Memphis, TN: She was born here. She grew up here. She went to school here.
Saturday, she put her gold mortarboard over her hijab and graduated second in her class at Whitehaven High, proud if just slightly disappointed.
“My goal was to be valedictorian,” said Fatimata Deme, a first-generation Muslim African American Memphian and Whitehaven Tiger.
She came up a tenth of a point short. She completed her studies with a 4.4. grade-point average, good enough to give her the honor of being class salutatorian.
She took seven Advanced Placement classes. She made the National Honor Society and the National English Honor Society. She received more than $4 million in academic scholarship offers.
They make judgments about her because of what she wears, how she always covers her head and neck with a colorful scarf or hijab, her arms and legs with a long gown or abaya.
They make judgments about her based on what others have done, people she doesn’t know, never met, never in a million years would agree with or support, no matter what they claimed was their motivation.
It used to bother her a lot — the stares, the questions, the negative assumptions. It made her feel like she wasn’t welcome, like she didn’t belong in her own country, her own hometown.
She got over it. So did they when they got to know her. They stopped staring and started asking better questions.
“I used to hate all of the questions,” Fatimata said. “Now I welcome them. People are curious. They want to know more.”
So she explains.
Her parents are from Senegal, one of Africa’s model democracies and most stable countries.
They came to America in 1996 and to Memphis in 1997 seeking — like so many immigrants before them — a better life and more opportunities for their children.
“We are very proud of Fatimata and her education,” said her father, Baba Deme, the imam at Masjid Taqwa, the mosque on Winchester.
You think being a preacher’s kid is a challenge? Try being the American teenage daughter of a clergy leader whose faith tradition discourages or disallows teen dating.
Fatimata is proud of that tradition.
“When boys ask me out, I just say no,” she says without a trace of resentment or regret.
She believes modesty is a virtue. She believes she should be judged for what’s in her mind and heart and soul, not for what’s on her body.
She believes in praying five times a day and regular fasting, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
“When I get into test mode, I don’t even notice that I’m fasting,” she said.
It helps that she isn’t entirely alone.
There are as many as 20 other students at Whitehaven High who are African immigrants or first-generation Africans. Several other girls cover their heads.
There are four Muslim teachers, including a Muslim woman whose hair no one at school has ever seen. Arabic is one of the foreign languages offered.
“I thought I would be tormented or teased when I started going to Whitehaven, but I haven’t been at all,” she said. “Everyone makes me feel welcome. It makes me feel good.”
It also helps that she has attended a school run by Dr. Vincent Hunter, the Whitehaven principal, who runs a tight ship and sets a tone of inclusion and respect.
“Fatimata is a tremendous young lady who has helped our children learn to respect another culture,” Hunter said.
Fatimata wanted to be valedictorian, but she has other goals. She loves science, especially biology and chemistry. She loves to view the world at the micro level.
“In medicine there is only one race, the human race,” the New England Journal of Medicine declared three years after she was born.
“All God’s creatures are His family,” the Prophet Muhammad declared centuries ago. “And he or she is the most beloved of God who tries to do the most good to God’s creatures.”
Fatimata is a form of the name Fatima, who was a daughter of the Prophet.
Fatimata, the daughter of an imam, plans to go to Rhodes College, then to medical school.
Someday she hopes to go to Senegal and help people who don’t have access to advanced medical care.
“I want to show that a Muslim woman can do anything,” she said.