It’s September 2014 and I’m in an unlabeled room at O’Hare. I’m not allowed to use my cellphone, and have no signal anyway. My luggage is at my feet, my passport is in a terse custom agent’s hand. He unlocks and enters a white door, in a hallway of locked white doors. I promised my father I’d never lose sight of my passport.
I’ll probably walk out this room, annoyance my only consequence. I’m an immigrant privileged with education and mobility, at times benefiting from my exoticization, often protected by the social currency of my connections and career. Then again, my American identity reduces to watermark-protected documents. This feels like a grade school teacher disbelieving my hall pass. Or a police officer holding my college ID, asking: What are you doing here? I’m wearing my school sweatshirt, standing near my dorm, saying: I live here.
I ask a woman enclosed in a translucent cube why they’re detaining me. She doesn’t answer, and thanks me for my patience. The room is otherwise filled with brown people, who may or may not be Middle-Eastern. I see one other woman, reclining across a row of chairs, her children and husband sitting up, all bleary-eyed.
“Are you an American?” asks a waiting man.
“This girl is American! She’s an American! What are you doing here?”
In October 2015, I’m invited to participate in London’s Somali Week, a series of panels and performances featuring scholars and artists across the diaspora. I request an early departure. This year has required strained focus to keep intact: police killings; terrorist attacks and the mania that surrounds them; friends and former students, all black, reaching out to say they can’t keep their chins above water or the crows from their minds. They text or call: How are you holding up? I think I need help. I think I may hurt myself.
I want to be in my own bed by Halloween, away from strangers’ eyes and mass tension. One Halloween, I reread Beloved and my lips strained at their corners as Paul D, metal bit in mouth, stared at a rooster: “Mister looked so free. Better than me,” he says. I imagined Paul D locked in a moment of personal and historical immobility, his face fixed into a smile for him. My mother told me I once drank a bowl of water used to defrost a chicken, mistaking it for punch. I’d put the book down and tried to vomit in the tub because I needed space to retch. The Halloween before that, I grieved Trayvon Martin and dreamed of mobs of men with dogs and lights. The Halloween before that, I reread Native Son and walked around with a furnace roaring in my ears for weeks.
A young hijabi stamps my passport when I land at Heathrow. I relax into her questions. We exchange a long gaze as she returns my passport. I sense her scanning my eyes for reason, unreason. I remind myself this is her job. She says nothing, her eyes and mouth a fixed line, and after a beat I leave.
Over the next few days, pleasant misunderstandings (whenever someone says burger, I hear bagel, and wonder why people offer snacks at dinnertime) swirl with intense exchanges between scholars and activist artists: labor rights, conservatism, austerity. The futility of assimilation. The necessity of assimilation. Casual anti-blackness from black mouths. Casual tribalist chatter: the wretched minority clans; the encroachment of Somalia (a failed state) on Somaliland; Somalia’s refugees, dust, and bombs bursting in air. The disparagement of my country in my own language activates a profound loneliness.
While people talk about cities in Somalia I’ve never seen, I recall my parents’ invalidated birth, health, and travel documents. Immigration officials posed surrealist challenges to proofs of our formal existence: we originated from a non-nation / they required a nation of origination to verify our existence / verification of existence was required for continued existence in the United States / a specter is a non-person and is therefore illegal. A Somali often admits illegality to attain legality. We are refugee “aliens” seeking naturalization via a legal system that simultaneously erases our nation, while granting us asylum from the brutal potential of that nation.
Pursuing citizenship and employment is a speculative venture, conceptually and economically. My parents’ diplomas, awarded years before the start of the Somali Civil War, have become useless documents with pretty stamps. The image in my mind is from Back to the Future: due to some meddling in the present, the past back home is fading before our eyes. What do our photographs mean? Could we start to waver from our feet up, then disappear altogether?
In order to become a citizen, some immigrants must answer for their possible participation in crimes and atrocities, even if they were children during the time in question. They must disavow loyalty to their nations of origin, and pledge fidelity to the United States. I remember an official looking carefully at my face while confirming whether I’d serve this nation during wartime. I don’t know how to do anything, I thought. Maybe they’d just make me write propaganda. Balayo. Some of us evade war only to engage in hypothetical conflicts. A Somali may ask: Am I dreaming? during an immigration interview. A Somali may hum her national anthem: Somalia, wake up.
