Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Jackson's first couple's story begins in a kindergarten classroom at North Jackson Elementary School. They both remember walking to school together with other kids in the neighborhood and playing together in their cul-de-sac after school.
"You say I was your first friend," first lady Ebony Lumumba said to her husband and now-mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, in an interview with the Jackson Free Press.
"She was my first friend," he said.
In that kindergarten classroom, they read the Dr. Seuss book "Green Eggs and Ham" like most 5-year-olds do. Their teacher cooked green eggs and ham for the class, and Chokwe remembers his teacher getting in trouble for letting him eat pork. A year or so later, Ebony celebrated her 7th birthday at Chuck E. Cheese's, and although she invited the whole class, Chokwe didn't show up.
"Now obviously I'm 6, and I don't make many decisions on where I go and where I don't go," the mayor told the Jackson Free Press. "But, she's been holding this against me our whole relationship."
"I have these awesome pictures of friends that we know now, but he's not in them," Ebony said. "How amazing would that have been?"
More than 20 years later, Chokwe would surprise Ebony at a brunch she was having in Atlanta during homecoming weekend at her alma mater, Spelman College. Chokwe had coordinated with her friends to show up without her knowledge. Ebony sat at the table waiting for her food as everyone else's orders came out of the kitchen, wondering why she was the only one without her meal. Then, in comes Chokwe with a plate of green eggs and ham in hand, and an engagement ring in his back pocket.
"It looked so gross," Ebony said.
Chokwe also had two Chuck E. Cheese's medallions representative of that party he missed decades before. Ebony was trying to hold back emotions in case he had just come as an early birthday surprise and not to propose—her birthday tends to fall around homecoming.
"I was trying to keep my cool until I saw an actual ring and bended knee," Ebony said.
After a speech in front of all of her friends, Chokwe fumbled for the ring that he had forgotten was in his back pocket, and ultimately popped the question. As the currently pregnant Ebony puts it, one-and-a-half babies and six years later, here they are.
In the time since that proposal in 2011, they have been through highs and lows—many unfolding publicly. They lost the late Chokwe Lumumba in February 2014, and Chokwe and Ebony's first child, Alaké Maryama, was born three weeks after that. Then Chokwe entered the special election for his father's seat and ultimately lost. Three years later, he would run again and win with his daughter and wife by his side the whole time.
Ebony is the chair of the English department at Tougaloo College and a doctoral candidate at the University of Mississippi. The two refer to their day-to-day interaction as ships passing in the night. Despite life's challenges, losses, hectic work schedules and the demands of parenthood, the self-proclaimed best friends credit their loving foundation that began as a friendship here in Jackson as the source of their determination to invest in the capital city for their daughters and the community that nurtured them both.
Planets in Orbit
Growing up, Chokwe and Ebony were not nearly as close as they are now, but they recall always reappearing in each other's lives.
"Our story is that we always knew each other, but we still were kept at a distance from each other," Chokwe said.
"We were like orbiting in each other's atmospheres," Ebony added. Although, the mayor does admit to having a crush on Ebony when he was a kid.
"I thought boys were disgusting at the time I was 5," she said. "But he was nice."
A few years after that birthday party 6-year-old Chokwe did not attend, they both moved out of north Jackson, and they would see each other in passing during city-wide field trips. They were both briefly enrolled in Murrah High School's freshman class, and Ebony would see Chokwe when she rode the bus home with her best friend—this is when Ebony had a crush on someone else, Chokwe recalls.
"No, go ahead and tell them about your crush on somebody else," Chokwe told the JFP at Surin at Thailand.
"You don't want to hear about my crush," Ebony said. "He rode the bus, too, though—no, I'm kidding."
Chokwe transferred to their rival high school—Callaway High School. But, he still made excuses to see Ebony at her job at Buckle in the Northpark Mall. She said he used to show up with his cousin, never buying anything, which did not exactly help because she worked on commission.
"She claimed I never tried to talk to her, and I told her I actually gave her my number," Chokwe said.
They both went to HBCUs—historically black colleges and universities—after graduating high school. Ebony chose Spelman, and Chokwe went to Tuskegee University in Alabama. While the schools are not directly rivals, Morehouse College, which is across the street from Spelman and intertwined with it in many ways, has a sports rivalry with Tuskegee. During Ebony's junior year, she and some cousins and sorority sisters made the hour-and-a-half drive for a game.
"And out of all the people, as huge as Tuskegee's campus is, we're in the line waiting to get in the game, and I bump into Chokwe. And I'm like, 'Oh, that's my friend from home, guys. Hey, what's up?' He had a strange hairdo at the time," she said.
"I had twists in my hair—I was trying to lock them," Chokwe said. "My locks were dope; everybody liked them."
Though he looked different from how she remembered him, Ebony said this was another instance that punctuated this planetary spin they were doing around each other throughout the years.
"That's what we mean by being in each other's orbit, sort of," she said. "But, not connecting until the right time. Because it was a very cordial hi-and-bye-good-to-see-you-moment. And we kind of kept going."
