Coming of Age in Post-9/11 New York

Writer Brandee Sanders at the 125th Street Pier in New York City
Writer Brandee Sanders at the 125th Street Pier in New York City

As I curled up on my couch last week, flipping through television channels and eager to find something to watch for some sort of Thursday-night entertainment, I realized that I was out of luck. The Office was a repeat, I'm not a big fan of Wipeout and I had stopped watching Degrassi: The Next Generation by the time I was 15. I continued my quest to try and find something worth watching when I came across a documentary about Sept. 11. With the flip of a channel, I was instantly taken back to the most devastating day in my lifetime.


Ten years ago, on that Tuesday morning, I sat in my sixth-grade homeroom class on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, waiting for my father to pick me up and unsure about what exactly was going on. There was a rumor spreading around school that the World Trade Center had been hit by planes.

At first I was skeptical, but the faces of utter disbelief and sadness among my peers and teachers confirmed it for me. We sat in the classroom in silence, listening to the radio, waiting for what would happen next. When my father arrived, I ran into his arms — an embrace that some of my classmates would never have with their parents again.

The car ride back to Harlem was filled with questions. What exactly happened, Daddy? What is a terrorist? Were they going to start hitting random buildings? Would the Adam Clayton Powell building on 125th Street, located a few blocks from my house, be next? Were we safe?

It wasn't until I arrived home and turned on the television that it really hit me. Right before my eyes was footage of the twin towers — a place where I had once gone for a fourth-grade school trip — crumbling as soot-covered civilians ran for safety. I saw damage from the plane that crashed into a section of the Pentagon and witnessed a billowing cloud of smoke rising from a field after Flight 93 went down near Shanksville, Pa.

In the weeks to follow, rides on the subway became forever changed. I took the No. 1 train from 125th Street to school every day while fearing that I would become the next victim of an attack. The images of the missing, taped to the walls inside the subway stations, are forever imprinted in my mind. It haunted me to know that most of the faces of these individuals, many with smiles so warm and promising, were of those who had lost their lives.

My sixth-grade homeroom teacher said that this would be a day we would remember forever. I remember it as the day after which I had to grow up in a lot of ways; I am not alone among Americans my age. Exposed to the realities of terrorism and bigotry — and bonding through patriotism — my generation came of age in the wake of Sept. 11. A survey conducted by the American University School of Communications reveals that 71 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believe that day had an impact on their lives.


Not the Same Old News 

Prior to the attacks, the word "terrorism" was foreign to me. I'd never really heard it before and didn't know much about it. As names like "Osama bin Laden" and "al-Qaida" became common in my household, in school and on the news, I felt a need to grasp this concept in order to understand the motive behind what went on that day, and the state that our country would be in thereafter. After the attacks, 67 percent of the Millennial generation was more likely to be interested in the news, according to the American University study. It's one of the reasons I've decided to pursue a career in journalism.


For 23-year-old Harlem resident Sean Romere Pickett, who was in seventh grade when the attacks occurred, the events of Sept. 11 increased his interest in news coverage. "At the time of 9/11, I was very much into the news," said Pickett. "I wanted to make sense of what really happened. Anytime a catastrophic event occurs, everyone wants to tune in to the news."

His curiosity isn't shared by all of our peers. Some have found news accounts to be too much to bear. "I actually watch less of the news after 9/11," said 24-year-old Traci Byers, a Harlem-based photographer who was in high school at the time. "It makes me sad. I think the news focuses too much on the negative things that are going on in the world."


Suspicion and Curiosity

Growing religious intolerance is another aftershock of Sept. 11. Because the people who were responsible for planning the attacks were of the Islamic faith, it was hard for some individuals to dissociate that religion from terrorism, leading to racial profiling of Muslims in the U.S.


Twenty-two-year-old Ahmad Rouse, a resident of Brooklyn and a student at the City College of New York, has experienced this form of discrimination firsthand. "My first name is Ahmad, which is Muslim, and since the 9/11 attacks, I felt like people judged me based on my name," said Rouse. "Following the attacks, growing up I was teased and objectified because my name was associated with that religion. There were times where I'd wish that my name were different, but now I take pride in the fact that my name is distinct and represents my heritage."

Despite the uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment, the attacks also made us more curious about the world beyond our borders as we wondered about the motivation for them. Nearly half of those surveyed said that 9/11 has made them more likely to want to study international affairs or religion. For me there was little change. I was educated in a diverse environment and have always been open to learning about individuals who come from different cultures.


One of the positive aspects that I remember from that day and the days to follow was the sense of unity among Americans. It didn't matter where you came from, what your ethnic background was; everyone found a common ground in being American.

The American Within

It was also on that day that I discovered the true meaning behind the word "patriotism." In fact, 50 percent of Millennials believe that Sept. 11 made them more patriotic. "It made me proud to be an American," said Pickett. "It allowed me to see that we could overcome any horrific situation." That patriotic spirit remains 10 years after the attacks.


Growing up in New York City, I have constantly been reminded of what happened that fateful day: when I see the murals of red, white and blue flags with the words "Never Forget" on firehouses in memory of those who passed; when I walk around Lower Manhattan and know that 10 years ago, so many lives were lost in that area; and when I look at the skyline and know that the two towers that made it complete are no longer there.

Coming of age in the wake of the attacks, I've learned so much about myself, but the most important thing I've learned is to value life.


Brandee Sanders is a Harlem-based writer.