Kuzuri Reid’s checkered past has a whole lot to do with how her mother lived.
By Brittany Hailer
Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.
Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!
Explore another voice in this series:
Kuzuri Reid is exactly what her mom, Anita Reid, wanted her to be. Beautiful, smart and tough. She writes poetry and lives alone. Her four kids are all grown. Kuzuri has two jobs: as a cook and as a construction worker. She is the only woman on her construction team. At work, she wears a hard hat with Betty Boop on it, makeup and faux lashes.
I spent Mother’s Day with Kuzuri at her suggestion. It was the only day she was free for an interview. We sat at a kitchen table at her apartment, talking about motherhood, what it means and how our mothers influenced us.
Yet, Kuzuri’s story starts even before this when she is molested at the age of 4.
Text in italics are Kuzuri's words.
Kuzuri’s mother would leave her with a friend when she was using. This friend’s boyfriend molested Kuzuri repeatedly. One of Kuzuri’s earliest memories is having her legs up in stirrups and her mother, Anita, wrapping her hand in a towel so that Kuzuri could bite because of the pain. A doctor was checking her for semen. She remembers a judge asking her to recite her ABC’s and 123’s to see if she was competent, if she was smart enough to be telling the truth. After this, she is abused again by an uncle repeatedly. Kuzuri says her family never talked about it. Anita continued to leave Kuzuri with men who would harm her.
Kuzuri was arrested the first time at the age of 16 in Houston, Texas. She was trying to track down her mother.
Anita is arrested not long after they arrive in Houston, and Kuzuri is sent back to Pittsburgh by her godmother, who lived in Houston at the time.
But she wanted to be with her mom.
Kuzuri’s first time prostituting is to earn enough money to get back to her mother. By the time she returns, Anita had escaped the county jail and ended up in prison. Kuzuri has nowhere to go and finds places to stay with people she meets. She starts smoking crack and shooting cocaine, stripping and drugging rich men and stealing their money. She is still 15 years old.
A friend pays her bond, and she returns to Pittsburgh.
After this, the floodgates open for Kuzuri. She continues to get arrested: disorderly conduct, prostitution, drugs, etc.
When Kuzuri was 19 years old, she received 20 years of probation for prostitution. From there she continues to violate, continues to land behind bars. On more than one occasion, she is housed with her mother.
Kuzuri does not blame her addiction or her choices on her mom.
Kuzuri served time upstate at Muncy State Correctional Institution twice in the early 1990s and both times her mother was incarcerated with her. The first time she was sent upstate, she was 21.
She tells me she didn’t take her sentence seriously. She thought it was a joke. Her mother was there to talk to. She describes the prison like a college campus. Prisoners were allowed outside; they were allowed to smoke. She had a key to her “room,” where she could come and go as she pleased. Everything was fun for the time being.
I ask Kuzuri when everything stopped being a joke.
Kuzuri says she couldn’t get clean until she treated both of her diseases: her addiction, and the trauma she sustained after her molestation.
Anita died in her own apartment. Kuzuri can’t remember how long it had been since her mother could afford and take care of her own housing:
Kuzuri tells Anita before she dies that she’s not going to take any more abuse during an argument. Anita, for the first time, admits, in her own way, to what happened to Kuzuri all those years ago.
This is the only time Kuzuri and Anita talk about the abuse. She says that because she knows her mom, she knew what her mother meant. Anita and Kuzuri got the closest they’d ever been at the end of Anita’s life.
Kuzuri starts to smile, telling me about her mother’s character: funny, charismatic, the life of the party, everyone at the hospitals loving her. I get another glimpse of Anita. She is no longer addict or prisoner, but comedian and neighbor. I tell Kuzuri that her description of Anita reminds me of her.
Kuzuri shared her poem “She” which is an ode to her mother, Anita Reid:
Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.