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America Made Me A Black Man

The Reading Room: An extract from the new memoir about a boy who escaped war in Somalia only to land on the battlefield of American racism.

October 06 2022, 12.36pm

The Reading Room

Welcome to our Reading Room. Dive into a deeper conversation and find leads for your reading list with our collection of extracts from upcoming books - by writers you know, and writers you should get to know.


When I was eleven, my father died of untreated lung cancer, and, a few months later, civil war broke out and carried us away from Somalia like the wind carries drifting clouds. 

Now, we were refugees - my mother, my older sister, my six younger siblings and myself - running from violence, running to save our lives from certain death. Our lives seemed destined for despair and destitution. For almost two years, we ran. Finally, we made it to Utanga, a squalid, disease- infested refugee camp, located right on the edge of the ancient city of Mombasa in Kenya. Sipping tea and eating white bread day after day, watching the sun rise and waiting for it to set in late afternoon - these were my only memories. Life was dead. Democracy was dead. In Utanga, there was nothing for me, except the obligation to lift a shovel and follow behind the other male refugees as we buried yet another neighbor dead from malaria or dengue fever. We spent two years in that camp until we finally found a sponsor and escaped. I was fifteen - four years after we were forced into exile by the civil war - my family found a sponsor, and we left the refugee camp. 

Destiny directed us to Bedford, Massachusetts, a city outside Boston with a population of thirteen thousand. There, all that was inside me expanded.

I can see myself stepping out of the house and walking to the library, counting the silent houses with dogs peeking out the windows. That certainly is strange, I think.

These people live in beautiful houses with big backyards. And the dogs live in the house with them. This is new to me. I can’t figure out why Americans allow dogs to live indoors along with the family. In Somalia, animals stay outside. Inside is only for people. I’m afraid of dogs anyway. And forget about bringing them into the house!

In America, I see no goats, cows, or chickens.

Instead, I pass endless front yards of manicured grass and trees swaying slowly in the clean air. All is nestled in a forest of green, a stark contrast with the semi-desert landscape of Somalia. No longer in that rotten refugee camp, here I am walking on an American sidewalk with grass on each side, trimmed to perfection.

Since I do not see anyone cut the grass, I imagine that God sends invisible angels to cut the grass while the people of Bedford sleep at night. And God does this because America is a country where democracy lives and no one is threatened or harmed.

As I walk, I stoop to run my palms over the grass and enjoy how it feels.

I can look at the sky, clear and blue.

I can feel the air.

I can walk on paved roads and grass without sand drifting into my eyes, my food, my hair. I can eat pizza. I can stroll to the supermarket and glance at the different soft drinks, the many types of sausages on display, the endless rows of bright cartons of fresh milk in the store’s enormous refrigerator. Studying the lips of the white people shopping around me, I marvel at the sounds they make, using their strange language. My desire to learn is intense.

I want to talk to them exactly the way they do to each other.

As I walk around the town with my thoughts and dreams, I am conscious of my good fortune in America, ready to undertake what destiny has in store for me.

“Be a doctor,” I tell myself aloud. “Yes, you can, Boyah! Or, be an engineer!”

My thoughts are my invisible friends since I have none in this town.

Nor do I see any possibility of these white people becoming friends because nothing about them belongs to me. I do not even meet many people walking. Just an occasional mother pushing her baby in a stroller and sometimes a white couple, jogging along the sidewalk.

I am tall and skinny and noticeable in this white suburban town.

I can feel the gaze of the white neighbors wondering who I am and whether or not I speak their language or eat their food or like their music. I am not one of them, but I am eager to become one of them. As I pass by them, they smile. I keep their smiles as a gesture of goodwill.

They like me, I tell myself hopefully. I wish they could know that I like them too.

Anytime I see someone walking or jogging or sitting on the grass, my lips eagerly form smile after smile. I am thinking that they might be able to grasp the meaning of my many smiles, these strange white people gawking at me with pimpled, freckled faces.

My family and I are the tallest and the blackest in this all-white town. As I become more aware of this new reality, I sometimes wish I could touch their pale skin and run my fingers through their blond or red hair.

Mama, wearing a long dress with red, blue, and white patterns, walks around the neighborhood sometimes. Because she has no English, she only grins when someone greets her.

They cannot get to know her as a person, and she cannot express who she is as a fellow human being, so we stand out as those “strange refugees” who never stop smiling.

They never invite us to the neighborhood block party, nor do they stop by for a chat or a brief visit, never spending any length of time with us. But once they figure out that we are not going to cause any trouble and that we are grateful even to be alive in this new land, they begin to interact with us a little.

Someone random, an older white man, says to me one day, “Aren’t you from that family on Roberts Drive?”

“Yes,” I answer politely. “I’m sorry.”

Even though I have not broken any law, I always apologize.

