It was late in February 1999 that I shared a memorable dinner with Kadiatou Diallo at her sprawling home in Conakry, Guinea, the seaside peninsula on the West African coast where her family settled years ago.
Mrs. Diallo had just buried her son Amadou a day earlier in the family’s ancestral home in Hollande Bourou, a village high up in the lush green Fouta Djallon Mountains. Though still wracked with grief, she had taken the time to prepare a meal for me before I returned to New York. I had just spent two weeks there, in the land of baobab trees and bright red soil, writing a series of articles about her son, his burial and her family.
We were alone at the table, and Diallo’s grief was palpable. Her 23-year-old son had been gunned down weeks earlier by four plainclothes NYPD officers at the doorstep of his Bronx home–41 shots fired, 19 striking him. The case had rocked New York and sparked weeks of protests and arrests, threatening to split the city along racial lines. All the while, her dead son was summed up in just two phrases: “unarmed black man” and “unarmed street vendor.” Almost every news account, including mine, had used those lifeless phrases. Diallo knew then that she had to reclaim her son.
That was the goal of her memoir, My Heart Will Cross This Ocean: My Story, My Son, Amadou, co-written with author Craig Wolff. Quietly released last year, it’s a funny and poetic, yet emotionally wrenching account of an immigrant family’s life.
“I want Amadou to be remembered for his humanity, for who he was,” Diallo said recently. “Because when he was killed, it’s like his story was stolen. And this book, I think, picked him up, dusted him off and gave him back his story.”
The book is written in true African style–in the form of a history lesson. Diallo opens not with her son’s death, but with the lives of people generations back. “I began by telling the source, the origin of the family, because I believe this is what defines who we are as human beings,” Diallo explains. “I talk about my grandparents in the village where my parents came from, then I talk about my parents, then I talk about my childhood growing up in Labe [her village] before getting married. And then, Amadou’s existence. Because this is how we define everything in life.”
Today, Diallo splits her time between New York City and the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., where her three children are in school. Photos of “the Madiba,” Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. line the walls of the posh flat that she uses in Manhattan. She’s contemplating adding a portrait of Malcolm X. Her existence is and has been an expressly political one, and West Africa’s political and social currents run alongside her life in the memoir.
Diallo launches the story from her West African village into a migrant’s odyssey, traveling through Liberia, Togo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. She spends time in Europe, Singapore, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates before finally arriving in New York City, to claim her son’s body and begin this latest chapter. Throughout, she chafes as less capable men try to dictate her life. She wrestles with her husband, the product of an arranged marriage, and ultimately launches her own international business in gemstone trading.
To Diallo, all of this is crucial information to understand Amadou and the fate he met in New York City. It was, after all, the same entrepreneurial ethic that drew him here. “We had to re-create who Amadou was, so that the reader would have met him through the package of the book. And at the end, when we lose Amadou, then we don’t have to convince the reader to care for him,” she explains.
Diallo’s work is the rare example of a book that portrays real African life in all of its human complexity, rather than just its often frustrating politics. That’s perhaps why it has sparked such deep reaction from immigrant readers who relate to the Diallo family experience. One Philadelphia man told her his son now calls him “Baba,” just as she addresses her dad. A teary-eyed woman at a California book signing was so overwhelmed she removed her bangles and slipped them on Diallo.
Another young reader sent Diallo an e-mail saying that he felt guilty because her descriptions of her son’s peculiarities made him dissolve into fits of laughter. “I replied to him that it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Diallo. “I said the purpose was to bring humor into this and to let people know that he lived his life.”
In the years since Amadou’s death, the officers who took his life have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Diallo and her former husband, Saikou, have filed a civil suit against the city that is still pending.
In the meantime, her once-bustling business in precious gems has ground to a halt while she stays in the U.S. to pursue the case and work on her son’s legacy through the Amadou Diallo Foundation. The foundation will provide scholarships for African students who, like Amadou, want an American education. It will also have a sister organization in Guinea to aid American students who want to head to Africa for cross-cultural exchanges. “Amadou wanted to help people, even in New York,” Diallo says. “So if I achieve that, I will say, ‘Thank God, Amadou is no longer in this life, but he continues to help people.’”
Frankie Edozien is editor-in-chief of the African magazine and City Hall reporter for the New York Post. You can find more information about the Amadou Diallo Foundation at www.amadoudiallo.com.