Visions: Seeing Beyond Your Circumstance

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[On January 18, Black Star News medical writer, Dr. Mana Lumumba-Kasongo, was asked to return to her alma mater, DePaul University, to deliver the annual Dr. Martin Luther King lecture. The the lecture was given to students and faculty who were in attendance and the goal was to leave them with the idea that anything is possible].

Good afternoon. I am going to dare you all to have “Visions and see beyond
your circumstances.”

But before that, I would like to thank all of you for being here. Students, professors, administration, thank you for honoring me with your presence. A special thanks to Tom Drexel and Alejandro Magana from the office of Mission and Values  for inviting me here at DePaul on this auspicious occasion. This is a talk I’d like to dedicate to the man whom we celebrate and honor today, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior.

I’d also like to thank those who have helped me along my sojourn in life. Namely, my parents who made the decision to leave all that they knew in what was then Zaire and immigrated to this country, themselves barely in their 20’s.

I hope these words are telepathically heard by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Brandon, who even as we shared textbooks, as there weren’t enough to go around, she would say that I could accomplish anything. So even though we
were surrounded by poverty,  she made it clear that our surroundings didn’t have to determine our future.  Thank you to my encouraging professors here at DePaul like Dr Fassil Demissie and Dr. Lillie Edwards, Jani Isaackson. I
thank them all.

So just a bit of background on me in order to contextualize my talk within within a historical and philosophical framework.  I was born in Zaire, now called democratic Republic of Congo. I spent my formative years growing up on the
south side of Chicago, attending the John Fiske School at the corner of 63rd and Woodlawn.

I also spent part of my preteen years growing up in Liberia, West Africa, just after the violent coup that put Samuel K. Doe in power and just before what many would consider one of the most violent civil wars in Africa referred by some as part of the diamond war in Africa. My father, brave man that he is and ever the optimistic Pan-African had taken a job there at the University.

Later I went on to attend this great University here, De Paul, and got a degree in American Studies while minoring in Biology. Eventually, I found myself in New York City attending the journalism school and Columbia University and received a Master’s degree. I worked in various venues in journalism including Vibe Magazine, Instyle Magazine and helped to found an investigative newspaper called the Black Star News, which has grown and also has a dynamic website on

I then returned to Chicago for medical school at Rush Medical College on the west side, and then back to New York to complete my residency training in emergency medicine at New York University. Presently, I am an attending
physician in Albany Georgia, a rural town in southwest Georgia.

Now Albany holds a special significance in the Civil Rights Movement as this was to be the place that Dr King had targeted to hold a similar Montgomery-style bus boycott, but because the officials in Albany caught wind of his plans, they managed to prevent the impact of boycotts and disallowed any demonstrations. I remember attending this lecture as a student some 17 years ago and always leaving with the sense of hope and the “world is mine” attitude.

And so I endeavor to pass that feeling along on to you today. I am many things today---but most of all I am a product of the belief that I could accomplish anything—That is why I am a journalist, that is why I am a humanitarian, that is why I am a doctor—and who knows what other possibilities holds ahead for me, this poor young girl from Central Africa?

Martin Luther King was a young man of merely 26 when he was thrust into the national limelight as the head of the civil rights movement. I think of his many achievements including his ministry, his PhD, his impeccable oratory skills, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; the one thing that always stuck out for me was his ability to balance his individual goals with his desire to make society better.

Here was a young man born of humble financial beginnings but a strong emotional and intellectual background, being the son of a Baptist minister. He attended segregated schools in Georgia, graduated from high school at the age of 15. He received his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College and then went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of the predominantly white senior class. After which, he enrolled at Boston University and received his Ph.D.

Now with this sort of Pedigree, even in a segregated world, with his strength of character and faith, what sort of financial 
achievements could he not have scored? He could have decided that he wanted to be a corporate man, and rest assured, he would have found a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle to settle into. And with his wife Coretta and their children, they could easily have gotten used to the trappings of middle classdom. Sometime, there is more to life on this earth of ours.

Instead, he chooses to lead the largest bus boycott in contemporary US history and the first great nonviolent demonstration of modern time. The boycott lasted 382 days until on Dec. 21 1956, the Supreme Court declared that laws requiring segregated buses were unconstitutional. In this instance, as in many more in his life, Dr. King illustrated the impact and the goodness that can come from individual acts and how they can transform societal laws and mores. Indeed individuals with a high level of social consciousness can make a difference in their social environment.

I mean think about it: Can any of you imagine going on to a CTA bus or going on the red line and having Black people in the back and white people in the front (as a law). It would seem like a joke or a not so funny prank. Yet this was the way things were and all that changed after the Montgomery bus boycott, at least in law. Dr. King and many other leaders of the civil rights movements were able to convince individuals to see beyond their own individual ability to get to work, to school, to socialize and make the Black community see that there was a larger more just goal of social equality that required more of them.

So they car-pooled to work and pooled their monies and resources together to get the elderly and the young where they needed to go. And with these small individual acts of defiance, they were able to incapacitate the transportation service of Montgomery, Alabama.

