As Aminata Keita performs her poetry slam version of her original poem “My Accent”, published in her 2012 book Struggles of a Dreamer, a tear wells up in my eye, cleverly disguised behind my thick black sunglasses. I can remember Aminata’s first days in my 5th grade classroom in the fall of 2007, when, as a student new to the United States, she felt extremely frustrated by the combination of her acute intelligence and her lack of English.
Aminata recalls: “I should have been in the 8th grade, and when I had to go to 5th grade, I was really upset. It was a frustrating time, but I’ve learned to control my temper.” Changing grades wasn’t the only struggle that Aminata faced that year. In immigrating to the United States in order to learn English and improve her educational opportunities, Aminata left behind her mother, friends, and family in her native Guinea-Conakry.
Now, at age 15, Aminata is the author of two volumes of poetry: Sentences of the Heart and Struggles of a Dreamer, both published by Books of Hope. Sentences of the Heart is currently out-of-print, as its first edition sold all 100 of its copies. “My sister and I would hustle people at [Somerville High School] soccer games. We would tell them it was a really good book and worth the $12,” explains Aminata as she signs the copy of Struggles of a Dreamer on a late August Sunday inside Davis Square’s Diesel Café.
As we head back to Aminata’s home in Somerville’s Mystic Project, she tells me about the education and the opportunities that Books of Hope has provided for her. When Aminata attends her Books of Hope sessions in the Mystic Project Community Center on Mondays and Wednesdays, the instructors present the students with a social justice topic, such as homelessness or World AIDS Day, for discussion. Then, the students participate in writing exercises, “to get your mind moving”. Finally, the students create performances to present to one another. These in-class performances have led to the formation of a slam poetry team that includes Aminata and other Books of Hope students. The team has performed in Somerville and Boston as well as in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York City, including a stint at the Harlem Book Fair.
Aminata attributes much of her successes with writing and performing to the dedication of Books of Hope Director Soul Brown. “It’s in the way she helps me and the other kids,” Aminata says,”She gives us hope at becoming authors. She treats us like her own children.”
When asked how an immigrant student can become a published author, Aminata offers the following advice: “Stay focused. Life is what you make it. Try to do something positive. With no knowledge, you’re probably nothing unless you plan on working at Dunkin’ Donuts or Stop n Shop.”
Perhaps Aminata’s shift from frustrated English Language Learner to confident and serious student can best be understood in her poem “I Used To” from Struggles of a Dreamer.
I Used To
by Aminata Keita
I used to
those amazing steak & cheeses
Love to party
Love going out
Liked trying to fit in
Hate people who are trying to save me from myself
Like sleeping while teachers’ are explaining
Until one day I woke up and
Realized 10 years from now,
Those characteristics are not going
To be paying my bills
But my knowledge and habits will…