I was born on September 5th, 1998 in Luzerne County, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, United States of America, Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, Virgo Supercluster, Universe 1 to parents Haddijatou Darboe and Burama Kuyateh. One time I saw a picture of my mother and I after I was just born. She held me out to the camera and smiled as if to say “Oh my God, look what I just did… ” I have never seen a look of absolute pride or satisfaction ever approaching that picture in the 17.5 years I’ve known my mother. She always says that I’m her greatest accomplishment, and that picture makes me believe it.
My mother and father named me Fatoumata Kuyateh, after my dad’s mother, but no one calls me that. I’m Fatima, to everyone and myself. All of our names changed when we got here. Haddijatou became Haddi or the even more Americanized Heidi, Ibrahima became Burama, and Fatoumata became Fatima. I get a little sad at that, because our names are so beautiful and full of our culture, but we let them be taken away from us. Whenever I think of the way our names changed, I think of that scene in Roots when the overseer is beating Kunta Kinteh.
“Your name is Toby now!”
“Kunta Kinteh,” he moans, near coma or death.
The difference is that we beat our names out of ourselves. The loss of our identity is transgenerational.
I must’ve been only a few months old when we moved to this city of lights --New York. It made sense because my dad had a job here working with Verizon and there’s a huge Gambian/West African community here. The earliest memory I have of this city is a yellow house we lived in in the South Bronx. I think that word “Bronx” carries heavy meaning with it. When I say “I live in the Bronx,” I can always catch an almost imperceptible shift in a person, however well-meaning they are. People like to talk about the Bronx as it relates to white people. White flight, white (de)construction, and the coming white gentrification. Or they talk about it in black. The Bronx seems to be a black problem. However, this piece of land doesn’t belong to either race. Long before it was the Bronx, it was known as Ranachqua or Keskeskeck by the Lenapes and other Native Americans who first lived here. I often think about that, especially in the dead of night as I walk down Bronx roads which seem to harbor an ancient wrong beneath the concrete. These streets do not belong to me or the gangs that claim them, and so I walk with reverence upon them.
But “South Bronx” is a whole different story. Bronx: iffy. South Bronx: bad. Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo, if you have to. South Bronx: gangs, pimps, failing schools, drugs. Bronx, maybe. South Bronx, hell no. What was life like when there were no factories, no elevated subways, no housing projects? How did the Bronx become the Bronx?
“From the late-1960s to the late-1970s, the quality of life for many Bronx residents declined sharply. Historians and social scientists have put forward many factors. They include the theory (elaborated in Robert Caro's biography The Power Broker) that Robert Moses' Cross Bronx Expressway destroyed existing residential neighborhoods. Another factor in the Bronx's decline may have been the development of high-rise housing projects, especially in the South Bronx.”
The building of the Cross Bronx Expressway in 1963 devastated the South Bronx, destroying neighborhoods, businesses, and thus the area’s economy. The Expressway exists in and particularly affected an area called East Tremont, the place where my parents decided to start their lives together. When I was younger, I would always walk by that highway and marvel at the fact that so many cars and trucks were passing by right under my nose. Sometimes I would just stop at the fence and think about all the places people were going: moving away, coming back, going on vacation, making a delivery. All that human movement was beautiful.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste, no? to educate mine, my parents sent me to P.S. 6 on 1000 East Tremont Avenue, just a few minutes away from our home:
Welcome to P.S. 6
The West Farms School
A Beacon in the Bronx
At The West Farms Community School, P.S. 6X we strive to provide a safe and “risk free” learning environment for our students. They will gain the academic and social skills to become lifelong learners, problem solvers and productive members of a global society.
I have scattered memories of this place I went to for Pre-K through 1st grade. First, I remember an old woman who used to walk me there in the mornings. My parents would get me ready and drop me off at her house. We didn’t greet each other. We just sat, and she made me tea heavy with milk and sugar, and gave me bread to dip in it. Then she would put on her scarf and hold my hand as we walked to school together. I don’t remember if I ever said “thank you,” or “goodbye.”
We had Pre-K and Kindergarten in these little red trailers off the main campus. We did the ordinary things like putting puzzles together, coloring, and playing games. I think I even had a boyfriend for a full 5 minutes named Jonathan. One day we were standing on line, about to go to recess, and he pointed to a bunch of girls saying:
“You’re my girlfriend, and you’re my girlfriend, and you’re my girlfriend.” Even though I was the third pick, I was still pretty ecstatic about it. Definitely a highlight.
