All-American Girl

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

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| This is the 122nd story of Our Life Logs |

I was just another “All-American girl,” born to a hard-working single mom of North Philly in the glorious 90s. My weekends were spent racing through backstreets on my roller blades, attending church services, and putting on full-fledged Michael Jackson performances with my mom and big sister for the fully-mirrored-wall of our living room. These images I grew up with, the ones I will always remember: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Sister Act, and Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory emphasized the importance of social responsibility and self-improvement. Most importantly, they made me conscience of choice. That I can choose how I am going to live my life.

Rollerblading with my classmates.
Rollerblading with my classmates.

Along with pop culture, my education played a huge role in my upbringing. My big sister’s unmatched work-ethic and reputation got me to the top of the waiting list for one of the nicest private schools in the country, the William Penn Charter School. However, it was my mom´s choice to keep me there. I am VERY grateful for this because we didn’t always have the tuition. However, my mom valued this exceptional opportunity over her own financial comfort. She did not have any more resources than the next single-parent, but she had this will to choose the life she wanted for us. And so, from a young age, my mom taught me how to live without saying a word.

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The school I attended was founded by William Penn (hence the name) who led the United States in its earliest stages of development as a known advocate for democracy and religious freedom. You can’t get any more “American” than William Penn. The highly-touted private school taught me old Quaker values that have stuck with me until this day: peace, truth, reflection, and service, to name a few. While I knew I was different from the kids I attended school with, they didn’t see the difference at this age. I was embraced and loved by all because that is what we were taught to do.

With my older sister at Christmas time.
With my older sister at Christmas time.

You see, I could have had a much different life growing up in Philly. I could have struggled to stay out of trouble, but instead, I was competing to keep a hand bell solo for the upcoming Winter Concert instead. I mean, I could handle my little self around the neighborhood on the weekends—but facing this type of confrontation every day was the last thing I was prepared for. Making it through camp every summer was hard enough. I was teased not only for my light-skin and big nose, but also for speaking like the white kids. It sounds cliché, but it´s true. I barely learned a thing about sports at our city’s affordable “sports camps.” Instead, I learned how to avoid fights, how to politic, and play spades. I learned that if I wanted to stay out of trouble, that I would have to take a proactive role over my environment.

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As I was approaching high school, we moved to Orlando, Florida for a fresh start. After four moves in three years, I was finally beginning to connect with my new hometown. Though my mom was the very best friend I could ever ask for, I wanted to keep some friends my age. I made her promise to keep us in one place for my high school career, and I’m so grateful that she did.

I flourished in my new community. In my extremely diverse high school, I learned the value of difference. I became open to many ways of thinking and living. So, I did every extracurricular, took every advanced class I could, befriended everyone, and I became empowered. Time and time again, I found myself contemplating while sitting on the steps of my apartment complex, waiting for that big yellow bus to hiss to a stop. I weighed the pros and cons of keeping my overflowing schedule… but I knew I had made my choice. I was learning, I was growing, and I willed myself to conquer.

In the summer of my senior year of high school, I signed up to be trained as a lifeguard—just like the lifeguard who saved me at a birthday party when I was seven years old. While this may seem like a small feat, it was a huge moment in my life. Me: a 5’4”, 120 lbs, 16-year-old, petite, black girl from Philadelphia, who was once rescued in about 5 feet of water—a lifeguard. At first, I could barely keep up, I felt out of place, and I struggled to pass the daily swim assignments. But eventually, I did it. I stood as tall and strong and neither my size nor my age affected my ability to command respect. That summer, I learned to be confident in myself and to appreciate authority and organization. I proved to myself that I can conquer mental trauma and take control of the rhetoric in my head.

Meanwhile, I found a church that I had fallen in love with. My faith always has kept me grounded and kept me balanced. I made my religion and faith PRIORITY. From my teenage years, my mom even let me explore and choose the church I wanted to attend while she attended a different church that she preferred. She gave me the courage to make the very decisions that she came to hate.

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In college, I continued to live the “American Dream” on my very “American” university campus. I did not have a care in the world besides how I was going to spend my next paycheck and how far my tank of gas would get me. So, I committed myself to more than I could handle, but it wasn’t so easy this time. I struggled to balance my studies with 2 am duty rounds as a resident assistant and waking up for 6 am cross country practice. I had to face my limitations. I would shift focus to my studies and examination of faith.

One unexpected, friendly, casual, conversation about religion with a peer led to another. And another—until it became clear to me that this particular exchange of ideas came to do more than just cross my path. I read, and read, and researched, and read some more. This religion spoke too much to me to just give it a moment of my time. I had to give it the mediums of my ears, my brain, and my heart. In my senior year, at 21 years old, I had come to learn more about the world and myself than in all the other years of my life. It was my “American” university that led me to Islam.

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The fact that I never even had to worry about my civil rights shows that I had enjoyed the freedoms of America to its fullest. What could make me MORE American than practicing these freedoms, right? And I was living proof that my physical characteristics and personality traits would not define my life. I wanted to practice Islam. So, I did. It was the easiest and most difficult decision I have ever had to make. Easy because I knew what I wanted. But difficult because of the fears and misconceptions our society has of Islam, of course.

So then…when on earth did I become so “un-American?” Of all the people.

It wasn’t when I started practicing Islam. It wasn’t when I began wearing Hijab. It wasn’t when I was questioned by a group of people for taking an innocent picture of a building. It wasn’t when I showed up for work to be turned down for a job of which I was already hired. It wasn’t even when a stranger yelled “Taliban” at me. It wasn’t messages from ignorant strangers. It wasn’t any breaking headline from any media outlet…

It was when my own mom told me I wasn’t. When my mom told me I didn’t represent America. When my mother didn’t want me in her wedding. And then when I wasn’t even invited. It was when my own mother stopped answering my calls. And then my grandmother.

I have been in dangerous situations, and I have been in hopeless situations, but this was the lowest point in my life by far. She made me choose between what I wanted and my relationship with her. I lost my mom and my best friend at the same time.