They wouldn't see each other for years after that game until Chokwe was nearly finished with his law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston. Going into his second year of law school, he recalled seeing Ebony on Facebook and sending her a message because she was still in Atlanta, and he wanted to connect with her at a friend's upcoming wedding there.
But, he never called, and doesn't remember why he failed to follow through. Ebony said she changed her number at that point anyway. That summer, however, they rekindled their Facebook thread, and that communication evolved into daily phone chats.
"(I) would wait for his phone call and have things to tell him and want to tell him about my day," Ebony said. "Six weeks, two months in, I'm like, 'Wait a minute, do I like him?'"
She knew the answer was yes when he called early one morning, and she was glad.
"I am not yet a morning person," she said. "I have not yet matured in that fashion."
In August 2007, Chokwe had a long layover in Atlanta where Ebony was living at the time. He suggested they meet at the airport to see each other for the first time since the Tuskegee game. He called the airline to get permission for Ebony to come to the gate—a special privilege that is reserved for family members and spouses post-9/11. He told the airline Ebony is his fiancée or wife—he can't remember which—and she got the approval.
"As I get off the plane, I don't see her—she's hiding behind a pole," Chokwe said.
"Of course!" Ebony said. "I need to see him first because I can jet or pretend like I didn't show up if I didn't like the way he looks. (But) I saw him get off the plane, and I was very happy to see him."
Then began a more formal dating relationship that meant back and forth trips to Houston and Atlanta. They remember talking about Chokwe visiting Ebony when she worked in the mall. He reminded her that he gave her his number even back then, but she thought he was joking.
"I'm thinking, this is game," she said. "You know, trying to solidify this relationship."
Ebony went home to Jackson one weekend and stayed with her parents in her old room. She went through a drawer and found the receipt paper from the store with Chokwe's handwritten phone number on it.
"We always look for signs and that sort of thing, but I thought, 'Wow,'" Ebony said.
"This is amazing that I kept it. I never used it, but I did keep it, which has to mean something."
Chokwe finished law school in 2008 and moved back to Jackson to work for his father's firm. Ebony applied to doctoral programs, including two Mississippi schools, considering her relationship with Chokwe had been getting more serious. She got the best offer from the University of Mississippi, so she moved to Oxford.
This was her second sign.
"I thought, 'OK, God, I'll do this if this is what you're opening the door of my destiny to do,'" she said.
During their frequent visits between Jackson and Oxford, Chokwe decided he wanted to propose, and set forth his plan to surprise Ebony with green eggs and ham.
Circle of Life
The couple has a lot of obvious, outward adoration for one another, and they managed to throw in corrections and charming asides into the retelling of their love story without interrupting one another.
"[W]hen you're best friends, it feels more reassuring just about in every aspect of life," Ebony said. "... I tell him all the time he doesn't make me feel like I have to be anything but Ebony. And I don't know another person in my life that makes me feel that way.... That means a lot. When things are falling apart, and you feel a mess, I don't ever feel judged."
The Lumumbas have been married since 2012, and they are less than a year into Chokwe's first term as mayor. After a day of teaching at Tougaloo or seeking answers to Jackson's problems, the couple comes home to their 3-year-old daughter, Alaké, whose Yoruba name means "one to be made much of."
She came into the world in the midst of Chokwe's special-election campaign after his father, and former mayor of Jackson, died unexpectedly. Despite their collective grief and new addition to the family, Ebony believes everything happened in perfect timing.
"Whatever was happening in our world, we needed each other, we needed our families in those moments, and our daughter followed suit," Ebony said. "She came into our life at the exact moment that we needed a reminder of God's grace and mercy and hope."
Ebony says that Alaké gives perspective without realizing it.
"She is a refreshing reminder of what life is really about when you get home," Lumumba said of his daughter. The Lumumbas are expecting a second daughter in March to be named Nubia Ngozi after Chokwe's late mother.
To make up for time he feels like he lost campaigning during Alaké's infancy, he is hoping to take paternity leave—Ebony, who relishes sleep, says she is looking forward to taking naps.
"Ebony has been a real trooper ever since Alaké was born," Chokwe said.
Keeping their daughters in mind, they work to uplift the community that is the source of some of their best memories and nostalgia.
"We don't often realize how much place and space become part of our identities," Ebony said. "And so I'm grateful for the aspect of my identity that is Jackson, and I want my daughters to be able to ... have a similar experience where they're very proud of where they come from. And despite whatever challenges, that those challenges simply reflect resilience."
Ebony is excited to raise her daughters in the very place that nurtured her, her siblings and her man, she said. Her best friend seems to feel the same way.
"The best decision my parents ever made was to move us to Jackson," Chokwe said. "When I really look at it, Jackson has given me the best parts of my life. I met my first friend, who's now my wife, in Jackson. Jackson is where my little girl was born. Jackson is the place that my parents are laid to rest. So I literally have seen my cycle of life and development in so many ways here.
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at [email protected].