Kai Wright: It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright and I want you to meet Folashade Olatunde. She's part of WNYC's Radio Rookies program, which is this incredible award-winning program that gives young people in the city the tools and the training to tell audio stories about their own communities.
Folashade spent the last year recording audio diaries about a relationship with her dad, and this is a pretty challenging thing for her to talk about, the relationship. It's been tough because her dad has been incarcerated since she was two years old. She's 25 years old now. Folashade was too young to know what happened the night that law enforcement came and took her dad so she asked her mom what went down that night.
Folashade’s Mother: I heard "boom," at the door so I jumped up, ran in the room, and told him that somebody is at the door. As he got to the door, it was about maybe 10 or 12 of them came in the house and they ransacked the whole apartment. They took clothes, everything, "Look all in your drawers, everything, and just throw everything on the floor."
Folashade Olatunde: Do you remember where I was and what I was doing?
Folashade’s Mother: They took you out the bed and brung you in the living room and you were just standing there crying because you're confused. You don't know what's going on. You're a baby, so you don't know what's going on and it's nothing that I can really do because they had me in handcuff for no reason. I've never been arrested in my life.
Kai Wright: Folashade's dad was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for selling drugs. She'd go up to see him about twice a month until her parents got divorced when she was 12 years old. At that point, there were a lot of changes happening in her family and in their lives. The prison, it was pretty far from where she lived in the Bronx and so the visits just became harder to maintain and she didn't see him for a really long time.
Recently she decided she needed to reconnect with her father because she felt like she had to get to know him if she was ever really going to understand herself. She's documented her journey through recording interviews with her mom, phone calls with her dad, and her own audio diaries where she recorded her feelings throughout this whole journey. She started by recording the first time she visited her dad in over a decade.
Folashade Olatunde: Today is the day that I'm going to go visit my dad. I just woke up and I feel extremely nervous, anxious. It's bringing up a lot of emotions of when I was a child and I used to go visit my dad in prison. I remember going to visit my dad and my dad picking me up and throwing me in the air. That was my favorite part of the visit because I just felt so free. Now that I'm a lot older, I'm realizing the effects of having a dad that's in prison. I think that's why I struggle so much with my identity and understanding who I am in this world because half of me I don't even know anything about.
Folashade Olatunde: I'm just ready to understand who my dad is so that I can understand who I am. Hopefully, I will find some type of peace, some type of freedom. Let's cross our fingers. My mom agreed to drive me upstate to the prison.
Folashade Olatunde: It had been 12 years since I last saw my dad. You think you're ready, but I don't feel like I'm ready.
Folashade’s Mother: When you get there, it's going to be a different thing. Watch, it's like that.
Folashade Olatunde: She's been really supportive of me. She knows not having my dad in my life has affected me mentally and emotionally. I had a hard time connecting with people because I felt like getting close to people that they would leave just like my dad left.
Folashade’s Mother: This might be the breakthrough for you, just being in his presence.
Folashade Olatunde: Yes. I know that this experience is not only just going to help me, but it will also help my dad as well. Help him to just not feel like he's alone but he has a child out in the world that is trying her best to be successful and make him proud.
Folashade Olatunde: Sorry. We arrived and I am feeling very anxious and very nervous. I see the jail and it's really messing with my head. I did not think that would do that, but it is. When I got there, I saw a line that wrapped around the prison.
Folashade’s Mother: Damn. You got to go. All right, let's get to walking.
Folashade Olatunde: I'm shaky. This is real life. It took almost two hours to get inside.
Security: If you got anything I need to lock up, you better bring it to your cars because we ain't got no more lockers.
Folashade Olatunde: I felt anxious, I felt a knot in my stomach, and I felt nervous. He's my dad. In my head I was thinking, "What did I get myself into?"
Security: You can take your mask off and your glasses [unintelligible 00:06:13]
Folashade Olatunde: I just came out of the visiting with my dad. I knew that it was going to be traumatizing, but I didn't realize how it brought up a lot of different emotions, just seeing the gates on the building. I just don't even know what to say. His health is not where it should be. It just made me realize that I have to visit my dad more. My dad does not deserve this. I told him that you don't deserve this. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody, but you shouldn't have to be tortured for your whole life for it. It's not right. [crying]
Folashade’s Mother: That's right.
Folashade Olatunde: It definitely has not been an easy journey not having my dad in my life and seeing other people with their dad or talking about their dad and just wanting to know what that feels like. It makes me feel broken, extremely broken. I think I've been broken ever since I was two. Today I visit my dad for the second time and I was just crying as we were starting to talk and stuff. Talking to my dad, I can see that jail definitely has changed him and he is definitely not himself. I can't put my finger on it. I don't know what it is. I don't know if he's suffering from a mental illness or if he's just out of it. I don't know what's going on.
Folashade Olatunde: It was really hard to see my dad again, but I wanted to build a relationship with him and I wanted to get to know him better.
Folashade’s Father: Yes. How is your job?
Folashade Olatunde: It's good.
Folashade’s Father: Okay. That's good.
Folashade Olatunde: We started to talk more on the phone.
Folashade’s Father: [unintelligible 00:09:07] oatmeal?
Folashade Olatunde: Huh?
Folashade’s Father: The oatmeal.
