Boyah J. Farah fled the war in Somalia arriving in the United States as a refugee with his mother and siblings when he was fifteen. His romantic dreams of America quickly ran into the dark undercurrents of American racism. Living in a housing project in Bedford, Massachusetts he was forced to discover the curse of being Black in America, the daily humiliations and small, but insidious ways he was made to constantly feel an outsider by whites. He watched as other Somali families succumbed to the poison of American racism, writing that although they had survived the war in Africa, American broke them and carried them off. America is democratic, he concedes sardonically, for every Black person is, in the end, simply another disposable Black body. Boyah J. Farah joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his memoir America Made Me a Black Man.
Studio: Dwayne Gladden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Chris Arnone
Chris Hedges: Boyah J. Farah fled the war in Somalia, arriving in the United States as a refugee with his mother and seven siblings when he was 15. His romantic dreams of America quickly ran into the dark undercurrents of American racism. Living in a housing project in Bedford, Massachusetts, he was forced to discover the curse of being Black in America: the daily humiliations and small but insidious ways he was made to feel constantly as an outsider by whites.
He had experienced tribalism in Somalia. He saw in the divide between whites and Blacks, especially with the political ascendancy of Donald Trump and the far right, the same kind of deadly tribalism here, one that usually leads to internecine violence. He watched as other Somali families succumbed to the poison of American racism, writing that, “Although they had survived the war in Africa, America broke them and carried them off. America is democratic,” he concedes sardonically, “for every Black person is, in the end, simply another disposable Black body.”
Joining me to discuss his memoir, America Made Me a Black Man, is Boyah J. Farah. First of all, it’s beautifully written. You’re a really fine writer. Poetic even, I think. Let’s talk about Somalia. You witnessed a lot of violence. The country broke down. But just talk about your childhood.
Boyah Farah: I must say thank you, Chris. You’re one of the finest Americans I know. I read some of your work as well. You’re wonderful.
In 1991, right before we celebrated the arrival of the New Year, war broke out, and basically it was like a civil war. Families turning into each other and weapons everywhere. And at the time, my dad died a year before that, in 1989, and it was like my mom… I was the first boy, and I was very young, so I basically had to take responsibility and try to help my mom as we went away from the civil war. Civil war is the worst out of all wars, I think. And so we zigzagged in the country from refugee camp to refugee camp. One of the memorable things we carried was this transistor radio. We actually listened to BBC Somali radio. So my mom actually… The reason why she was listening to that is to know how far the militias were so we could walk in the opposite direction, because her job was for us to survive.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about some of the things you saw. And it’s pretty brutal.
Boyah Farah: I’ve seen enormous, brutal… One case in point is I witnessed a man who was stoned to death. I’ve also witnessed a woman who… Actually it was me and a guy named Omar that I write about in the book. We were at the beach, and the reason why we used to go to the beach was we were incredibly hungry, and somehow when you go inside the water, the water changed your mood. It almost makes you forget about the hunger inside your belly. And in the afternoons, that’s what we used to do a lot.
And one day a woman and a man were talking, and I guess something happened. I don’t know. Because I happened to just… He shot her right there, and actually killed her, and no one actually got close to her body until the imam at the end of that day started telling the people that it is our responsibility to bury the dead. I’ve witnessed that. I’ve also witnessed a guy who was actually stoned to death in front of us. And the last thing that was alive as everyone walked away was a twitching ear. The ear didn’t die. It was twitching. And that guy stays with me.
Chris Hedges: One of your closest childhood friends was killed. A girl.
Boyah Farah: Yes. She died in the war, basically. As she was running away from the war, there was an ambush. And the ambush… There were young people who were told that they were on the opposite side of the war, and they just basically killed everyone that was in the vehicle.
Chris Hedges: So you’re fleeing the violence. You end up in refugee camps. Is it two years you live in refugee camps? Is that correct?
Boyah Farah: We zigzagged from refugee camp to the next for two years.
Chris Hedges: Talk about life in the camps.
Boyah Farah: The life in the camp was actually worse than the war. In the war we were on the move. We were in motion. Basically we were running. When you’re running, you don’t really have time to think. You don’t really have time to mourn. You don’t really have time to think. In the refugee camp, you have time to think, and when someone dies you actually have time to mourn. There were more people dying of dengue and malaria than anything else. It was just burial after burial every single day. TB.
