Wesley Ian’s smile struck a chord with me.
How could anyone smile that much and not get tired of smiling? Of course, he is always full of energy; businessman, self-starter, a dad, a performer, and a common sense advocate who wanted to make his own way. That is the man with the smile worth 83,000 pounds of honey.
He will often quip that he “wanted to make the community better, to make Akron something to brag about. ” Not only did he start his own apiary and the Akron Honey Company, he helped start “Akron Honey Company Market Day. . . All About the Food,” with Kaley Foster of Urban Buzz, which sells candles using the wax from the honey company’s bees.
At the Market Day event, Ian highlighted local merchants, most of whom produce local food stuff.
He is always working on something that benefits his neighborhood and his family, but that is not where Ian stops. Aside from running his own business, he works a full-time job, and performs as the lead singer for Wesley Bright & the Hi Lites. He can sing, he can dance, he can perform magic on the stage, with an audience that could often be found fawning over him. On the stage, Ian is king.
“It’s strange, it’s weird,” he says. “Some folks ask ‘Is that really you up there? Is that who you are?’ I have my full-time job. For a long time folks didn’t know what I did. They didn’t know I was a performer. Someone found a video on YouTube and they said, ‘Now I know why you act the way you do here.’ Because I act really animated. It’s really fun to live. You either live up or you live down, and I like to live up.”
This man is so full of energy you feel it even if you are sitting across the table from him, but the serious side of him doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. He cuts right through the middle of a conversation and tells it like it really is. He doesn’t tell you you are wrong, or you are right, but he presents both sides of an argument as factually and as unemotionally as possible and then moderates the discourse that ensues. He is a rational voice that pulls people into conversations that most of us are afraid to start.
“I think things should be a certain way. Things should be fair for everybody. We should listen to one another and leave ourselves vulnerable by putting our need aside and have our ideas shine for us. That’s the only way we’re going to understand each other’s reality, and getting closer to being in the same place.
“I’m an optimist; it’s hard for me to rationalize, to figure out things because everyone is in a different place and everybody is so self interested. I’ve been the odd man out my entire life, but many of us have felt like that, that we don’t fit in.”
He was born on the east side of Cleveland, and when he was 6 or 7, his parents moved the family to Aurora.
“This is in the 80s,” he adds. “We were one of the first few black families there.” He looks down at his hands, then looks back up. I reply, “You were popular because you’re the only were black person around.” He doesn’t hide the fact that this wasn’t an easy thing to deal with, but his smile persists.
“We lived life differently there, but they didn’t see that because there was one way of living life for most folks in Aurora, the way of the the majority,” says Ian. “They thought the same way and lived the same way, but I was a bit different. I felt pushed away at times just because of this design. I can assimilate as much as possible, but it’s just not the same. Unless the environment is integrative and it’s inclusive, you are going to feel pushed away.
“It’s that, and then moving to Aurora doesn’t mean you never go back to Cleveland. Every weekend during the school year we were there, and then during the summer we were there every day.”
He adds: “When you move away and get something better, some people are cool, but to others…” He shakes his head. He drops his smile and looks me right in the eyes: “You’re a sellout.
“I’m in Aurora trying to make it, but by design being pushed away. But then I go back to Cleveland and by choice, they pushed me away. They knew where I was from, they heard the influence in my voice, because there is more education out there, you can tell that you’re a little bit to the side. Church was a big one. We went to all black churches from when I was little until I left the house in my 20s. The same groups of people stay together and you’re out because of those differences.”
He laughs away the seriousness of what he says. His arms relax, and he lets himself sink into the back of his chair. He takes a sip of his coffee and smiles at me when he looks up. A woman walks by and he recognizes her. He greets her with warmth, and she reciprocates with a warm smile and a quick hello.
I watch him. It seems as if he knows everyone, and if not everyone, than a good portion of the residents in this area of town. The man next to us is keen on our conversation. He has been following what we have been saying, turning the same six pages of his paper over again and again.
I recognize the man as a regular at this cafe. He probably knows both of us by sight. “You can’t walk around with all that on your back. I know it sounds easy to say let it go, but I don’t know.”
Ian’s laugh is not as carefree anymore. It comes in a quick burst, as if highlighting the fact that he doesn’t find any of what we are discussing funny.
“That does build character. It does toughen you up. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I have kids now, but I don’t even care anymore. I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t know if I ever did care.”
We sit there talking for almost two hours before we reluctantly get up to go back to our everyday lives. He leaves the impression that there was a lot more he could have said, about the state of the city, the nation, the people he loves, but there is only so much free time in his schedule, and I used it all up.
I caught his act one night. It was impressive. I watched women press themselves against the stage, their hands outstretched in an effort to touch him. Many of them danced along with him, and most everyone in the crowd participated in the singing and shouting. Afterwards I watched the performers retreat to the back of the stage, lights flickering for a second before going completely dark. In the few rays of light that came from a nearby street lamp I could see them glistening. While they were all hot and sweating, it was the sheen on Ian’s face that betrayed how much energy he had expended.
He was tired, spent from dancing at full tilt for an hour and a half, but that smile was still present. Even in the darkened lot, where no one would have noticed if he had chosen to frown, he smiled.