In the summer of 2016, in the sweltering New Haven heat, I had a chance encounter that would change my life.
I had decided that year, my second summer at Yale Law School, to forego working at a corporate law firm and take a risk—I would stay back in New Haven and work on my writing, in the hopes of publishing a book one day, a dream that was so deep in my heart that it remained unarticulated. In the second half of the summer, to make money, I would go to China to teach debate and writing.
Walking those steaming New Haven streets, the town emptied of students, I would feel almost embarrassed by my hopes to write—like, Why are you straying from the path, bro? Writing, which I had been doing stealthily since I was a kid, first as a rapper, then as a poet, then as a writer, was not something to be bragged about. Rarely, if ever, did I share the fact that I was writing a book with anyone; I was so lacking in belief in myself that I felt if others knew they would judge me.
In this respect, my relationship with writing, like my relationship with myself, was shrouded in secrets.
That summer, sweating and trying to cure my writer’s block, I would walk through New Haven and go to bookstores. New Haven has its own particular charm, an all-American sort of city, with a vibrant Black and Brown population. I never disliked it the way other students had. And in the bookstore that night, thumbing through dust-covered pages, I found a book by Richard Wright called Black Boy.
I knew Richard. I felt like I did anyways. The book that made my brain explode and want to try and write was Native Son, which I had read at twenty-three, feeling the full force of Richard’s words, so sharp, so piercing, with description and narration. His sentences were as clear as a glass of water. His work was alive.
I went home that night and sat in a humid apartment. Sweat dripped from my forehead. I opened the first pages of Black Boy slowly, almost as if I knew, in my innocence, that this book would be formative. From the opening scene of young Richard hiding under a burning house, the book sparkled with energy.
These books, I believe, have a soul in them—and they stay with us long after friends and lovers and seasons have passed.
What Richard described was a boy trembling in fear, betrayed by his country, seething in rage, prepared to kill in order to eat, and manipulated by more white people than he could count. But his spirit could not be extinguished. “In me was shaping a yearning,” Richard wrote in Black Boy, “a kind of consciousness, a mode of being that the way of life about me had said could not be, must not be.” He was headed directly towards collision with his society, and yet, writing—and the power of the imagination—was saving him.
In one poignant scene, Richard tries to check out a book from the Memphis library, by a man called H.L. Mencken. An Irish Catholic helps him get books by giving young Richard his library card, and young Richard, encountering Mencken, is thunderstruck.
“Yes, this man was fighting,” Richard wrote, “fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club.”
Black Boy, and the way it was written—with brutal honesty and literary verve—stuck with me. As a brown-skinned boy who had grown up around violence and dysfunction, whose grandparents had been colonized, I had the traumatized child’s need to impose meaning upon my chaos through story, to find words to serve, if not as weapons, then as bricks. It would be up to me to decide how to wield them.
I was not from Mississippi, and my ancestors hailed from India rather than Africa, but a complicated journey involving colonization, violence, and migration had brought me to America, with parallel feelings of alienation and a desire to write. It was a universal story, applicable to all people of color and marginalized people, so powerful that even years later, a memoir that began in Mississippi, in the Deep South, could dislodge my nerves on a wintry evening in Mississauga, all the way to the North. Richard left it all on the page.
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight….
There are writers whose books hit you immediately, and then writers whose books seep into your skin, become part of your nerve-endings, morph with your thoughts and feelings. These books, I believe, have a soul in them—and they stay with us long after friends and lovers and seasons have passed, lingering long enough to fuse with our being.
I think what struck me, a few years later, after I had wrestled with my own worst demons, is that I had known many Richards.
Richard Wright’s life, in a very American sense, was a miracle; he could have perished or fallen into one of the many trenches of quicksand America had laid out for him, become one of the many statistics who are simply (and sadly, and silently) forgotten by this country.
“I dreamed of going north and writing books, novels,” Richard wrote. “By imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me.”
At every juncture, if Richard slips up, his life is in danger.
I knew other Richards in my life, boys I had laughed with, had even admired, had imagined out whole futures for them, whole fairy-tale endings, boys who could have been anything, great artists, great engineers, great lawyers, but whose lives had abruptly switched to the wrong track.
There was Shilton, my best friend as a kid, Guyanese boy, Black boy with the purple bike. Me and Shilton ran around the neighborhood, him showing me the world, in a way, the first time outside my parents’ house, long summer evenings where the sidewalks and sunsets felt endless.
There was Trevor, a basketball player who in ninth grade could beat college students. He was one of the kids we whispered about in the halls of high school. They said he had a D-1 college offer in ninth grade.
There was Saleem. He was sharp with numbers, fixed cars in his spare time. He said he would become an engineer. We thought he would build a flying robot one day, the way he knew his wires and spoke about programs.
There was Omari. He was my adversary, especially around seventeen-years-old, when I began reading and writing seriously. We would debate sometimes. Omari and Omer. He wore a keffiyeh, claimed his heritage as both Black and Muslim, and spoke with the spiritual authority of a poet.
The differences in the decisions that led a boy to jail rather than Yale were as narrow as the cracks on the concrete sidewalks under our feet. Infinitesimal moments with infinite consequences.
