To be unashamed and unapologetic with poet AshleyCae Lee

FLINT, Michigan — There’s a message in the life of pageant winner, poet, painter, and queer creative artist AshleyCae Lee. It’s one that her mother told her the same day doctors gave a world-stopping announcement. The message: “Life’s not promised to none of us.”

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, inside the Artis Room at the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library, AshleyCae, a staple in the Flint creative scene known as Dr. Wiseword, sits across from me, poised and dignified.

Her head is held high with the regal aura of a woman bold enough to stare death —and cancer — in the face and mock it. Wearing a flowing green dress paired with butterfly earrings, her spirit, and smile are as warm and tender as her childlike laughter.

She recalls the last few years of her life that have tested her, her family, and her friends in inconsolable ways. Three years ago, AshleyCae was diagnosed with leukemia and breast cancer that has now spread across her body. At times, it has left her bedridden, hospital-bound, and at her witts end. Similarly, it has given her peace, purpose, and the audacity to live in the present moment.

In the three years since, she’s won the Sisters Support Sisters Phenomenal Women Warrior Award, Miss Cancer Warrior Pageant, Miss Congeniality, and the Rising Inspiration Award, and released a new EP called ‘Black God.’

But now, she’s ready and prepared to reveal what terrified her only a few months ago. “This January, my doctor said, ‘You have six to eight months [to live].’ That’s something I’ve never really talked about, I’ve never really told anyone.”

Flintside caught up with AshleyCae Lee to talk about how this isn’t just a story; it’s a reclamation of life — the definition of Flint’s resilient nature.

“‘Black God’ is taking people through a journey [and the] different stages in my life that I’ve been with my spirituality," explains AshleyCae on March 26, 2024. (Bryce Mata |
Flintside: Congratulations on the release of your first EP, ‘Black God.’ Give us a little intro about what we can expect.

AshleyCae Lee: “‘Black God’ is taking people through a journey [and the] different stages in my life that I’ve been with my spirituality. The end track is the most important because it is me coming to terms with, I guess, my demise, if you want to call it. The end is not the end; it’s the beginning. My brother Courtney Bell helped me be vulnerable and not feel like I have to hold back. I want people to have that experience. I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to embrace love and feel radical.”

Flintside: I know my journey in that area has been the wildest ride of my life. How has it been for you?

AshleyCae: “I hid how I am from people because when I was younger, I used to get called a witch, told I was doing voodoo or doing things that weren’t of God. Going into my adult years, I started dipping and dabbling into other religions and texts. I sat with Courtney, and he was like, ‘You have to be free within yourself and your spirituality.’ And so, the journey got easier when I realized I could be free once I sought the God that was in myself. I walk [hoping] I’m walking the right path. And if I’m not, I hope I’m forgiven for it.”

Flintside: “In our photo shoot, I noticed this strength in you. However, talking to you now, I also see this tenderness. How do you balance that?

AshleyCae: “Sadly, I will say I mask well. Not to say I’m not being my authentic self, but I’ve released how I feel, especially dealing with the cancer stuff. I’ve had people distance themselves and treat me differently. The tenderness that you feel is what I’m doing for myself. In turn, I realize I’m comforting other people, too. As much as I tell people cancer is not my identity, it is part of me.”

AshleyCar Lee is all smiles at the Flint Public Library on March 26, 2024, as a "mountain mover," understanding that "when my times does come, that means that my mission was done." (Bryce Mata |
Flintside: It is, and you’ve been very transparent about your journey. However, over the last few months, you mentioned it was terminal.

AshleyCae: “I got diagnosed back in March 28-29, 2021. For years, I had been dealing with symptoms, but I got ignored by doctors. A lot of it was racial stigma. A lot of it was stigma because of my gender. A lot of it was stigma because of my weight until I found a doctor who looked like me [and took] my symptoms seriously. In April of 2021, I started chemo. They didn’t know what type of leukemia I had; they just knew I had leukemia. Then, in October, a little bit after my birthday, I started feeling lumps in my chest. [Doctors] did the biopsy, and I had stage two breast cancer. I was surprised and angry because I had just turned 26. Then, in January, my doctor said, ‘You have six to eight months [to live].’ That’s something I’ve never really talked about, I’ve never really told anyone.”

Flintside: First, thank you for revealing that. Second, I want to stop for a second to let that settle.

AshleyCae: “[My mom said] ‘You know life’s not promised to none of us. You’re not dead yet.’ I was mad, but I had to sit with that. [Now] I don’t want people to look at me and see death. I want them to see life – see light. My best friend Kai, I love her so much, was like, ‘What do you have on your bucket list?’ But the thing is, I feel like I am a mountain mover. I feel like I’m not going anywhere until I’ve moved enough mountains. That gives me peace and comfort [to know] that when my time does come, that means that my mission was done.”

“[My mom said] ‘You know life’s not promised to none of us. So, don’t think you’re special because the doctors is telling you when your time may be coming. You’re not dead yet,’" recalls AshleyCae on March 26, 2024. (Bryce Mata |
Flintside: I agree wholeheartedly. You model what being on God’s time means. What has poetry given you in these moments?

AshleyCae: “I have been told that my words have saved other people’s lives. That pen and pad is the only thing I know I can go to that won’t judge or condemn me. I write because it’s healed me. It’s what saved my life two months ago when I was dealing with my struggles, the trauma, and the obstacles. I feel like I’ve found my peace. People often think peace doesn’t have problems. No, peace has problems. Peace is chaotic. Peace [will make] you want to smack somebody upside the head because they said something to you crazy.”

Flintside: Ain’t that the truth! How does this peace translate into ‘Black God’ and who you are?
AshleyCae: “‘Black God’ came from the reference to my brother, who always calls me a goddess. I’m always looking at different biblical texts. I kept reading that the closest place you can be to God is at the foot of your mother. People belittle women. People think of God as just man when God is divinity. God is everything and nothing all at the same time. Black is the same way. Black is the presence of everything and not the absence of. So, when I put it together, I was like, ‘Black God,’ that’s who I am. I want to be unapologetic because I love being a woman. I love being the being I am. I love that I found the God within myself so I’m gonna be unashamed and unapologetic.”

With a pensive look, on March 26, 2024, AshleyCae is learning that "I always focus more on what I can do or into others; sometimes, I forget to do it for myself." (Bryce Mata |
Flintside: You mentioned pouring into people, but how have people poured into you?

AshleyCae: “Last year, I started to accept people pouring back into me. I’ve always had this fear that if somebody pours into me, they can take out of me what they poured. I did an event with Jeff Skigh, and when I went in that room, the energy and the love in that space, I wasn’t the girl who had cancer. I was the poet — I was AshleyCae. Having that abundance of love and energy and sharing that energy with different artists was a wonderful feeling. I’ve had to learn to accept it because it’s hard. You know, before I got sick, I was the healer.”

Flintside: For my final question, I want to ask, you’ve experienced so much and are modeling Flint’s resilience in unimaginable ways. With all of that, what do you love about yourself?

AshleyCae: “I love my optimism. I love how I can find good in anything — in any situation. I love my personality. I love that I can bring comfort, laughter, or peace to someone around me. I love my vessel. I love my intellect. I love the fact I’m always seeking. I’m always learning. Thank you for that, ’cause I needed it. I always focus more on what I can do or pour into others; sometimes, I forget to do it for myself. So, I appreciate that reminder.”

To learn more about AshleyCae Lee, find her on Facebook and Instagram. To help AshleyCae pay for her medical bills, you can donate to her GoFundMe. Black God’ is now available on all streaming platforms.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.