I understand his question. Saying sorry is a survival tactic, a way to protect myself.

“How are your folks?” he says. “How many of you live in that house?”

“Uh,” is all I say. Then I nod my head. “I’m sorry.”

Almost all of the houses near us are one-family structures. To the right of us is a house with a husband and wife, two cars, and two dogs. To the left is a big house with a husband and wife, a child and two dogs. Big backyards with trimmed grass surrounded by metal fences.

In our small house, we are over ten people living on the second floor in a three-bedroom apartment. Along with me and my mother are my three younger brothers and two sisters.

My older sister, with the husband she married in the refugee camp, is also there, raising their year-old child. We have to line up and take turns to use the bathroom, but we have no inkling that we are missing anything. We are not yet Americans.

In our small apartment house live different people: white, black, and Asian individuals who come and go. All we know about them is that they are Americans and speak English. Hearing them talk in the hallway, I wish I could learn to speak English like them.

Some representatives of the International Rescue Committee help us by dropping off used clothes, winter jackets and shoes and a beat-up used bicycle. Everything in the apartment comes from the IRC or from the secondhand shop Mama visits twice a week, sometimes three times a week. Our living room is outfitted with a sofa, a love seat, a gray carpet, an old mini-television with two tiny speakers, a small coffee table for the tea thermos and three ceramic cups and an old grandfather clock hanging above the floor lamp. Even our cordless telephone comes from the used-furniture store.

We are the newly arrived, the poor and black living in America.

Sitting in the living room watching America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh, Mama always draws us around her and reminds us to keep the front door closed. She does not want the constant commotion coming from the first-floor apartment to disturb the calmness in our apartment. Those people on the first floor are Americans, and Mama is aware we are lucky to be here and asks us to respect our host country and respect our American neighbors.

We are happy and appreciative. As I walk to the library, I notice the clear blue sky turning to gray, the air becoming thicker, and the trees beginning to lose their leaves.

Slowly, those trees are becoming skeletons, as if they were getting naked for the coming of snow, like couples getting ready to conceive their first child.

The man on the Weather Channel tells me what day and time the snow will fall, but I have trouble believing his prediction. I do not think God communicates directly with human beings, let alone with a white man in a black suit who gets drunk with forbidden liquor and who may not even believe in God. Coming from a place of human catastrophe, my singular worldview has yet to be exposed to the diversity of human beliefs and cultures. 

Yes, it is late in the afternoon, the daylight is growing shorter and the sky is becoming grayer, but how does that white man dressed in a suit on television know exactly when the snow will come?

Does the silent sky communicate with him? What kind of relationship can they have?

I want to say something, but I figure no one will understand me.

In my semi-dark bedroom, the light is on, and I am reciting to myself a list of English words to memorize. I am on a mission to master the English language and make it my own when suddenly, at precisely the time the weatherman predicted, clumps of snow begin to beat against the glass window of my room. With that, I come to believe in the magic of America.

When I see the snow, my heart seems to skip a beat. I jump up from the couch and quickly run outdoors. Standing on the doorstep, I look up at the gray sky, and my eyes follow the snowflakes pouring down onto the earth and covering everything below in white. The driving snow keeps coming and coming, covering the grass and the sidewalks and the driveway and the paved streets—everything, including the green grass. In front of our neighbor’s house next door, children are wearing jackets, gloves, sweaters and rubber boots as they play in the snow. One has a shovel, another a spoon and yet another is sitting on a toboggan in the snow.

As I watch them, I am feeling cold, but something in me is keeping my body warm. As I breathe, mists of fog escape my mouth, I love everything I see. I am overwhelmed. Stretching out my hands and opening my mouth to the sky, I begin to collect snowflakes. I see my younger siblings come running outside and reaching out for the snow, giggling and making all kinds of noises with their tongues. I, too, attempt to catch the snow falling through the air, but the flakes melt into the palm of my hand, slippery and invisible, but wet. At one time, all six of us are out in the open, and all of us have our mouths tilted up and open in the air to collect the falling snow. My mouth agape. My teeth chattering. 

I want to pray to God for a pair of rubber boots and gloves. But then, God has already granted my wish to escape war, withstand disease and survive starvation, how can I be so selfish as to pray for even more? God has already convinced the Americans to let me stand here in the snow and play. Could I ask for more? God is good. The world is good. The falling snow is beautiful, and my belly is full of love, prayers, and hope for my life in America.


Boyah J. Farah's writing has been featured in The Guardian, Harvard Transition, Scheer Intelligence at KCRW, Grub Daily and Truthdig. He is the winner of Salon's best essay of 2017. His essays have also appeared in Harvard's Kennedy School Review, Pangyrus magazine, and The Huffington Post.

America Made Me A Black Man is published by Simon & Schuster. 

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