Folashade Olatunde: Oh, oatmeal. Send you oatmeal?
Folashade’s Father: Yes. The one that you sent me before.
Folashade Olatunde: The next two times I went to visit my dad, I bought him books, clothes, food. Oh, do you want the crystal light? There was this one specific thing that I couldn't find. When I last visit him, he also wanted me to get something else that I don't know how to pronounce. When I went to go to the African market, it was closed. He said something about, "Oh, it's been two visits now that you haven't got my stuff."
I just really was taken back by that because if you would have saw the amount of stuff that I bought him, I made sure that it was 25 pounds and it was a lot of stuff, I felt like it was a slap in my face because I've just been so overwhelmed. I have a part-time job and I'm going to school and I'm doing an internship. He doesn't know the extent of what I'm doing and what I'm juggling. It's like, "Okay, be a good child and help your dad," but then at the same time it's like, "Does he appreciate it? Does he know what I'm going through? Does he know the sacrifices that I'm making?"
It's like he treats me as if I'm nothing and I'm a waste of space. If I help him get food or I help him get clothes or money, if I help him with that, everything's great, I'm the best daughter in the world, but if I don't do any of those things I'm the worst daughter in the world. I took a really brave step to go see my dad. I didn't have to do that. I could have kept it the way it was, you know what I'm saying? It's like I tried to open this wound so that I can try to heal it but it's like I opened it and I feel like it's getting wider, and it's getting wider.
Folashade Olatunde: Two months after my first visit I decided to tell my dad how I was feeling. I'm just going to tell my dad tomorrow how I feel, and I'm going to tell him the trauma that he caused with the choices that he made. I'm not trying to make him feel bad but I'm trying to make him understand what I'm feeling and what I'm going through. I'm just going to hope that he can hear me and understand me. I wanted him to comfort me. He didn't comfort me and instead he changed the subject. This time my mom came in with me and she was surprised at how much my father had changed.
Folashade’s Mother: He's not the man that I know. His whole aura; he just didn't look himself. I sat there and I could tell mentally he's not there, mentally he's gone. Being in prison for so many years, it mentally put a toll on him. It's like he's not there.
Folashade Olatunde: That makes me sad. It's just messing me up.
Folashade’s Mother: He's not in his right mind at all and I know and I can see it.
Folashade Olatunde: What's sad is I feel like it's my fault.
Folashade’s Mother: No it's not your fault because how can it be your fault and at the time when this happened you was the age of two-and-a-half years old? Therefore how can you say that is your fault? What do you have to do with what he decided to do with his life?
Folashade Olatunde: I feel like it's my fault how he is now because I wasn't able to help him even though I was a teenager trying to juggle high school and trying to help you out.
Folashade’s Mother: Him being in there and you're not communicating with him within those couple of years you didn't put him there. How can you take care of him?
Folashade Olatunde: I just haven't really been talking to my dad because we had a fallout and he said some really hurtful things that really stung at me. Recently I had a phone call with him and he said, "Oh, it took you 12 years to come and visit me or whatever." For him to say that it really hurt my feelings because he doesn't know what I went through in those 12 years. It just made me feel like I'm doing something wrong in those 12 years like, "Oh, I didn't visit him. I'm to blame." It just really hurts. It's like during this hard time I'm reconnecting with my dad but at the same time I feel like I'm disconnecting with myself.
I'm not going to blame it all on the prison system but I just think that he's not in his right mind, and all he's doing is bringing chaos and stress into my life. I don't need that. I just need peace. I want to be free. I want to be happy and to be really honest I don't think I ever experienced that. I don't even know what that feels like. [crying] I don't know what happy is.
Folashade Olatunde: I felt so overwhelmed that I had to take a step back. I couldn't talk to my dad anymore. I just wanted to heal. It's like when you're healing it feels like you're breaking. That's the weird part. It's like you are healing but you feel like you're breaking. That's just my story, I guess. It's not going to be sherry pops and rainbows, I would hope so, but it's not bubblicious. It's more like a roller-coaster that never ends but it's part of the journey of life.
It's been a year now since my first visit with my dad. We haven't talked in months. It hasn't been easy but I'm starting to find some sort of peace. I felt like I needed to know my dad in order to know myself because he was gone, I felt like a part of me was gone. That is very true that a little part of me was gone because my dad wasn't there. I love my dad and even though our relationship is rocky and it's confusing, I love both my parents. I just want my dad to be able to live life too because he didn't get that opportunity either.
I also realize in this journey that you don't necessarily need to know your parents to know yourself. It's important to know where you come from, it's important to know your roots but also it's important to know that you can define who you are as well. I realize that I'm not my dad and I'm not my mom, I'm Folashade Olatunde. I am African, I am Black and I am proud. I am Black and I am beautiful. I am strong, I'm proud, and that's what I want the world to know. This is my story.
Kai Wright: Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. You can find us wherever you get your podcast or at notesfromamerica.org. We're on Instagram @noteswithkai. Special thanks this week to Carolina Hidalgo who runs WNYC's Radio Rookies program and to Becca Bressler. Mixing and music by Jared Paul and Andrew Dunn this week. Our show is edited, produced and reported by Karen Frillmann, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa and Kousha Navidar. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for spending time with us tonight and happy holidays.
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