And that really heralded what we now know as the civil rights movement. Let’s cut to today—this society of instant bling, so to speak. Where rappers throw dollar bills in videos and million dollar contracts for sports figures seem to grow on trees, where CEO’s in corporate America are making beaucoup bank even as their companies lay off thousands of employees or sometimes write off billions in losses?

How do you see past your own circumstance? Your own difficulty to ask the question: What is my role in this world? What is my contribution going to be? These are very difficult questions for a thinking young person to answer. I mean sometimes I have a hard time. You are inundated with images of fast money, cars, and homes. The other night I was flipping the channel, and landed on MTV and since it doesn’t show videos any more, I just watched one of their “reality” shows. One of the more reprehensible ones shown was My Sweet Sixteen, a show in which a soon to be 16 year old and his or her family go all out to put together a sweet 16 party.

And when I say all out, I mean all out. Like no expense is spared. Musicians are flown in from around the world and at the end, the child is usually given some luxury vehicle. The episode I watched showed the young girl getting a new Cadillac, but she was irritated with her father because he didn’t get her a 7-series BMW. A 15 year old! And the show also revealed  the neurosis of this 15 year old who turns into Marie Antoinette with her very “Let them Eat Cake” attitude as she decides which high schooler is good enough to attend her party. Repulsive. I felt like I needed to shower afterwards. Because all you see is conspicuous
consumption, inhumanity and nastiness on the part of teenagers and their inability to see reality. And don’t get me started on “real world” and “Cribs” which provide even more poisonous fodder.

And all of these images are constantly being thrown at you. After seeing this monetary orgy that’s going on around you, it can be quite demoralizing trying to write that political science paper that asks you to compare Mein Kampf to the Marshall or memorizing Boyle’s law for your physics midterm. It’s hard to figure out what you want out of life, what you want to contribute, when everything around you says you should have all of it and you should have it all now, without any effort or sacrifice. You start to wonder is my educational process worth it? And it can be frustrating, I know.

Like you, I struggled in college to balance the desire to excel academically and to want for material things, but also to figure my way in this world. I often still ask myself: what is my role in this world? Like Forrest Gump asks his Mother, “What is my destiny Momma?” I remember as a 10 year-old living in war-ridden Liberia when I decided, I wanted to become a doctor. And the decision to become a doctor was as simple as, I just wanted to make my humble contribution to the world and make it  better place than the way I found it.

And in the mind of a 10 year-old that seemed like an easy goal to achieve. However, as I got older and realized the complexities of this world that goal, although always present, took on other incarnations as I struggled with the day to day living. I know that you often wonder what is the use of that History and Civilization class in your life. I know I did. During my days here at DePaul, I remember being somewhat embittered particularly during the summer months while taking my 6-hour organic chemistry lab and looking out into Sac and seeing people play hacky- sack, Frisbee, frolicking. Later in medical school, the conflict between my desire to excel and to just lead a normal life became even more evident, as on top of everything else I was sleep deprived.

And of course during residency, which is the educational equivalent of a rectal exam, intrusive and painful, I often asked myself why I put myself through this torture. Even with the plethora of television shows that attempt to realistically display the life of a young physician, none of them come close to the real deal. As a resident physician, I spent
many hours usually over 100 hours a week, my first year,  in the hospital.

As opposed to the glamour of Grey’s Anatomy or hilarity of Scrubs. I found the experience to be neither glamorous, cute nor funny. I spent so much time in the hospital that I honestly couldn’t distinguish night from day or sometimes, I couldn’t tell you what day it was, as some of my friends who are here in the audience today can attest to. There were times when I barely had enough energy or money to buy a bowl a soup from the hospital cafeteria. Those were some hard days.

Even today as an attending physician, my days are fairly chaotic. A typical day hour for me has me treating a man whose having a heart attack, walking into the next room to  help the woman who’s having a miscarriage, to the next room where a child has a fever of 102 and is having a seizure, while answering Paramedics who are requesting permission to restrain a schizophrenic who is threatening to kill his mother. And in all of these instances, I attempt to treat each patient as if they were my one and only patient because that is what they expect and that is what I would expect if I were a patient.. As you can imagine, this creates quite a challenge for me emotionally, physically and spiritually. But I press forward---as well we must, on this earth of ours.

Dr. King could not be deterred even while in jail. I find courage in the words of his speech while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He stated, concerning the civil rights movement: “This faith can give us courage to face uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

I take the words of Dr. King to heart because, like millions of Americans, indeed, like millions all over the world, in South Africa, other African countries, Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Caribbean—I am the beneficiary
of the fight for social justice that was led by Dr. King and others. Because of him and the era he ushered in, opportunities have been afforded to me that 50 years ago would not have been available to this African immigrant.

