I first listened to “Umi Says” by Mos Def when I was 15. My family and I lived in a small apartment on Crenshaw and Arbor Vitae in Inglewood. To go to school, I would take the 210 bus from Crenshaw and Arbor Vitae to 3rd and Rossmore where my high school was. It was my sophomore year, and after three years at Marlborough, I was still uncomfortable living between two worlds: a competitive environment at a high school with mostly white classmates who had a lot more wealth and privilege than me, and living with my family in a one-bedroom apartment in South Central Los Angeles during the late 90s.
By the time I listened to “Umi Says” and the entire Black On Both Sides album, my family and I had been through so much. The five of us moved in the apartment after living in a house up until the middle of my freshman year of high school. It was a rocky adjustment, one that caused much tension. Balancing that tension with a rigorous academic life and the social challenges of Black teenage girlhood often left me feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.
My mother always taught me that no matter what, I could always hold onto a ray of hope, no matter how small it became. She would catch me crying late at night and would sit with me, letting me express how I felt and why. She never ever let me give up on myself or my future. She would pray with me, and remind me to always shine my light because this too shall pass.
One day in late December, two months after the release of the album (since I usually had money around Christmas time to buy all the cds I couldn’t purchase on New Release Tuesday at Wherehouse Music), I finally bought Black On Both Sides and listened close to the lyrics of “Umi Says” during my bus commute to school. Mos singing about what his umi, his mother, taught him reminded me of my own mother’s advice:
Umi says shine your light on the world/shine your light for the world to see.
I still listen to “Umi Says” often as an adult. I am reminded of the lessons my mother taught me about holding up the light in the darkness, about thriving through adversity. About doing the best I can, with what it is I have. About envisioning how it would feel to be free from the things that weigh us down.
My mother and I don’t always agree, and neither of us are perfect, but our bond is ours. I listen to “Umi Says” nearly every Mother’s Day, and I am just so grateful for my mom’s lessons and her example.
So, today, I say thank you, mama. Thank you for teaching me that resilience makes me tough, not hard. Thank you for teaching me to always walk in the light.