And I remember my job being… Because we have no job. Our job as young kids, young boys, was actually just to predict who’s going to die tomorrow, who we’re going to bury. And literally it was to predict. I remember two weeks before I left to the US, there was a dead body decaying right next to the tent that housed us as our hospital. I got malaria, so they took me to the hospital. I stayed there, and there was actually a dead body that nobody claimed for a few days without refrigeration. So actually the smell of it is something that will never leave me. Sometimes I remember when my nose picks up those kinds of smells. It was actually a lot worse. But the good thing is we were not running anymore. We were just stationary in one place, but people were dying of other diseases much more than the war.
Chris Hedges: And you become part of burial parties. So you’re 12, 13 years old. You’re digging graves.
Boyah Farah: Yes. That was the job that we had. It was almost like in the morning you get up and you watch the sun climb up. And at nighttime when the sun goes down, you’re sitting in the same place, and the mind decays. So that was our job. And somehow, when someone dies and you are participating in the burial, it’s almost like a job. It’s almost like activity. It’s almost like something to do. I know it’s weird, but we expected to die. And so death was like drinking water, literally drinking water. It was like nothing. We were numb to it.
Chris Hedges: And to get money… Before we went on the air you told me you used to sell loose cigarettes. But talk about the… Because your family’s tremendously impoverished. Talk about what you had to do to get any amount of money to survive.
Boyah Farah: My mother used to sell. She would buy grain and rice and put a cup in it and sit right on the road. And so people who are passing by will buy the rice, or sometimes she’d have nothing to bring us home. To help her, I actually used to buy a pack of cigarettes and sell single ones to fighters. And sometimes the fighters… I remember one time fighters, sometimes they just put a gun to your face and you just give it up. So that was actually my job, to sell cigarettes during the war, and also tobacco. I actually learned how to make tobacco, buy different chemicals, buy the tobacco – The cheapest one there is. Make the tobacco and wrap it up with plastic bags that I collect from the streets and sell it along with the loose cigarettes. And that’s how my mother put food on the table. So me and my mother worked together, survived.
Chris Hedges: So you’re a reader. That’s a theme in the book. The other theme in the book is your father. You end the book with his death, and you write that he had, I believe, lung cancer, but he couldn’t get proper medical care. Your father was also in the military. Let’s begin with the influence of your father, because that’s pervasive throughout the book.
Boyah Farah: Yeah. My father, may he rest in peace. It’s sad. A lot of people that are in the book are no longer here. So this book is to honor the dead. My father was in the war in the Somali army. He was also in the first rebellious group against the Marxist government, Siad Barre’s government. And so his influence on me was that, when I was first born, I think he expected me to be a fighter. And the way my father treated me and the way he treated his daughters were completely different. He wanted to prepare me for a life of hardship and struggle and war, because his life was about that, and his father did the same thing. So my father prepared me for the war to come and the struggle to come. So a lot of the things that… How he prepared me, he took me to a valley when I was really young. And the reason why is he wanted me to man up, completely become a nomadic warrior who has absolutely no fear except God.
Chris Hedges: Well, there’s also that scene at the end of the book where he’s dying and you are hesitant, but finally you tell him you love him. And those were not words that had before passed between you.
Boyah Farah: Yeah, because in Somali culture, you’re not supposed to say, I love you. Those words shall not be uttered. You’re supposed to show your love for your parents by fetching the water, by rubbing their feet, by giving them money. Something tangible is how you transfer love between Somali culture. So there was no way for me to look him in the eyes and say, I love you. That’s not going to happen. But when I knew that he was dying, it was not coming back. I knew it. So I wanted the last words to be… Because I’m the last person that was there in the room as he was dying. And I confessed my love to him into his ears to make sure that he understood that I loved him.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about reading. You write a lot about, in Somali culture, poets are revered. I spent seven years in the Middle East; that’s also true in Arab culture. But talk about the power of poetry and its importance culturally and how it shaped you.
