Boyah J. Farah thought the United States would be an utopia when he first came here as a teenager. For a while, it was when he pedaled his bicycle by beaming neighbors and their immaculate lawns as he lived in a Boston suburb’s calm streets. He said, “I honestly believed that God favored America.
Nevertheless, despite Farah’s best efforts, the reality of American racism finally started to show cracks in his illusion. He gradually realized that, as a Black American, his life would not unfold in the same way as the Hollywood films he had grown up watching. He would be compelled to take on a new kind of position.
America Made Me a Black Man, Farah’s latest memoir, details what blackness in America has meant to him from his early years in Somalia through his teens and early twenties in the Northeast until the moment he made the decision to return to Somalia after living abroad for many years.
For the sake of clarity, the exchange below has been trimmed and reduced.
You were raised in Somalia’s Nugaal Valley. And you said it was the happiest time of your life. Therefore, tell me a little bit about your upbringing.
It was purely liberating at that specific moment in the valley. I’m a wanderer, you know. Nomads prioritize independence above all else in their culture. Without freedom, life is not a life. And I remember that growing up in the valley with my grandmother, Ayeyo, was basically just running around in the rain. consuming fresh goat milk from the goats. It was purely liberating and joyful. My life has only been chaos and sadness since then. Since then, I’ve been evading capture. That is how I feel, at least.
Discuss what occurred. What drew you to the United States in 1989 from Somalia?
My father passed away, God bless the dead. War followed that like a blustering wind. It grew like a tornado. It essentially reduced my childhood to ashes. At the time, I was residing in Mogadishu along with my mother and younger siblings. And because it involves relatives fighting cousins, civil war is the worst thing that could ever happen to humanity. In essence, Somali families that had dined and lived together for decades were now at odds. We would witness clashing disasters one after the other. We had to leave that area and go somewhere safe. So, after traveling to a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya, we arrived in America.
What did you know about the United States when you were a child? What did you think of it?
Being an American is like running naked in the rain, and going to America is like reaching for the stars. You get what I’m saying? It was really stunning. I recall having malaria in the refugee camp once, and it was horrifying. There were fatalities. Two members of my family passed away seven days apart. I was then put in line because I had malaria. And I can still remember pleading with God, “Please, God, just don’t let me pass away before I get to America.” You should kill me in America if you’re going to. I had such a deep love for America.
Where did you get your ideas of America?
Movies. everything—movies, TV, etc. America presents itself to the rest of the world as paradise. Therefore, all of the refugee children desire to enter that heaven. I was one of them as well. I was impatient.
In your work, you discussed how the representations of Black America and of America as a whole were frequently quite dissimilar from one another. What did you think of African Americans before you arrived?
Well, a negative image of Black Americans was conveyed. Therefore, you should avoid Black people when visiting America. Since you “knew” they were drug traffickers, thugs, and lazy people. The photographs that were circulated to us were those. I recall arriving here by bus from Bedford to Alewife and spotting a few Black people in the back. Even though I was a poor African child with nothing and nothing to fear, I was thinking, “I don’t want to be around them.” However, I also had a lot of false images in my head at the same moment.
Is there a specific period when you felt as though your ideal of the United States was first shattered?
Yes. I first met Miss Parker, who worked at the school library, in high school. She also informs me that I am an African American in America. “No longer are you African. You had better adjust to it.” If you haven’t seen that yet, you will do so now. It was sort of like my first caution, you know?
And I recall that mom handed me books by African Americans, including one by Malcolm X. I used to cycle every day to the library where I would read and attempt to learn about America through the literature.
And I recall riding my bike to a sub shop about that time to eat pizza. Pizza was my favorite food to eat. And I recall the employee there telling me flat out, “If you try anything, I’m calling the police on you.” Even so, I ordered pizza. At that precise point, I was aware that he might easily contact the police, even if I was still naive and attempting to give America a chance. I don’t even remember eating the pizza inside the establishment, as I recall. I dined al fresco next to my bicycle. So many of those seemingly insignificant things were alerting me to the fact that something bigger was on the horizon.
It appears that Black people, like Miss Parker, who are attempting to explain various aspects of what it will mean to be Black in the United States to you frequently throughout the novel. And you had quite diverse views of that at various points in your life. So how would you characterize blackness today?
Black people were my earliest and most reliable teachers of American culture. And what do I mean by that? exactly how I would describe myself. I’m now an American. You see, I am fully aware of the challenges that an African, African American, or Black youngster in America will face. I am aware of their particular fate. I am aware of that. I am therefore aware of the agony. I sense the conflict. I participate in the conflict.
You talk about topics like confrontations with the police, discrimination at employment, and poor medical care that surprised you when you first encountered them. Because of the shock, it looked like there were times when things hurt more for you than for some of your Black friends. As a result of being Black, other people had come to accept certain things that you weren’t used to happening to you. Do you still feel that there are some things that you won’t agree to?
Oh, right. I am the son of my father. His way of life and culture are carried by me. I’m a wandering American. You understand what that means: I value my freedom greatly, and I want to be free until I die. So I continually fight against some things. But that is not permitted in America. To refuse and still be an employed American is difficult.
There is a systematic hierarchy in this society. It’s not about people, per se. It is a system-driven oppressive culture. This extensive system of racism is organized. So, despite how challenging it is, I continue to attempt to appreciate and honor my late father’s free-spirited culture. In order to avoid being shot by a police officer, you must submit. I am not allowed to confront or question a police officer who stops me. He has no trouble taking my life. I must still give in, therefore. But deep inside, I want to respect that independence. And I want each and every one of us to respect our freedom as fellow human beings.
You’ve spoken extensively about the difficulties. What do you enjoy most about being Black?
Culture. I believe I refer to them as the folks with rhythm, style, and beauty in the book. Without Black culture, what would America be like? Muhammad Ali was once thought to be a Somalian. I had no idea he was from America. He was so well-liked. Additionally, I believed Michael Jackson to be Somali, don’t you? St. Wonder! Black culture, I mean, is the soft power that America projects abroad. And once more, I hope that the United States would acknowledge that and return the favor. People of color adore our nation. We expect America to return our love.
You described yourself as an American wanderer earlier. Is there a region in the United States where you feel at home?
the roads in America. Driving on American highways almost brings back memories of the Valley as a child. With a music that you enjoy, of course. Close the windows. Open your sunroof if you have one. plus drive. That’s how I’ve always found therapy to work. I enjoy traveling throughout America by car and taking in the various landscapes. America is wonderful, and I genuinely want America to treat its African children with the same beauty as the American highways. When I refer to African children, I mean Black African children who were born in America. I want them to experience the freedom of the open road.