I ask my parents why our anthem is so depressing. I ask them to explain why it sounds like a plea and not a boast. Every other country sings it’s mighty, sings about rolling hills, I say. On summer days, when every shade of green shifts in saturation just before and just after a downpour, I pray our new anthem will include a long rain.
While in London, I keep hearing about a new Adele song. It plays during a cab ride. Just before the song starts, the DJ mentions a victim’s family has secured judicial review of initial findings in a police shooting. [They say that time’s supposed to heal ya / But I ain’t done much healing] The driver, British-African, says: “There are many police killings in America. Lots of trouble there, eh?” [There’s such a difference between us] I make a neutral sound effect and stiffen against extended conversation. [And a million miles] My father has asked me since childhood to stay out of western black/white friction, to avoid discussion of it, especially among strangers.
When the DJ describes Adele’s video, I doubt it depicts a white couple in graphic dissolution, and search articles about the director and actors. I’m unsurprised a black actor, Tristan Wilds, plays Adele’s lover. I watch the video that night, and screenshot several disturbing stills: a black man’s face switches from calm to livid with a laugh between expressions, fist over his mouth, eyes wide; a black man offers a skillet of food, shadows covering his face, smile gleaming; a black man yells, falls into silent frustration, and sits on the edge of a bed looking at his hands; a black man raises his voice and hands in anger; a black man puts on his hoodie and walks away; a black man’s hoodie changes from gray to black—does he walk away twice, or many times (favoring rainy storm-outs), or are incongruities concerning hoodies unimportant?
Adele is largely invisible in these negative exchanges: a white woman yells at her black lover and we can’t see her face; a white woman throws something at her black lover, and we can’t see her face; a white woman laments her mistakes and we witness her guilt on “the other side” of it, fretting alone, composed and manicured in her home. Or standing in a forest landscape sympathetic to her emotions: Hello from the outside / At least I can say that I’ve tried / To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart / But it don’t matter / It clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore. An apology doesn’t matter if the wronged party stops performing injury?
The viewer consumes Wilds’ pain, without actually witnessing Adele’s responsibility in it. In their shared scenes, the camera functions as Adele’s eyes. We watch Wilds’ sensitive portrayal, and must supply misdeeds against him to avoid reading him as illogical, escalating. I think of protesters engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement: A black mother laments the death of her child on pale steps; a journalist photographs a black teen in a black hoodie once his mouth is open in song or shout; a black “mob” assembles after sunset. The viewer doesn’t receive full context and import for these images, so popular in the news following Michael Brown’s shooting. These simplified stills illustrate black pain/white guilt at best, black pain/white indifference the rest of the time. “Hello,” and its video are the perfect artifacts for this irony-rich political moment.
If it seems the public receives a pop song as an anthem, I ask myself what it communicates about our social environment, and why it seems inescapable in shared spaces. I notice restaurants and shops played Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” following several shootings in the U.S., years after its release and initial popularity. In a clip from X-Factor, two white girls compete in a sing-off: All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run / Outrun my gun. The network doesn’t censor gun. The contestants and judges smile during the whole performance. I wonder about such carelessness, the implication that gun violence in the United States is nearly atmospheric and so inevitable that we watch twee performances of shooter-perspective anthems on network television without objection.
One night, about halfway through my London trip, I return to my host’s apartment and start a conversation with her four year-old daughter. Our normal dialogue centers on hidden spider jokes and hair compliments. She cusses me. I’m startled, say: “Ha, you kiss your mother with that mouth?” She screeches profanities. The other adults, who are normally obsessive about her behavior, don’t seem bothered. Later that evening, with her mother and aunt on either side of her, she says: “The police are going to kill you while you’re here.” She makes a gun with her right forefinger and thumb, points at me: “Bang. Bang. Bang,” flexing her forefinger with each shot. She goes back to playing with her mother’s phone. I experience terrible grief for her, and unwelcome bloody images crowd my thinking. The next day, I’m exploring Shadwell and Whitechapel when police materialize at sunset in dusky uniforms and neon vests. They move from vendor to vendor, stall to stall, and step inside shops. I wonder if this is a normal occurrence, like bats flying out from bridges in Austin, Texas.
I’m on edge over the next few days. When people offer weed, I refuse it, thinking mostly of Sandra Bland, the media’s emphasis on her toxicology report. I imagine my parents saying: Impossible, then nothing when they see my blood tests.