One of the few friends I remember having was a girl named Crystal. We would sit together while everyone else talked in groups. I don’t remember what we talked about anymore, but I remember that she wore glasses and she always shared her Pringles with me, the ultimate expression of friendship in those days. I also remember a friend named Cynthia, who had bangs and two missing front teeth. The day I will never forget is Picture Day, when Cynthia ate a banana and then threw up. To this day, bananas disgust me.
Slowly but surely, 1st grade rolled around, and I finally got to move to the big kids’ building with the huge cafeteria. On the first day, I remember we had a white woman as a teacher, and she wanted us to say the days of the week or months of the year, or something like that. We were all done, and she said to us:
“Y’all are so smart! Get on out of here and go to 2nd grade!”
I thought she was serious, so I looked at the door and wondered if I should actually go. No one moved, so I decided I’d better stay.
But not that far into the year, it had been decided that I would not stay. One of my teachers, Ms. Barbara, took my mother aside one day after school when she was late picking me up after rushing out of work for the umpteenth time.
“You have to move your daughter to another school, maybe try a Catholic school. She’s too smart to be here.” she said to my mother. The other faculty nodded and murmured in agreement. Mommy turned to me:
“Do you wanna go to another school?” she asked, tired. I shook my head violently no.
“You have to get her out of here.” Ms. Barbara repeated.
My mother listened.
So Mom and I went to visit a bunch of Catholic schools way up north in the Bronx, maybe 30 minutes away from where we lived. We looked at a few that were too expensive, and we settled on Our Lady of Grace (OLG) in Bronxwood, a largely West Indian neighborhood. For the rest of 1st grade, I went to this Catholic school far from home. I don’t remember how I managed with friends or anything. But the work was not a problem, I breezed through the academics. I saw no problem with praying to Jesus at school and Allah at home --I didn’t care. Life was simple.
In an effort to counteract my Christian education, my parents began sending me to a mosque on weekends when I was about 7. It was called “dara,” or “masjid,” or “the misiri” depending on where in West Africa your family was from. I remember being excited by learning the lyrical verses of this strange book, the Quran. I had no idea what I was saying, I was just in love with the sound of this ancient language which rolled and swooped the way that English couldn’t. It gave me comfort in the mornings when we arrived and the imam would make us recite passages for about 15 minutes. Collectively, we found a rhythm and trance that was beautiful, a choir chanting in Arabic. I will never forget the first sura, Surah-al-Fatihah, which was drilled into every kid.
“Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem/In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen/Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem Maaliki yaumid Deen/The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een/You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem/Guide us on the straight path,
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim/the path of those who have received your grace;
Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen/not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
We all sat and listened to the call to prayer, and then our imam would lead us; the boys behind him, and us girls behind the boys. I never thought twice about girls being in the back, it was just the way things were. I went through the motions, standing up with hands to heart, hands to knees, then bowing in front of Allah, who was supposed to be in front of us. I imagined Him as a disapproving ghost, knowing that I was just copying everyone else and not actually praying to Him in the correct way. After we were done praying, we sat with prayer beads or just used the lines on our fingers to count the words which gave us blessings and supposedly kept Satan away from us: bismillah, alhamdulillah, astaghfirullah over and over and over again. Then we asked for what we wanted. I always asked for me and my parents to be safe. Maybe for a Nintendo DS.
The best part of going to the mosque was after the mosque. I went outside with my friends and finally got to rip off my hijab, stuff it in my little pink drawstring bag, and breathe in the fresh air. My best friend at the time lived in my neighborhood, not two minutes from the Cross Bronx Expressway. All of us would walk to her place if it wasn’t too hot or cold.
I remember going over to her building and having to climb so many stairs, sometimes marked with urine, the smell of cigarettes and weed, or strange boys lining the steps. I could never wait to get into her house. The first thing you saw when you walked in was a mound of shoes. Tons and tons of shoes: sandals, sneakers, flip flops, heels, boots. The three-bedroom apartment was cramped, with her, her four siblings, and her parents with one bathroom. It was a huge change from my house with only me and my parents. Still, I relished the opportunity to watch the MTV videos her father didn’t allow or have a pillow fight with her brother and his cute friend I liked.
If I didn’t go to her house, I would go to my mom’s store. By this time, my mom was fully in the hair braiding business. We had moved, too, to another area of East Tremont and the store was down the block and around the corner. Her store was on Marmion Avenue, right next to a grocery store and a diner. I loved that place, even though it was site of my torture when I had to get a relaxer or get my hair braided. I hung out there all the time, and sometimes I would take the doll heads and practice box braids or cornrows. My mother even let me help finish the box braids of customers when she was really busy.
