Nono Osuji: Broke, Gifted, and Black, Powering through Lupus and Racism
As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.
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After launching my second podcast last week, Companies That Care, I’ll be alternating each week. This week on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, I interview Nono Osuji, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Nigeria. Nono is a writer, producer, and actor. She is living with lupus, which is hard enough. She’s also living with being “Broke, Gifted, and Black,” the title of her podcast. We had a gritty, deep-down conversation about race in this country.
I interviewed Nono (pronounced Nah-Nah) the day after she’d had a difficult medical procedure, and she apologized for being low energy. I can only imagine how dynamic she is when she’s feeling 100 percent, because she was lively and fascinating.
I loved our conversation, which went longer than usual. Unfortunately I had to cut out some of the topics we discussed (like the shows she’s been watching recently). She’s been enjoying “Married at First Sight,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bridgerton,” and some of the oldies like “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and even “The Cosby Show.”
Nono is the youngest in her family, born to her parents after they’d immigrated with their three other children to the United States. Her parents highly valued education, so they put her in predominantly white, Catholic schools, where most of her classmates were wealthy.
“Your value was placed on what you were doing and there was a lot of comparison to what other Nigerian kids would do, a lot of high expectations.”
She had a huge desire to assimilate, so she adopted an English name, Cynthia, because teachers or other people in her life would often botch her name or look scared when they saw it on paper. For much of her childhood, she shunned being Nigerian because it made her different. She didn’t embrace her Nigerian culture until she went to grad school. Much of the time she found herself caught in the middle of being Nigerian and being a Black American.
When she was in high school, her classmates received Mercedes and custom Land Rovers for their 16th birthdays. She found it difficult to relate to them, and she bonded with other students of color. She did get a car when she turned 16…but compared to the girls she went to school with, it felt different. I had to laugh when Nono confessed that her siblings would pressure her to tell the truth: she admits she was spoiled as the youngest.
When Nono was 27 years old attending grad school in New York City, she got a nasty rash, so she went to a dermatologist who told her, in unfriendly terms, that it looked like lupus. Nono started crying because one of her best friends had a friend with lupus, and it had destroyed her kidneys.
After many tests to confirm the diagnosis, Nono sought help from eastern medicine and began getting expensive injections and paying for them out of pocket. That could not last long as a grad student in New York, so after two years when her hair started falling out, she moved home to Texas so her parents could help her.
“I did finish school. And then less than a year later, I was hospitalized for the first time with kidney failure due to lupus…just like my friend’s friend.”
She was put on high-dose steroids, which caused her to develop severe edema.
“I felt like this thing had robbed me of the life I wanted. I wasn't supposed to come back to Texas. I was supposed to be working in film and media, 'cause that's what I was getting my master’s in. I wasn't supposed to be frequenting doctor’s offices and taking up to 67 pills a day…that wasn't supposed to be my life and it just put me in a very deep depression.”
In addition to kidney failure, she became sickly in other ways, developing gout, chronic dry eye, and other ailments.
It was a shock moving from the diverse melting pot that is New York City back to Texas, after she left at age 17, declaring she’d never go back.
“Honestly it was a culture shock and it was kind of like going back into the wilderness. It was isolation because all the people I knew in high school were gone. I hadn't been here since I was 17 and I was now in my 30s. It was hard. Hard is an understatement. I needed to be near family because it just got too expensive to be sick and I needed someone to help take care of me because I was constantly going in and out of the hospital or doctor’s appointments.”
Although Nono’s lupus is not currently active, it has ravaged her kidneys, and she has only 16 percent kidney function. Her best hope is a kidney transplant, so she’s trying to stabilize her body to prepare for surgery.
“Lupus caused this, but it's kind of like a horrible ex that like came in and wrecked your life and burnt your house. It never goes away. But then they leave, you know they're gone, and now you have to deal with what they just did.”
What’s interesting for Nono is that when COVID hit, she felt like other people could finally understand the way she’s been feeling for the past 11 years. Because she has good days and bad days, she’s never able to anticipate how she will feel the next day…for example, one day she woke up with gout and had to cancel all her plans for the week and stay at home, isolated, just like the rest of the world experienced in 2020.
“It felt like the people in my life finally understood why I was so frustrated all the time.”
When Nono received the news about her kidney failure, she fell into a depression.
“I stopped doing everything towards the beginning of the year because I'd kind of accepted a death sentence…or a life that I did not sign up for that I didn't want to live. I did not sign up to be in my late 30s, childless, sick, not in the career path that I want, and dealing with chronic kidney disease. Everything that I had worked for going to grad school, thinking that I would get married, have children, have this great career, none of that is here. What do you do when the life you thought you would have is not the life that you have?”
