The lion’s historian: Five questions with local author Rosemond Owens

By: - September 10, 2021 6:00 am

Rosemond Sarpong Owens recently published a children’s book about veteran St. Paul educator Delores Henderson. Photo courtesy of Rosemond Sarpong Owens

Rosemond Sarpong Owens has held a number of titles throughout her career: President, director, interpreter, author, faculty member — and now “lion’s historian.”

Owens, an Eagan resident, says the moniker is inspired by author Chinua Achebe: “Until the lions have their own historian, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” 

It’s the guiding principle for Owens’ foray into writing children’s books, including a newly released title about veteran St. Paul educator Delores Henderson. Henderson taught in Minnesota for nearly 50 years before starting a youth and family development nonprofit in 2018.

“She’s a local legend. I wanted to honor her many contributions to education in the state of Minnesota,” Owens said. “My hope is that children will be inspired by her courage and determination.”

Owens, born and raised in Ghana, now works as the director of health equity, diversity and inclusion for Blue Cross Blue Shield. Her other books include “Yaa Asantewaa: The Fearless Queen,” about the 18th-century Ashanti queen; “Queen Nandi,” about the 17th-century Zulu leader; and “Apples in a Seed,” about remarkable historical figures.

Owens talked with the Reformer about her work in health care, Henderson’s legacy and her next book.

How did you become interested in diversity, equity and inclusion in health care?

Looking back at my own life trajectory, I’ve always believed in the need for a more just and equitable world, but I just wasn’t using that language.

When I was a teen in Ghana, several of my childhood friends didn’t graduate from high school. I was one of the lucky ones who had the opportunity to go to college. I always wanted to work on behalf of those women who didn’t get the same opportunities.

Later, I followed my husband to the Twin Cities, and I was really shocked when I got here. In Africa, the windows to the Western world, especially the United States, were through reading or TV. So I was thinking that everybody would be rich, like you see on TV. One of my jobs was working at a local hospital, which included collecting data for the state and interviewing mothers. This was very insightful for me because the data revealed disparities I never ever thought existed in the United States.

That started my quest to be part of the solution to eliminate racial health disparities. And as a Black woman, it was important that I wasn’t only passionate, but that people also saw me as informed and smart. So I went back to school, to the University of Minnesota, and got a graduate degree in public health, focused on maternal and child health.

What are some steps we could take here in Minnesota to make health care more equitable and accessible?

That’s the million-dollar question. A lot of these inequities stem from deep-seated inequities in the system, so we need solutions that are systemic in nature. Another aspect of this is that, more often than not, organizations don’t have communities at the table who are affected by the problems they’re discussing. If I want to create solutions for teen pregnancy, I need to work with community leaders who are committed to this issue and teens who experience this issue, as well as the Legislature because we would need funding.

One thing we should realize is that this costs us all in the end. Removing barriers to health so that everybody can experience equitable outcomes would benefit us all as a society.

Turning to your work as a writer, I’m curious about how you decided to write these books.

I was a student in a European country in the early 90s. I love Ghana and was telling everybody about Ghana, so I decided to go to the library and get a book on Ghana because I wanted to show people. At the library, my heart sank. There wasn’t a book in particular on Ghana, just one chapter in a book about Africa. There wasn’t anything in there like the Ghana I knew. It wasn’t written by anybody who looked like me, or anybody who came from Ghana. It didn’t have an authentic voice. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind.

Then I came upon this quote by Achebe about the lion’s historian, and the hunter’s tale always being the one glorified. Countries like mine that were colonized, it’s almost like the story has always been told from the hunters’ perspective.

I’ve always been a history buff and storyteller. In September 2020, my book “Apples in a Seed” was released. It’s about different people who, at birth, didn’t seem to be much, but who ended up being change agents — Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, George Washington. People encouraged me to write something like that for kids. I also realized there was a need for books that depicted people of color and Indigenous people, and for books written by people of color and Indigenous people.

That’s when I became the lion’s historian. If we don’t see ourselves, our stories and our experiences represented in books, we feel lost. Children, in their formative years, feel a pressure to conform to mainstream images. This can impact self-esteem. If I see people depicted on TV or in books that look like me, with my hair style and hair texture, I feel a sense of belonging.

So my hope for this Heritage Collection of children’s books is that it can help cast a new narrative for children and inspire a sense of wholeness and well-being. 

Why did you decide to write about Delores Henderson?

Dr. Henderson has been one of my mentors. When you come from Africa to the United States, you don’t know anybody, so you start to build a tribe, right? I built a tribe of women around me, and Dr. Henderson happens to be one of those women.

If you go to an event with Dr. Henderson, you have to brace yourself — everybody knows her. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s one of those people: Because of them, we can, and we could, and we did. I wanted to leave something of her life as a gift to the children of Minnesota, who she loves so dearly, and to give Dr. Henderson her flowers while she’s still here with us. 

She never rests. She’s still making an impact in education in the state. She’s such a gift. 

What are you working on next?

The next book I’m working on is about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first woman president in Africa. She was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Peace Prize.

I’m reading her autobiography, she calls it “This Child Will Be Great.” It gives me goosebumps. For me, an African woman, that perspective — I can’t wait. Plus, we have lots of Liberian kids here in the Twin Cities. I can’t wait to get the book out so they can see themselves.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.