When Boyah J. Farah arrived in the United States as a teenager, he expected the country to be paradise. And for a while it was – when he rode his bike down the quiet streets of his Boston-suburb, past smiling neighbors with their perfectly manicured lawns. "I really thought that God favored America," he said.
But try as he might to hold on to that image, the reality of American racism eventually began to surface cracks in Farah's fantasy. Slowly but surely, he began to understand that as a Black American, his life wouldn't play out like the Hollywood movies he had grown up with. He would be forced into a different sort of role.
In his new memoir, America Made Me a Black Man, Farah tells the story of what American blackness has meant to him, from his childhood in Somalia to his adolescence and early adulthood in the Northeast, to the moment as an adult that he decided to return to Somalia after decades spent away.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You grew up in Somalia, in the Nugaal Valley. And you've described that time as the happiest of your life. So tell me a little bit about your childhood.
That particular time in the valley, it was just, like, freedom. You know, I'm a nomad. Culturally, nomads put freedom above everything else. Life is not a life unless you have freedom. And I feel like my childhood in the valley with ayeyo, my grandmother, it was basically, you know, running in the rain. Drinking goat milk straight from the goats. It was just full of freedom and full of joy. After that, my life has been nothing but turmoil and despair. I've been on the run ever since. At least, that's what I feel like.
Talk about what happened. What brought you from Somalia to the U.S. in 1989?
My father – God bless the dead – died. And then after that, war came like a drifting wind. It gathered like a twister. It basically turned my childhood into dust. My mother and younger siblings and I were living in Mogadishu at the time. And civil war is the worst thing that can happen to mankind, because it's cousins fighting cousins. Basically, Somali families that ate together, that lived together for centuries, were now fighting each other. We'd see tragedy after tragedy – competing tragedies. And so we had to walk out of that place into anywhere safe. So we went to Kenya, to a refugee camp in Mombasa, and then we came to America.
When you were growing up, what did you know about the U.S.? What was your perception of it?
To go to America was to reach for the stars, and to be an American was like running naked in the rain. You know what I mean? It was just beautiful. In the refugee camp, I remember one time I had malaria and it was gruesome. People were dying. In my family, two people died, seven days apart. And I was next because I had malaria. And I remember begging God, 'please, God, just don't let me die until I get to America.' You know, if you're going to kill me, kill me in America. That's how much I adored America.
Where were your images of America coming from?
Movies. Movies, TV, everything. America projects itself all over the world as heaven. So all the refugee kids, they want to reach that heaven. And I was one of them. I couldn't wait.
In your book, you talked about the fact that there was the image of America in movies, but then there was the image of Black America, and those things were often pretty different. What was your perception of Black Americans before you came?
Well, Black Americans were projected in a way that's unfavorable. And therefore when you come to America, you want to avoid anyone Black. Because that's what you "knew" about them: thugs, lazy people, drug dealers. Those were the images that were spread to us. So coming here, I remember taking a bus from Bedford to Alewife and seeing a couple of Black people in the back. And I was like, I don't want to be near them – even though I had nothing to fear, I had nothing anyway, as some poor kid from Africa. But at the same time, my head was filled with a lot of pictures that were lies.
Is there a particular moment where you felt like the fantasy you had of the U.S. was fractured for the first time?
Yes. In high school I met Miss Parker [who worked at the school library]. And she's telling me that in America, I'm an African American. "You're no longer African. You better get used to it." And if you haven't seen that, now you're going to see it. You know, it was like my first warning.
And I remember she gave me African American literature, including Malcolm X's book. And so I used to bike every single day to the library, and read, and try to know America from the books.
And [around that time] I remember biking to a sub place to get pizza. My favorite thing to eat was pizza. And I remember the guy [who worked there] just saying, straight up, "[If you try anything,] I'm gonna call the police on you." I still bought the pizza. But at the same time, even though I was still naive and trying to give America a chance, at that particular moment, I knew that he could easily call the police. And so I remember and I didn't even eat the pizza inside the shop. I ate it outside next to my bike. So there were a lot of those little things that were telling me, something else is coming on the way.
It seems like throughout the book you are regularly encountering people – Black people, like Miss Parker – who are trying to help you understand different things about what it will mean to be Black in the U.S. And at different stages of your life you had very different perceptions of that. So today, how would you define blackness?
Black people were my first teachers about America – authentic teachers about America. And how do I define it? The same way I define myself. I'm an American now. You know, I know exactly what awaits an African child, an African American child, a Black child in America. I know exactly what awaits them. Because I've seen it. And so I feel the pain. I feel the struggle. I'm part of the struggle.
You write about certain things that were surprising to you as someone who was experiencing them for the first time – encounters with the police, discrimnation at work, subpar medical care. It seemed like there were moments when something was more painful for you than for certain Black friends because of the shock of it. Other people had accepted that certain things were going to happen to them as a result of being Black that you weren't used to. Do you still feel like there are things that you're not willing to accept?
Oh, yeah. I am my father's son. I carry his culture and his nomadic lifestyle. I'm an American nomad. You know what that means is freedom is number one – for me to be free until death is very important to me. So certain things I resist and resist and resist. But America does not allow that. It's hard to resist and still remain an American with a job.
In this culture, there's a hierarchy and it's systematic. It's not about individuals. It's a system-driven culture of oppression. This big machine of racism is systematic. So I still try to respect and honor my departed father's culture of being free, but it's very hard. You have to capitulate so you don't get shot by a cop. When a cop stops me, I can't ask him questions or challenge him. He can easily take my life. So I still have to capitulate. But inside of me, I want to honor that freedom. And I want all of us to honor our freedom as human beings, equal to everyone else.
You've talked a lot about the struggles. What's your favorite thing about being Black?
Culture. I think in the book I call it the people with rhythm, style, beauty. I mean, what would America be without Black culture? I used to think Muhammad Ali was Somali. I never thought he was American. He was that popular. And also, I thought Michael Jackson was Somali, you know? Stevie Wonder! I mean, the soft power of American projection throughout the world is Black culture. And once again, my wish is for the United States to recognize that and reciprocate that love. Black people love this country. We want America to reciprocate that love.
You said earlier that you're an American nomad. Is there any part of the U.S. that feels like home to you?
The American highways. Driving on the American highways, it almost feels like that childhood freedom in the Valley. You know, with a song that you like. Roll the windows down. If you've got a sunroof, open that. And drive. I've always found therapy doing that. I love driving across the country in America and seeing different scenes. America is beautiful, and I really want America to be as beautiful as the American highways in the way it treats its African children. When I say African children, I mean American born, African children – Black people. I want them to feel that freedom of a highway.