … I want to do something different.

How do you balance it all?

I think laughter, and love. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that counts. Laughter, and love, and health. And I think that’s where the balance comes in, because everything I do, I enjoy. It’s like life. It’s not even like work. It’s just all me having fun. I don’t recall ever really getting up and feeling like I’ve ever had to go to work. I always look forward to my day.

How has life been since you first opened up to the public about living with diabetes?

I never really looked at it as an open up. Everyone knows I wear everything on my sleeve, like a tattoo. But I’ve always tried to be public about it. But I was never really famous enough for anyone to care. You know, my platform, me directly, it never held that much weight for me to be talking about what was wrong with me. But I think now, in this chapter of my career, of my life, I do hold enough weight where people will listen. And because of the fact that I’ve learned how to control it, where that was a struggle for me before, a bit. I thought that it was time to talk about it for long. But it was always on my bucket list. I would always include it, but people wouldn’t talk about it for some reason, almost like they don’t talk about the fact that I’m a single dad since my son was 8. And he’s 25 now.

By this being such a medically influenced project and you’re encouraging a healthy lifestyle, what do you want viewers to get out of it?

I want them to get healthy. I want people to understand that, No. 1, as relates to diabetes, don’t be ashamed of it. You should embrace that, and that being imperfect is perfection. Because no one’s perfect, and everyone’s dealt some kind of card, and everyone has to play them. And that if a guy like me can make his story diabetic, so can anybody else. And just to be fearless. That’s all, really. And to deal with whatever issue you have. Don’t push them to the side. You gotta deal with them.

And diabetes is a silent killer. It’s something that doesn’t kill you overnight. It takes a minute. So you always have to be constantly thinking about your future when it comes to taking care of diabetes. And I think people should always think about their future, as opposed to just worrying about their present and their past.

Has it been hard for you to incorporate a new diet? And what’s been some of the obstacles?

Well, I never really made a new diet. I’m indulgent. I was just happy to be living, so I was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna eat whatever I want to eat. I’ll just take more insulin.’ But again, the innovation came, where I started to control it, was because the Afrezza is inhalable, and it works quicker. But, being that I’m educating about diabetes, I was looking for education about health, and I came to my diet recently, just ’cause I learned how bad mass-made and corporate food is, with the GMO [genetically modified organisms], and the tolerance for things that I find unsanitary in the food.

When you say recently, what was that time frame?

About three weeks ago, I watched What the Health and doing more research because Rocky [longtime girlfriend Raquel Horn] thinks diabetes is a lifestyle, so she was showcasing how she was cooking things that weren’t so carb-heavy. My agent actually told me about [the film] ’cause he saw it, and he knew that it was showcasing and it contributed to diabetes. And I watched it, and Rocky watched it, and everyone else that I know that’s watched it since then has become a vegetarian.

What were your indications when you were first diagnosed?

Well, I’ve been diabetic since I was 15, and I was urinating a lot and I was losing weight and I had no appetite, so I was thinking something way worse was wrong with me.

Were you quick to go to the doctor, or did you take a while?

No, no, no. I wasn’t trying to go at all, because I thought they were gonna give me a death sentence. So I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna just sit this out and see what happens.’ But I got so sick, I was feeling so bad after a month, that my mom made me go. And I was actually pretty happy to find out that I had diabetes. I thought I had something much worse.

Was it difficult in filming the episodes for Dash Diabetes Network, and are you portraying what you want in the episodes?

It was exactly what I wanted. I was in control. I think the last couple of years, I’ve learned how to make content in the way that’s just as good as any other professional. And again, the subject matter is exactly what I wanted to talk about. Because it’s independent, we probably had to do a little more, a lot more in a lot less time, than most. But that’s the way I like to do things. I’m always taking pride in the fact that I am independent. But it really wasn’t difficult at all. The hardest part has been the editing.

When you say the editing, how so?

It’s the kind of thing where if the editor’s not on set, sometimes they don’t know exactly what your vision is, and your point of view. And it’s subject matter that’s important, but some people don’t have the talent or the attention span to sit through it, so you want to make sure that you’re adding things that keep your mind stimulated so people don’t get bored. Or if someone’s not a diabetic, and just cares about one and wants the information, that they stay engaged.

So editing on any level is always the toughest part. And I’ve learned that in being a filmmaker. I just directed and funded two or three movies, one coming out in November called Honor Up. And again, it took me three years to edit it. I had to learn it. Shooting is easy, but postediting is the hardest part.

What’s the best piece you’ve ever given?

My girl, Raquel, usually says things to me that make me think. I think one of her biggest and strongest things is she made me aware of, regardless to what, never become unconsciously inconsiderate, where you’re not caring about other people but you just don’t know it because you’re so full of what you’re doing. So I think I’ve been able to be conscious, based on that.

And then my OG Daniel [Daniel Dnieko, an actor from Kanye West and Damon Dash films] told me if someone never snitches, don’t mess with them at all. And don’t mess with people that mess with snitches. And I’ve always practiced that as well, because if you agree to a contract and you don’t abide by it, whether it’s business or in the street, then I don’t consider that honorable on any level. So always respect what you agree to, whether it’s considered right or wrong to other people. Whatever someone else and you all have signed to, you have to abide to that, to the letter.

Who do you surround yourself with and who helps inspire you day to day?

Raquel basically spearheads mostly because I don’t like to talk to so many people, because people don’t understand me. And sometimes my message, because it’s so direct, becomes offensive. And my methods to get to the chip — I get to the chip, but I usually ruin the relationship to get there. And in dealing with men, because of so much testosterone and ego s—, they can’t take constructive criticism or guidance.

So I tend to surround myself with women, because, No. 1, I don’t want my girl around a bunch of men, and I work with my girl. I don’t want my kids around a bunch of men, my daughters. And women somewhat tend to know how to take care of other people before themselves … I guess it’s a mothering instinct … where men always want a mommy qand feel entitled to get taken care of. And I have no time for a man with a vagina. So I’d only deal with a real woman if I’m gonna deal with that.

I would say the team that I have now, Rocky cultivated it, put it together. It’s about four or five really smart, forward-thinking and very millennial-thinking.

What are you watching?

Right now I’m watching Game of Thrones. I kind of like Insecure, too. I’m really big on Insecure.

I’m also watching Growing Up Hip Hop, ’cause I’m on it.