Boyah Farah: I think the only thing I inherit from my father, may he rest in peace, he’s now living in the galaxy of the dead, is words. I didn’t inherit anything else from him but words. When he sat down with me and told me that, don’t ever break your word. Don’t ever capitulate to anyone’s… You are the son. You are my son. Die with your words. Never break that. Nobody. Words are the link between him and I and his father… What he inherited from his father was also words. So the reason why Somalia is still alive and is still doing okay after close to 40 years of war is the poetry. When someone dies, you don’t admit that person is killed by your enemy tribe or your enemy, whoever kills them. They say God kills, therefore the spirit is not broken. You never, ever admit the defeat. Only God kills. Only God judges us. You keep the spirit alive. So that’s what I inherit from my father, is words. Keep my words together and use my words to make me feel alive.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about your perceptions of America, largely through television and movies. I thought it was fascinating how you viewed American Blacks, but everything you understood about America came from mass culture. And then we’ll talk about your arrival in the United States. But talk about what you thought the country was when you were in Somalia and in the refugee camps.
Boyah Farah: Well, America was a star. And to be in the star was fantastic. Really the only access I had… America was basically the movies that we watched. And in the nighttime, in the darkness of the refugee camp, what you see as a child were the stars, because we would put mats outside of the tent and we watched the stars. And I used to think the stars to be just like humans. They fight each other. Some of the stars fall. Some of the stars remain. And to me, to reach for the stars was incredibly powerful. I wanted to be in America. I got sick in the refugee camp. Like I said, I got malaria, but I just couldn’t wait. I asked God not to kill me until I get to America.
So really the possession of America was that powerful. And what I thought about African Americans and Black people in America was, the only access I have to Black people is what I saw in the movies. In the movies, the way Black people are projected as thugs, unpleasant pictures of Black people. So as I came, I didn’t want to be close to them, even though I was the one that was incredibly skinny. I was the one with no clothes. I was the one looking incredibly poor. Because the picture inside my head was what was dictating me, and not the reality.
Chris Hedges: And I just want to talk about the concept of whiteness and Blackness. That’s something, of course, James Baldwin writes about as concepts. And you didn’t have that concept of Blackness when you were in Somalia, as you write in the book, because, of course, everyone was Black. The doctors were Black, the police were Black, the dentists were Black, the teachers were Black. So before we talk about that transition to a predominantly white culture, just talk about that idea of Blackness.
Boyah Farah: That was not mine. That didn’t belong to me. Blackness, whiteness really didn’t belong to me, because in Somalia I am my father’s son. I belonged to a set of tribe that protected me or fight for me. I’ll fight for them. And that was it. So America… I really didn’t imagine my life to be other than, I’m going to America. I’m going to heaven. I’m going to the country of my dreams. I want to be part of the American dream. I wanted to be a doctor. That’s what I wanted to be. So the concept of Blackness… I did not arrive in America. I really did not. It didn’t belong to me. I was equal to everyone. I’m a nomad. I value freedom over everything, including death. And I knew Americans were free. And so I arrived. That was what I was thinking about.
Chris Hedges: Okay. Let’s talk about that confrontation with American culture. Is it the first place you live in the housing project in Bedford, Massachusetts? Is that correct?
Boyah Farah: No. The first housing project that we lived in was outside of that in Woburn. But in Bedford, we’re living with my sister in a two-bedroom apartment.
Chris Hedges: So you run smack into the reality of America, which you write about quite powerfully. Talk about that. And in the beginning, even though things happen to you, for instance, you go to buy, I think you’re about 16. You go to buy a piece of pizza. You save money to buy the pizza. And when you walk into the store, the owner lifts up a knife and tells you the police station’s right around the corner. You don’t confront it. You, in fact, walk outside quite sheepishly and eat your pizza outside. But talk about running into that reality. Also you write, when you’re in the housing project in Bedford, about being near a white community, but you are segregated and, in many ways, isolated because of the fact that you live in the projects.
Boyah Farah: Yes. In many ways I was young and naive, and I didn’t understand America. The danger of it didn’t belong to me. The danger of being Black in America didn’t belong to me. And I had so much love and so much gratitude. I came from death. I was happy to be alive, let alone confronting that guy. There’s no way I could have confronted him. He was the America that invited me into the country. He was the America that I wanted to be. So when I went into that… And he knew me. That’s the sad thing about it, because I biked into that shop so many times and I know exactly what it is. I actually visited it recently. It’s not there anymore. But there was no way for me to confront what he did, because my imagination of America was completely, totally different. I was also young.