What was it that made us cock our hats sideways, that made us boast? Those Indian and West Indian boys, those Caribbean and Pakistani boys, why did we need to act so tough, to play so rough, so that each of us, before the age of twenty, could name, on one or two hands, friends we had lost? “We strove to convince one another that our decisions stemmed from ourselves and ourselves alone,” Richard would write about his own troubled youth. And in the same way, the hats, the jerseys, the swagger, the tough-talk, and for some, the guns and knives—these were meant to suggest that we were actually in control of our lives.
The most terrified boy of them all is the one who knows his society is terrified of him. After 9/11, to be Muslim, to have such a name as “Muhammad” or “Omer” meant immediately being placed under a spotlight. Imagine having to endure those glares and stares, those questions and insinuations, those whispers, and to also figure out how to be a kid, then a teenager, then a young adult, then a man.
Why do we make the decisions we make?
I remember one moment where, still in high school, I decided to get drunk with a group of boys before a fight. I had never touched alcohol in my life, and yet I found my head spinning, unpurposed rage in my throat, as me and the boys prepared to pull up to a brawl that was about to happen. Our jokes and the rain had delayed us; when we got to the spot where the beef was going to be settled, no one was there. We had arrived too late. Any other night, any other beef, the cops could have arrested us teenagers, the ones who were too slow, anyways. But by chance, there were no cops around that evening, either.
Much later, I wondered what would have happened if the facts had lined up a different way. Even after I had a radical change one night in my seventeenth year and suddenly devoted myself to reading and learning, I had the sense that I was walking on a tightrope.
I managed to go to college, on a scholarship because we could not afford tuition. In my first year, I lived in the library, lived in fear and hope, teaching myself how to write, one sentence at a time, copying out paragraphs, reading the dictionary, reciting words aloud. Constructing a vocabulary was like building a house, one brick at a time, and I began to see how, as I learned to describe my reality, I gained a feeling of control. Writing became a way to save myself from the chaos that was around me, within me.
Sometimes, late at night, I would think about the people I had known, the many brilliant boys, Black boys and Brown boys with infinite potential.
And then, when enough time had passed in my twenties, I began seeing the consequences life handed out like verdicts. Trevor, convicted at 26 as a drug-dealer, out on probation, convicted again. Saleem, early 20s, convicted for recklessly driving and killing his young passenger. Shilton didn’t make it past 17, his death the result of a car chase with the police. Omari, I never heard from, never saw again, and in our world that was usually not a good thing.
It troubled me every night, late at night, because these were once my friends and this was my world. It is the thought of how many Black boys and Brown boys I had known who could have been so many other things in life, could have achieved so much greatness, could have reached a fraction of their potential, except they slipped up. And when you were a person of color, slipping up could be fatal.
I had been inspired by Richard, and it was only right to pay homage.
This was a truth that would make itself apparent later: that even if we had made it out, we had still been set up to fail.
I decided to write a memoir after the second most pivotal moment of my life.
The first had been 9/11.
The second was 11/9.
My life has existed between these two poles.
9/11 had been a shattering of hope and life, an act of terror and violence, in which all Muslims would be collectively guilted and collectively punished.
11/9 had been a shattering of faith in the future, a revenge of history, a wrecking ball to the entire project of progress. On the night of 11/9, a group of us had gathered in my apartment to watch a joker lose; what we didn’t know was that the joke would be on us.
It was a historic irony that these two inverse dates would have such cataclysmic effects on America and the world.
In one of his loudest pronouncements, President Trump promised to ban Muslims. “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims,” he said. One could replace “Muslim” with “Jew” or “Black” or “Chinese” and see that this was not a new promise but the return of something very old.
On 11/9, I realized that the rest of America—white America, whitened America—had almost no idea how the other forty percent lived. The lives of Muslims, of migrants, of Latinos were treated as disposable. This creation of second-class citizens, of disposable humans, would soon enough be extended to others.
After graduating from law school, I would re-enter a world that was changing quicker than our ability to comprehend it, changing so fast that the forces of reaction were still gathering arms.
Eventually, I served as a foreign policy advisor to a world leader. I left to write a book, still thinking of the questions I had for myself in the early morning of 11/9. I would disappear to cabins and towns in New England. Each day felt like a miracle of sorts, and I wrote from where I was at—wrote from depression, wrote from sadness, wrote from joy, wrote from elation, wrote from aspiration, wrote until I left it all on the page, wrote to make sense of what I had experienced, and what that experience had done to me.
It was appropriately late at night, one other night, that the title of the book came to me. I would call the book Brown Boy. I had been inspired by Richard, and it was only right to pay homage.
I feared that the title would be a burden—but instead it became a gift. The book would have to be brutally honest, emotionally resonant, with narrative and ideas blending into a tapestry. The title of the book demanded that the story be polished to steel, that it contain the hot furnace of the North American experience in all its fury.
“If you can possess enough courage to speak out what you are,” Richard wrote, “you will find you are not alone.”
After six years of writing, Brown Boy was published this past April. It is a book I am deeply proud of, one that tells a universal story through a particular lens. Much as I have come to embody my name, my heritage, my history, I believe Brown Boy embodies the title and the inspiration from which it took its name.
The book is a testament to one boy’s experience, but also the experience of many others who lived through similar torments, silently, without words. It is a testimonial to my literary forebears, who gave me comfort and solace during my darkest days. No matter where I go or what happens next, I will always look in my rearview reverentially, owing something deep in my heart to Richard.
And maybe, one day long into the future, Brown Boy will do for another young kid what its namesake did for me.