You see, I am keenly aware that as a graduate of some of the most prestigious universities in the world, I have taken advantage of all these institutions have had to offer. And I have taken the responsibility that these advantages have allowed me seriously. We must all strive like Dr. King to think beyond ourselves and lift as we climb. This isn’t some vapid notion. If you look around, you see the numerous examples of people who now after having every earthly resource at their fingertips are now trying to
make sense of their lives by helping others.

Why else would billionaires like George Soros and Bill Gates and Warren Buffet dedicate billions to impoverished communities around the world, particularly in Africa to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic? Oprah has opened up the school for girls in South Africa. Why does Bono of U2 consistently petition the Unites States and the European Union to drop the incapacitating debt
holding back Africa? They don’t have to do this. Why has it become an “in” thing to adopt an African baby? Any wagers on the next famous person to adopt an African baby? Paris Hilton? He-he. God forbid.

But on a serious note, the point is that, perhaps Hollywood and those blessed with so much are taking to heart that saying, “That to whom much is given, much is expected,” They are actualizing their material wealth into something more profound. They are in a real sense defining themselves through action. Even out of the controversies related to some of these actions, there is also a deep humanity in them I stand here knowing that for all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t be here. I should be one of the millions that have been maimed and killed in the struggle over resources in my part of the world, as foreign powers often
aided by corrupt presidents trample on innocent civilians, for diamonds, gold, Coltrane, and oil in Africa.

But because of a combination of serendipity, the Grace of God, good parenting and freedom fighters, I can now stand here and ask you to see beyond your own circumstance and choose to make a positive contribution to this world.

I decided while here at DePaul that I was going to affect change through the two fields that I am passionate about: science and writing.  Although, at the time I wasn’t sure how I was going to combine the two seemingly opposite fields. I knew that both were my loves and that both would complete me somehow. They are philosophically complementary to one another. I know that through the doctor-patient relationship, individually, I can intervene and make a difference on an individual basis. I mean I know that when I crack a man’s chest after he’s been stabbed and reinflate his collapsed lung, in a real sense I have made a difference in his life. If he doesn’t get this chest tube, he will drown in his own blood.

On the other hand, the pen also has its own transformative power. I remember one of my first articles I wrote for the DePaulia. It was actually the cover story and it concerned the myths and stereotypes about Africa, specifically, how the media had perpetuated the notion that only animals inhabited Africa. I rather objected to this and discussed the fact that there were actually people in Africa with a history and a culture and civilization. I remember the minor buzz on campus that it stirred and the numerous students who came up to me and thanked me for challenging misconceptions about Africa.

I remember thinking how cool it was that my one article had been read by so many people and how it brought a measure of understanding that had not existed before for some people. And that provided a high like no other. I
write to challenge, educate and stimulate, even if it makes the reader uncomfortable. If you look at my writings, you’ll find this common theme as one who is a product of the civil rights gains and one who shares the same
initials, M.L.K., for Mana Lumumba Kasongo, as Dr. King, this is my duty.

So, on this day when we contemplate the life and accomplishments of Dr. King, we have much to be thankful for. Dr. King and African-Americans, through the nonviolent civil disobedience forced the United States to begin to live up to the words in The Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. Indeed, women, minorities and immigrants from everywhere all owe a deep debt of gratitude to the man who led the March on Washington. Who would have thought that we would today, in 2007, be on the cusp of having both a female and Black presidential candidate in the same year?

Well, Dr King could because he could see beyond being spat on by racists in Georgia, he could see beyond being harassed and jailed on innumerable occasions. Of course, my regret is that he himself did not live long
enough—he would have been an excellent President.

I want you to take advantage of the position you have here at DePaul. You have the luxury of thinking about how you want to actualize your dreams and push society forward. You can think about who you will be tomorrow. Remember
that individual achievements have to be seen within a societal context.

There are several ways of doing this. 1. Discipline: I studied 2-3 hours every day regardless of whether I had a test or quiz the next day from high school to medical school and it served me well. But this sort of discipline
allows you to be disciplined in all other aspects of your life. 2. Purpose: this means finding meaning in what you do—In service  to others whether that means joining habitat for humanity or tutoring your colleagues or mentoring a child. 3. Understanding your history and culture and realizing that you are a product of this and you have to respect it. We all have a story that created
us, understand that. 4.Self-Motivation. No one can provide this you can decide what you’re going
to gain from DePaul or from your life for that matter. In short. I think a combination of these elements will give you a sense of direction and an inward happiness.

I recall a time during my junior year. I found myself in the offices of my professor and now longtime friend, Dr. Lillie Edwards, who was the head of the America Studies department here while I was the history administrative assistant. She was my advisor and to be frank, I cried in her office all the time. Junior year was rough. Academically I was doing well, I had been inducted into Golden Key Honor Society and got a 4.0 the quarter before, but was having severe financial difficulties and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to return  after spring break. Everything seemed to be so overwhelming. And I asked her why I should continue to go to class or work since it seemed pointless. Why shouldn’t I just ball up into a fetal position and stay there. And she said
because I have to see beyond this moment in time, I owe it to myself and I owe it to the world. The world awaited me. And to so I tell you all  the world awaits you.


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