And also living in a project… Once again, we were grateful that we actually have hot water and cold water and food and a fridge. So newcomers… When you came from a place that I came from, you have enormous love for America. There’s no way that you can… You realize what’s happening to you is wrong, but where you came from is quite harsher. You have no place to go. This is home. You have to capitulate and learn to be part of the society. But my inner culture resisted for many, many years.
Chris Hedges: You write about going to college. You worked for 10 years for a company where you ran into insidious racism in small and big ways from white coworkers. You open the book by talking about being stopped by police in a white neighborhood. It’s quite a powerful chapter. Talk about that process of discovering… Let’s call it the dark heart of America.
Boyah Farah: Yeah. I think an immigrant life like mine is not an American until you get to drive, and when you get to drive, you get stopped more frequently. And sometimes you already know that you’re going to get stopped. I remember me and my brother driving in the opposite direction, a cop going the opposite direction than us. And I told him, hey, put your seat belts up. Buckle up your seat belts because that cop is going to make a U-turn and stop us. And we’re actually watching in the rear view mirror and actually he made a U-turn, followed us, stopped us, and let us go. He didn’t even give us a ticket for one, because he knows we’re immigrants. We’re happy to be in the country. We apologized too many times.
And I think the reason why I probably didn’t get shot is because I was always apologetic. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Because that’s what I have learned over the years, because survival was part of my culture in the last many, many years in the war or during the war, in America. Everywhere. So little by little, America didn’t really tell me that I’m a Black man in its belly, metaphorically. It started to show me that I’m a Black man living in its belly by frequent stops. But also when you get a job and for sure you overly qualify sometimes, but you never move up. You stay in the same place. Your salary stays flat. And actually, even though your salary stays flat, there’s no way you can even keep that job. You’re going to get fired. You know that for sure. You’re going to get fired. And I denied that for many, many years because I was so grateful.
Chris Hedges: Well, you talk in the book about you having a college degree, you get a job in a corporation, and at one point they hire a woman who has just a high school degree and promote her. And even at one point she goes AWOL. She’s not even at work for a long period of time. But just the difference between… And you have a close friend. It’s quite poignant. One other Black person who’s working with you, who I think you went to high school with, who you have a long history with.
Boyah Farah: Yes.
Chris Hedges: But it begins to affect his health and your health, this constant stress which you slowly become aware of. Can you talk about that?
Boyah Farah: Yeah. Initially I was watching Derek, who I write about in the book. I watch his life, and he’s the warner of America. He’s the knower of America. He’s an African-American. I’m an African-American in the making. America is showing me this. So I’m learning through him that he tells me that his destiny is in the hands of America. Part of me knows that stuff, but I have to deny it because in the culture of freedom that I have, that nomadic culture that says, you’re free. You go to everyone.
So I kept denying it. But in so many instances, people who were less qualified on the job came, got the job, became my bosses. They still do not know how to do their job. I have to do their job. And I know for sure they don’t qualify. And then somehow pieces of you chip away. Your spirit dies without knowing. And you’re struggling to keep the same job you’ve had while this person becomes your boss within six months, sometimes very quick. And so little by little you die. Your soul begins to decay. Your spirit quarrels and [inaudible] refuse to come, because if you lose this job, it means you lose your livelihood. You lose your insurance. You lose your car. You lose your apartment. You cannot maintain a relationship. It really destroys you. Literally destroys you. You die. You are like a dead man walking and a small little disease comes… Because your immune system is already weak. You’ll belong to the galaxy of the dead before you even know it.
Chris Hedges: Well, Derek loses his job, but because he grew up in America, he knows that he’s a target.
Boyah Farah: Yes. He knew exactly that he was a target, and I was a denier of that. Part of me wanted to teach him my culture, a culture of resistance, a culture of freedom, a culture that says I’m equal to everyone. But this racism in America is not individual. It’s systematic. When you are going against a system, you do not know where the enemy is. In Somalia, you know your enemy and you know your friends. There’s nothing in between. But here, you can’t point a finger at an individual and say, you please be kind to… There’s nothing like that. It’s system. So Derek was the truth teller. I was in denial. And it really affects our health.
