Happy Birthday Baratunde

Sept. 11 has always been a special day to me, not one of destruction and evil. I share this, not only as a gift to my brother, but a wish for all of us to take a moment today to reflect on life, birth, being and becoming. Namaste.


Thirty-four years ago today I became a sister.

I came home from school to find my mother had been in the hospital most of the day, ready to have the baby. I was to heat up my dinner and stay at home and wait. (Latchkey was my middle name)

This was “THE” baby.

My mom had had several miscarriages before this pregnancy. She was pregnant through the hot and humid D.C. summer with no air conditioning. She was pregnant through her August Leo birthday. She had me walk on egg shells that entire summer, as well as walk to the corner Giant to carry an entire watermelon home it seemed nearly every day. (She made it clear she was not into sharing.)

That’s what I remember of the nine months before my brother.  That and rubbing oil on her belly to prevent stretch marks. Feeling kicks and tumbles under my hands.

That, and wishing for a sister.

So I sat on the stoop of our brick rowhouse, the phone pulled to its limit on the cord, waiting.

My friends would pass by the stoop, “Do you know yet? Boy or girl?”

Belinda & Baratunde (in stroller) circa 1978, with friends Joann and Jackie McCoy, Coco the Norwegian Elkhound and my mom's Datsun B210 hatchback.

“Nah. Nothing yet.”

But I was also worried. My mom’s other pregnancies had ended badly. She lost lots of blood. She and I both knew I could lose her.

It was starting to get dark and I was getting tired of the wait. It’s not like I could jump doubledutch and wait for that call. No cell phones back in the day. And it was still too hot to go inside the house to stare at a 13-inch black and white television.

The ring barely sounded before the handset was at my ear.


“You have a baby brother Belinda,” said Jan, my mom’s friend. “And he has a banana head.”

What? Banana?

I heard other things like “Nine pounds…healthy… and pee…” (seems he peed all over the room when he was born)

But I didn’t get past the banana.

I hung up the phone and looked up at a group of neighborhood friends who had gathered around me.

I was stunned.

“What is it? Did you get a sister?”


I was still digesting the future. MY future. The sister of a malformed child in the hood. Not cool.

“Damn. Sorry Belinda. A sister would have been cool.”

They were stuck on the whole brother thing. They didn’t know my true burden. May as well get it out there now.

“Yeah. And he’s deformed.”

“What? Damn. What’s wrong?”

“His head is messed up or something.”

I had nightmares about my brother’s head, long and narrow and curved. Where were his eyes and mouth? Was he one big head that led into his neck or was there a banana on a spindly neck. Was his head yellow?

Could this be fixed?

A few days later the car pulled up in front of the house with my mother and brother. I paused at the top of the stoop. My mother was getting out of the car trying to manage baby and bags.

“I know you’re not just going to stand there. “

I jumped down the steps took a deep breath and stepped up to see THE HEAD.

I think my knees buckled when I saw a very normal and extremely cute sleeping face. Normal and cute. Two normal eyes, cute little hands, some soft downy hair on his head.

I was SO happy. My brother wasn’t deformed. I could show my face in public. I wouldn’t have to defend my family honor or anything.

I was frozen, fixated on the tiny bundle and it started to sink in that I was not the only child any more. I went from only to eldest in a snap. I wanted him to open his eyes and look at me. I wanted to meet this person, eye to eye, who would change my life forever.

In the house my mom probed my odd behavior. I told her of my fear of the banana-head baby. She and Jan laughed until they cried. I felt humiliated. They started into an in-depth explanation about how the head squishes to come out of the birth canal, much to my 9-year-old horror. But, they assured me the doctors and nurses re-squish and mold the head back to something resembling a normal head.

I still spent way too many nights wondering about what happens to your brain and who you grow up to be when someone else smushes your head.

But for then, I was content to have the strong grip of tiny fingers of a normal baby wrapped around my own. The blue-gray eyes of my brother pierced my heart when he opened them. When met with that gaze it was love at first sight, I think for the both of us.

My mom always said she had my brother for me. She said I incessantly wished for a brother or sister. What adult listens to the pinings of a 4-year-old and makes good on them when they’re nearly 10?


But what was I to do? Couldn’t send him back.

So there would be no doll baby dress-ups for me. Instead there would be Voltron, Ninja Turtles, BMX bikes, Supersoakers and learning to cut a mean fade. There would be awkward moments when I was 16 and dating and my 6-year-old brother interrupted. There’d be massive pride from the day he graduated Head Start to the day he graduated Harvard.

One of my favorite pictures of me and my brother by our family friend James West.


On this day, 34 years ago, I became a sister to Rafiq Baratunde…who later became Baratunde Rafiq… or just Baratunde to you.

I thank my mom for the best gift ever.

Happy Birthday B.


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