Boyah J. Farah Can't Breathe
The Shade of My Skin
On Thursday, May 7, 2015, I woke up before dawn and drove to Starbucks. I sat, read for two hours over a sugarless cup of dark roasted coffee. Then I departed to see Janot, my writing coach, in Wayland, MA. My appointment was at 10:30 am, but I got to Wayland an hour earlier. Parking my car on the side of the street right across from her house, I unbuckled my seatbelt, pulled out a yellow highlighter and began to self-edit my writings.
Soon after I did this, vehicle after vehicle slowed down behind me as the drivers snapped a picture of my plate. As if I were a rare creature or a celebrity of some kind, the peculiar gaze and snaps of phone cameras continued. Was it the shade of my skin that had brought such a panic in Wayland?
A Toyota Prius slowed down as a white middle aged woman poked her head out of the window to gawk at me. When my eyes caught hers, she quickly drove off, but she made a U-turn and drove by again while her eyes stared at me. Another car slowed down behind my car and snapped a picture of my plate. Then the same car returned. In just forty five minutes, I counted six or seven people gawking at me from their vehicles. And at least, three snapped pictures of my plate. The shade from the trees cooled the air around me, but panicked white folks watched the shade of my skin.
By this time, I knew I was being watched. However, I pretended not to know. It was not easy for me to believe that the people, in those fancy houses behind the trees in Wayland, were watching me. I shrugged off the commotion with the thoughts of a police cruiser behind my car. I saw a blue Ford Expedition through the mirror. “It must be an unmarked police cruiser,” I thought.
I pulled out my car registration, and saw the driver pulled his phone and snapped a picture of my plate. Then, he drove closer to me and held his camera to my face. A feeling of fury rose up to my throat, so I threw my hands out of the window and yelled out, “Why are you taking my picture?” He took off, still holding his phone.
As if a self-fulfilling prophecy, my thought of the police quickly became a reality. In less than three minutes, a police cruiser pulled up behind my car. Grabbing my seatbelt, I buckled up, so the policeman would not make the seatbelt as an excuse to write me a ticket.
When the policeman walked up to my window, my eyes caught Janot driving by and she saw me too. She pulled over, reversed and got out of her car. The cop and Janot stood at the driver’s side of my car.
"You know each other?" the cop asked as his eyes moved in between Janot and I.
"Yes," Janot replied. "What is wrong?"
"Nothing," he answered. "We got calls." He stepped back as he was trying to find words to explain the situation.
Janot gave the policeman a serious rebuking look, a stare that spoke much more than words. Amused by the whole drama, I kept showing my front teeth as if I was smiling. This situation was preposterous and my perspective in life is much deeper than few individuals in Wayland or the policeman who was sent to racially profile me. Still holding my license and registration, I looked at the policeman. "You are all set,” he said to me. “This is a close community,” he said as he walked back to his cruiser.
"I am sorry," Janot said to me. Her eyes were filled with sorrow. Like a sound of a piano, her graceful, sustained and apologetic words soothed me. When I entered her house, her husband, Pablo, had given me two hugs. Both the hugs and the soothing words healed the dim humiliation within.
After twenty years of living and working in the United States, I have faced so many prejudices in America, but I never took those harmful feelings to heart. Instead of getting upset, I go to the coffee shop, sit on my favorite seat and write about it. This is what I am doing now about the situation in Wayland. I hardly share my writings with others, but I often write about everything or anything that arouses a negative feeling in me. By writing about these experiences, and then reading my written words to myself, alone, I get a different perspective. Isn't this what writers do?
Whenever my African American friends talk about racism, they speak with the voices of hopelessness, pain, and anger with internalized oppression. Being an immigrant from Somalia, I am a person with two countries. It is undeniably true that the system is rooted in racism, and some people are prejudiced. This means that learning has to take place.
There is a saying in Somalia that he who lives long enough shall see the surprises of life; it means you are always bound to see something that astonishes you. Oftentimes, I encounter a racist system with people who hold blatant prejudices, but I shrug them off because I see America as my adopted country. I understand the gravity of the racial tensions in America, but then how can I get upset about this when I carry stories with much more human cruelty. Civil war, death and the faces of human ugliness is what I carry. Even if I wanted to get upset about prejudices like the one in Wayland, I cannot because my perspective in life will not allow me. For over twenty years in the United States, I carry my smiles and hardly had I encountered anything that make me upset. My past experiences allow me to distance myself from internalizing the oppression of American racism. And of course, such experiences urge me to write.
In Wayland, I was no longer African, but an African American. A window to what the African Americans are subject to endure had opened up in front of me. While I am able to channel those humiliations either into my writings or to my native country of Somalia, African Americans might not be able to channel their angers. When people internalize oppression for too long, sustained prejudices could damage their dignity, and dignity is as important to humans as air and water. To deprive a person of dignity is to dehumanize the person and there is a danger in this.
Despite American's ugly history with respect of slavery and its racist legacy, America is still the beacon of hope. America represents progress, but it is the actions of the few like that of Wayland which make America not only a place of stagnation, but also a place of regression.
After all, I am neither angry, nor do I hold grudges, but I am baffled and my intension is not to internalize my experience in Wayland. My experience can serve the greater communities as a teachable moment, where you, and I and others can learn from one another as we build, protect and nourish this small planet with which we all share with non-human species.
Boyah J. Farah is a writer who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia but grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts. He holds a graduate degree from University of Massachusetts Boston and he is now an educator at Bunker Hill Community College.