Chris Hedges: Well, I remember in high school, I think you have a high school counselor, a Black woman, who keeps telling you, boy, you are an African American now. You’re not African.
Boyah Farah: Yes. Mrs. Parker, may she rest in peace. She told me numerous times that I’m an African American, that I’m no longer African. But once again, America was in the way. My love for America is in the way. My own mother tells me, don’t write this book. She still carries that love for America that says, don’t say anything bad about America. Just say the good things. So I resisted her for many years, but everything she said to me became true. Mrs. Parker, may she rest in peace.
Chris Hedges: And you talk about other families from Somalia who are broken by America. Can you describe that?
Boyah Farah: Yeah. We used to live right across from each other in a white tent. There were about 10,000 white tents next to each other in the Utanga refugee camp outside of Mombasa, Kenya. And I remember the day that our names were put out in front of the tent that we were going. We visited our names and touched our names an enormous number of times to make sure they didn’t make a mistake, that we were going to America. So for us to come to America was… I mean, it is like entering heaven. But they did not make it. One succumbed to drugs, and the other one went mad. One killed himself, and the other one went mad. And the one that killed himself actually, the mother was… The cops asked the mother if she killed her son.
Chris Hedges: But I just want to interrupt because this is after they come to America. It’s not in the refugee camp.
Boyah Farah: Yeah. No, no, no. We all came in the same plane.
Chris Hedges: Right, but their family disintegrates once they’re here.
Boyah Farah: Yes. The family disintegrates. The son died, one went mad, the girls ran away, and the father died. And so it’s gone. The family is no more.
Chris Hedges: You use strong words. You talk about America breaking spirits. You say, “America’s on the path of those two broken souls who are responsible for maiming and killing without any justification. Once you do that, you’re looking in the face of your own demise, sitting on the edge of your own destruction.” These are, essentially, homicidal forces.
Boyah Farah: Because I’m a knower of a lot. I’ve survived war. If you don’t confront the brutal reality of Black people in this country… And I know it’s hard to admit, but it is something that we must do, to confront the brutality so we can move forward. When you’re destroying other people’s lives, it comes back. It really does come back. And when it does come back, it comes back massively. So I wrote this book for America. I really want to warn America. It’s almost like I have enormous love for America, but also if I don’t tell the truth to America, then I feel like if death comes tomorrow, I didn’t really do the right thing. I think we have to confront the brutality of Black people’s lives and amend what has been broken so this country can move forward. And that’s the very reason why I wrote this book about that.
Chris Hedges: I just want to read this passage. You’re writing about white people: “They are afraid. I know that. The white people and their police force are afraid. What frightens them is not the 13% of the population, the Black people that they fixate on. What frightens them, in the end, is the memory of their own ruthless brutality, the judgment of their own conscience. The past always comes alive in the present, and with the passage of time, the history of race takes its shape in each individual’s soul, Black and white.” And I think you argue in the book that with the rise of Trump and the far right, essentially that poison is now eating away at the body politic of the country itself.
Boyah Farah: Yes. In a way, our own path comes back. Your footprint is important. Individually, we say, when you do harm to the living, karma comes back. Those two individuals that I talked about, one is chained to… In Somalia, he’s in a mad house in Somalia. When you see him, it’s just… It’s better for him to die.
Chris Hedges: You’re talking about these two fighters?
Boyah Farah: The two fighters.
Chris Hedges: Were very intimidating in, I guess, your neighborhood and then you go back and visit them.
Boyah Farah: Yes. They killed a lot of people. They harmed the living. And ultimately that came back to them. Well, I use that example for America in the larger sense. The rise of Trump, the rise of all these things. It’s nothing but what we have done, in a way, that it’s time for us to admit it and just say, hey, this is part of our history. Let’s move forward. This country needs to move forward in terms of fixing what’s broken.
Chris Hedges: Well, you can’t move forward if you don’t know who you are.
Boyah Farah: That is true.
Chris Hedges: We’re going to stop there. That was Boyah J. Farah on his memoir, America Made Me a Black Man. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.