Rarely did I ever bring anyone back to my house, even though it was really nice for the area where we lived. It was big and airy, you took wooden steps up to our half of the complex where there was a skylight at the top. Then was our apartment, with pale wooden floors, a huge kitchen, 3 bedrooms, and 2 bathrooms. Whenever friends came over, they would marvel at the huge t.v. in my living room. My room overlooked a yard in the back where the people across from us would have loud parties and barbeques.
I went to the mosque every weekend, but I got to go to Church, too. One Friday a month, the teachers at OLG rounded us up and took us to the school’s adjoining Church. In addition to “Devotion” every morning when we would listen to Christian music and pray with our principal over the intercom, they thought these trips a necessary reinforcement of our religious education. I loved going to Mass. The Our Lady of Grace Church was architecturally stunning, with tall vaulted ceilings and pretty stained glass windows lining us on either side. There were statues, paintings, and a huge cross in the very back with the figure of Christ bleeding, a crown of thorns on his head. A pastor would give us a sermon, and then we would all descend to the red velvet kneelers to pray (my favorite part). We would rise and pray for everyone in the world, and the choir would sing a bunch of songs.
The people who were actually Catholic then went up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I always wondered what those wafers tasted like, and I felt left out because I didn’t get to stick my tongue out and join the party too. We were blessed and told to go out and do good, then that was it.
I remember that we also had religion class, taught by an old white lady who everyone loved to pick on. I thought she was okay, but I hated her vague answers about religious questions.
“When I die, will I become an angel?” I asked.
“I don’t know, maybe!” she smiled.
I pouted, dissatisfied. Well what the hell, lady, weren’t they paying you to know this type of stuff?
I remember one day she was making us read, and then all the kids decided to start buzzing like bees. “Bzzz,” you’d suddenly hear. Then another. Another. I’d never seen her that angry, the cool veneer cracked and exposing the rage within her. I even contributed a “bzzz” here and there because it was so hilarious. She screamed at us and then left the classroom, flushed a deep red. One of the Jamaican teachers that no one messed with came in to give us a talk and make us apologize, but you could tell she wasn’t really that angry. She was probably amused on some level that we had messed with the pretentious teacher. All of us had to hold back laughter as we said "Sorry, Ms. __" in unison.
I was basically raised as an only child, but for a little bit my mother’s son came to live with us. I still remember the first day I walked into my living room at 6 years old and there was a boy I’d never seen before. He was probably about 16 and he came with my uncle, my dad’s brother, from the Gambia. “This is your brother,” someone must’ve explained to me.
“Do you want to play a game?” he asked me,
I shook my head no. I had a bad feeling about him, so I held my Elmo doll closer to me.
“Go play with him!” all my family said to me.
I shook my head no, going to over to my uncle instead. Eventually I had to go. So we went into a room together, and that was the moment when it started.
He was a terror. My mother fought with him because he got in trouble all the time: getting in with the wrong crowd, doing drugs, failing classes. Sometimes girls would call the house for him. “Hi, can I talk to James?” a pretty voice would ask. “He’s not in.” James was just one of his aliases --he too changed his African name when he got here.
But after a certain point, it escalated. He was too angry to live with. I remember once I was doing homework at the kitchen table while he blasted music from the t.v. in the living room. Dad came out and asked him to turn it down.
“I said turn it down.”
I ran to my parents room, crouched in a corner, and called Mom.
“Daddy and __ are fighting!”
Her store was around the corner so within minutes she and my uncle Kunta came to try to help. I was too scared to come out, but by the time I did my dad was outside, trying to get away, and my brother had gone into his room. He came out with a long, rectangular box he’d been hiding under his bed. I saw from the picture on the side that it was a gun assembly set which he held like a rifle.
“I’m gonna kill him!”
That night, my father sat at the kitchen table, shifting a hot cloth between a knot on his head and his swollen lip while I watched, at a loss for what to say.
One day, my uncle Kunta picked me up from school instead of my mom.
“Your mom and dad have to take care of something, so you’re gonna stay with me and your auntie Nandoro for a while,” he said.
My brother had started a new job at some newspaper company in Manhattan, and he was working late nights after school. I found out that he had attacked his supervisor, using a boxcutter on his face. Mom was at Riker’s Island trying to get him out. Everyone who knows about Riker’s Island knows that place is a black hole, the death of all hopes. I know now why my mom tried so hard to get him out of there. The only option to keep him out of the prison system was to have him deported back to the Gambia, and my parents spent thousands of dollars of their savings to do it.
My brother really could’ve been something. He had a gift for electronics --anything in the house that was malfunctioning he could fix. I think he could’ve been a successful engineer, easily. But he traded in a Master’s Degree for a first-degree charge.