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Remembering Damu Smith, Environmental Warrior

Damu Smith’s name bounces around rooms with the same quiet reverence often reserved for more popularly known figures: Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu. Sometimes, there is a knowing smile or two. Smith is a kind of modern-day superstar among activists: fierce, passionate, courageous, God-fearing. His celebrity has reached far and beyond Washington, D.C., into the far corners of the Earth. Where there is any semblance of injustice, rest assured, Damu Smith is planning strategic countermoves. Smith’s activism rallied civic consciousness against apartheid in South Africa, gun violence, police brutality and government injustice. He worked to effect peace and a freeze on nuclear weapons, and advocated for environmental justice, both in America and abroad. In fact, Smith was in Palestine, heading up a delegation of protest against unfair treatment suffered by Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government, when he collapsed, subsequently being diagnosed with colon cancer.

As a result, Smith has always appeared larger than life, particularly to this reporter, who met him more than 20 years ago as a pre-teen. Interviewing Smith became a challenge that 15 years of reporting experience could not overcome. I was nervous. I was not sure what to expect, so I stood outside his apartment door for a solid five minutes, willing each knock to become just a little more audible to him on the other side. Finally, I entered at his behest, ‘‘Come on in, the door is open.’’

Once I had taken off my shoes and peered around the corner, I was able to get a full glance at Damu. His eyes were bright, his skin flawless and his smile brighter than ever. He bustled around his apartment with a small contingent of associates: his friend and doctor of more than 30 years, Jewel L. Crawford; a friend from St. Louis; and others who came and went in fluid motions. There is a handwritten note attached to a hand-carved mirror, one of the many African treasures decorating Damu’s home. Above a litany of daily affirmations, is written, ‘‘With God All Things Are Possible.’’

Being in Convent, Louisiana, an area referred to as ‘‘Cancer Alley,’’ where a smorgasbord of industrial plant run-off brought on cancers, lung conditions and skin irritations among residents, may be the culprit in Smith’s case. In the early 1990s, he led an all-out campaign against the Japanese owners of the Shintech plants and lived with some of the area’s residents.

‘‘The air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat and the homes in which we live are toxic. This is a very toxic environment we live in this millennium. I live a healthy lifestyle: I don’t drink, don’t smoke, never did an illegal drug. I’m a vegetarian and I eat organic food. And yet, I end up with colon cancer. Why? Could be a number of things,’’ he surmised. ‘‘Could be the toxic environment, could be the fact that within my family there’s a genetic marker of colon cancer. My father died of it. My grandmother, his mother, had it. She didn’t die from it, but she had it. So, according to conventional medical doctors, I’m at greater risk because I have this family marker,’’ said Smith.

Though he says he should have seen a doctor regularly, like most minorities, he didn’t make it a top priority, especially since he was so health-conscious.

‘‘I should have been at the doctor every year getting checked. I wasn’t. I have to be honest with you, I used to think about going to get a checkup and I’d say to myself, ‘I don’t want to find out anything bad. I just can’t imagine anything bad happening to me because I eat so well.’ I used to say that stuff. So, this is one of the things I want to be a poster child for: getting screened and checked for colon cancer,’’ said Smith.

But how does a poster child for ‘good health’ maintain in the fight for his life? According to Smith, with an unwavering conviction in God.

‘‘First of all, I have to have faith in God— in a higher power, greater than us. And so, that’s the most important thing to me, having faith in God and knowing that he can deliver me from this,’’ said Smith. ‘‘I was told by one of the doctors when I was initially diagnosed at the end of March that people in my condition, statistically, have only three to six months to live. And he made it a point of saying to me twice during our conversation, ‘Don’t hesitate about anything.’ That was Easter Sunday morning of this year. I had to really reflect on that.’’

The reality of death is all the more gripping because he lost a close friend to colon cancer around Christmas. Unlike his friend, who went in for surgery and passed a few days later without a moment to prepare, Smith said he is grateful for the opportunity to fight for his life.

‘‘Here I am. I’ve been alive three months since I was told, and I’m feeling great right now. Those tumors are shrinking. I’m sitting here with you now doing this interview and drinking this organic kale and carrot juice, and I am drinking it as much as possible because it heals the liver . . . I’m taking chemotherapy, acupuncture, sound healing, breathology, everything in the toolbox of healing. I’m picking up and using on my body right now. And I’m keeping God at the center of everything. So, I don’t plan to lose.’’

But whether on the field of protest or in hospital, justice and protests are on Smith’s agenda.

‘‘When I was lying in the bed at Providence Hospital once I returned from Palestine in late March, I decided that I had to, one, walk publicly in this journey of healing [and], two, that I had to organize people to help me and organize people to help others understand that they don’t want to go through what I was about to go through,” Smith said. “There were literally hundreds of people who came to see me at Providence Hospital and some of my friends were getting upset, saying I needed my rest. But I knew what I was doing. God knew what I was doing. I needed to organize my friends and family first, and I told them that we’ve got to fight this, because it’s not just me. People have to go get checked, and we need to organize around this.’’

Out of those bedside meetings, Smith was able to establish the Spirit of Hope campaign, which seeks solutions to health disparities among minority and poor Americans. The campaign focuses on universal health care, education about the need for screening measures, addressing astronomical health care costs, and promoting general well-being among minority and poor people.

‘‘The whole spectrum of wellness is what the Spirit of Hope campaign is focusing on, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It wouldn’t be me if it didn’t focus on something other than me,’’ said Smith. Smith says that despite the cost and fear associated with the procedure, it is imperative that people of color and those living below the poverty line get regular checkups, including colonoscopies.

Smith is also thinking about access for his l2–year-old daughter Asha, who he lovingly refers to as the ‘‘crown jewel of his life.’’

‘‘I don’t want her to go through this. I want her and all of her little friends to get screened when the time is right. So, I have to work for them too,’’ said Smith.

As my time with Smith draws to a close, I begin to wonder if maybe he hadn’t been misdiagnosed. The wristband, which resembles a hospital clasp, is in fact a tag from the Essence Music Festival that he’s simply neglected to remove. Damu Smith is doing life Damu Smith-style: happy, brilliant, and winning the fight.

‘‘This has been one of the happiest times in my life, in the midst of this crisis. Now some people might say, ‘How is that possible?’ It’s possible because I have seen the love come to me in such wonderful ways. I cannot begin to describe how profound, how rich, and warm and beautiful the love has been from my family and friends and God. I thank God for this moment and for the chance to fight,’’ said Smith.

This article was originally written in 2005. Damu Smith’s battle ended May 2006 – more than a year after diagnosis and this interview. Rest well.

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