She finds hope when she sees other people who have gotten kidney transplants, and they’re now leading better lives. She’s also found solace in being part of a community of artists and starting her “Broke, Gifted, and Black” podcast. She’s also written some short films and has written for an Amazon series called “Washed.”
Nono went to grad school so she could create her own content, like other Black creators who feel called to create what they are not seeing.
"I don't see myself, so I need to create a space for myself…I call it Tyler Perrying my way into the industry…he wrote ‘Medea’ and worked his way into the industry where now he can be cast or he can cast himself…he has his own empire. I wanted to write myself into the industries.”
Before our interview, Nono had told me she wished color of people could disappear for a while and just heal. The week I interviewed her was an especially tough one for Black people, as we awaited the verdict from the Derek Chauvin trial. I asked her about generational trauma and the latest trauma facing Black people.
Nono brought up the death of Prince Philip and how he was part of the colonization of Nigeria and other African countries.
“I was enraged that they actually went to African countries and asked them, ‘how do you feel about the death of Prince Phillip?’ This hit home personally for me because for grad school I did a documentary on Nigeria. At the time it was 40 years after its civil war, the Biafran War, and that war kind of explains why my parents moved here in the first place.”
Because of its oil interests, the British covertly supplied Nigeria with weapons and military intelligence, which were used to slaughter over a million Igbo people, Nono’s tribe, and created a nation that never should have been a nation.
“Philip is older than the country of Nigeria, so he is not a descendant of a colonizer, he is the colonizer…I have imperialistic trauma. And then I come to the United States and I still have the trauma of being Black in America, because regardless of if I'm Nigerian or not, no cop sees the difference, and I look at all of the young men and women who are murdered senselessly and then on top of that, people try and justify their death, which is infuriating.”
Nono had some passionate thoughts about policing in America.
“There can be no good cops in a system that does not allow it. It is not meant to create good cops when you have something called a blue wall of silence. When your job is literally to protect state property, whether it is a person or a thing, it is not meant to have good cops when the other part of your job is to build revenue for a city, a municipality or state, it is all about money and power and systemic racism…the history of policing in America is simply continuing what we see today.”
Nono recommends the NPR podcast “Throughline” (which I am now addicted to!), in particular an episode that talks about the history of policing. We discussed the coming Derek Chauvin verdict.
“I think the Derek Chauvin trial shows the systemic problem with policing in the first place, right? This is a man who had 18 prior complaints. This is a man who has kneeled on someone neck before, who has killed someone before, and the system let him through to do it. This is a man who did this on camera while staring at the camera and three other cops were around, and none of them tried to stop him. This is a systemic problem.”
Nono and I agreed that the system needs to be dug out from its core, completely redone.
“We have police that are now living above the law with qualified immunity. We have police that don't face any financial repercussions because the payouts come from us, the city taxpayers. So how do you have a system where you don't go to jail and you don't pay anything?”
Nono volunteers with an organization called Texas Organizing Project, which works to better the lives of black and Latino communities in Texas. They’ve had conversations with police in Dallas.
“If you get police alone, they will admit that there is this wall of silence that you do not rat on another police officer, even if they're doing something wrong. So that tells me that you're not a good cop either, if you see your fellow cop doing something, and even if you did rat them out, you face greater consequences than they do for what they did. That system is completely messed up…We have to see that police see Black skin as a threat. I don't think you can train out implicit bias and racism.”
White supremacy has infiltrated law enforcement and the military, as we saw at the insurrection in the capitol.
We also discussed how white people try to justify police murders, for example, damning George Floyd because he had a drug problem. Yet Rush Limbaugh was a drug addict and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Nono shared her experience of being pulled over when she was in college because she had Texas license plates. She challenged the cop on why he had singled her out, so he arrested her for outstanding parking tickets.
“So I was a hardened criminal, right? So if anything had happened to me, they would say, ‘she doesn't pay her parking tickets,’ right?”
By the time they’d arrested her, they had six white cops at the scene, throwing her into the back of a paddy wagon. When she arrived at the jail, a Black cop asked why she was there. He told her that white women can kick, spit, hit, or punch, and they don't get arrested. When she asked what he was going to do about it, he said, “what can I do?” Nono knew he would probably face greater consequences if he actually did anything about the injustice.
I could have talked to Nono all day. After discussing racism and policing in America, we moved onto her favorite show, “Lovecraft Country.” I asked her what she loves most about it.
“It was just the aspect of black people winning...It was sort of like this alternate ending that you wanted for that time…and showing the reality of the Emmett Till murder…I just love that it was this mix of history of adventure, sci-fi, and magic and it was centered around this Black family that was a family…there was love and we looked into the trauma and dysfunction and why his father was the way he was and how he came about…it just didn't center Black trauma, but it also made Black people the heroes of their own story.”