I move through security at Heathrow without pause until I retrieve my backpack. Security’s reasons are now familiar: You have too many liquids. Random check. The things in your bag looked strange. No reason. This time, they stop a middle-aged white man, too. Security places our bags in bright red bins, and removes items one by one. An agent thoroughly swipes inside my bag. The man keeps saying: “What is this? Why is this happening?” I want to tell him it’s bad luck to stand behind me, that someone who’s never profiled often faces a cursory check, perhaps to help it look random. When she finishes with my bag, the agent raises what looks like a pathetic toilet brush wand. “What’s that for?” She tells me to hold out my palms: “This is because you may have been handling explosives. I’m not saying you were but just in case…” I remind myself that underneath anger is sadness. As my dismay shifts to frustration, her eyes become watery. Later, she washes her hands beside me in an airport bathroom and can’t meet my gaze in the mirror.
On November 24th 2015, over a year after his death, Chicago officials release footage of police shooting seventeen year-old Laquan McDonald. Much like the hours preceding charges and verdicts in the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Rekia Boyd, news outlets brace viewers for protester violence. It’s nearly the same vocabulary and repetition that surrounds dreaded storms. People look at each other how they look at the sky: askance, expectant. Public schools send children home early with notes, accelerating the music and movement of the city at rush hour.
We refresh news pages and scroll to the top of Twitter feeds, worrying we missed something. We search: #Laquan #CPD #BYP. It’s the end of the day when tweets appear with links to a local station. Again we stream a speech that doesn’t answer for delays, slights, crimes, and offenses committed against citizens. Again we stream an address that lacks gravitas. We recall what we did to stay steady the last few times: Did I watch the video or not? Did I go to the protest or not? Did I cry alone or call someone? Did I sleep here or elsewhere? My friends and former students tweet intentions to minister to each other near UIC’s campus, before a rally and march. I eat plain rice in a rush, my tongue somehow tasting like old mustard, and dress so I can stand the cold.
The train is delayed. Friends post their movements and as I wait, I feel a thread between us flag. I struggle to control my mood. I ask myself whether it’s ridiculous to take an Uber to a protest, tell myself it’s worse to stray on a night primed for dissatisfaction, suspicion.
My driver, a white woman, is about my age. She asks where I’m going. I tell her. She asks what the protest is for, and I describe the situation. She says: “Yeah, but what are they protesting? Are they for the police or against the police?” I tell her it’s not so simple, that we are protesting against state violence, and for justice. Adele’s “Hello” weaves through her frenetic monologue. The timing is brilliant, cinematic, Murakami-strange. She complains about her sister. She complains about her child. [It’s so typical of me to talk about myself, I’m sorry] She insists she knows where she’s going when turned around. She asks whether I’m not too late for the “gathering.” [It’s no secret that the both of us / Are running out of time] She curses when a wheel jumps the curb. When Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” plays, she turns it up, relaxes: Treated me kind / Sweet destiny.
The rest of the night, young people ask for hugs, ask me to hold their hands. We’re repeatedly instructed to link arms. Protective contact, affection becomes familiar, necessary. News photographers ride the peripheries. They stand atop medians, ornate plant pots, zoom into protesters’ mouths. When someone flicks water towards a line of police officers, a fire truck appears and boxes us in. The young woman beside me eyes the hose: “Are they going to use that on us?” I don’t see any cameras flashing. Only the slow lights atop the truck, or from vigilant cell phones.
The protest quiets. A white woman makes sure a police officer meets her eye, shakes his hand: “Thank you for your service.”
Shortly after the single’s release, a Korean high school student named Lydia Lee covers “Hello” and posts it to YouTube. There’s only one error, on the recording but not the subtitles. Instead of singing: “There’s such a difference between us,” she sings: “There is no difference between us.” She later corrects this error when she performs on The Ellen Show. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I might arrive at that lyric. Or, the circumstances that would invite me to subvert a known lyric. Maybe if I’d grown up where my parents call home, where I hear and speak my first language, where my grandparents and their parents and their parents are buried. I comfort myself with this thought: a history can account for my sense of alienation and dislocation. This seems preferable to a longing without a ceiling, or margins, or even a name.
 Lyrics to Adele’s “Hello” appear throughout. Written by: Adele Adkins, Gregory Kurstin.
“Hello” (2015) video directed by Xavier Dolan. Stills captured from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQHsXMglC9A
 Top YouTube comment for “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People captured January 16, 2016 (now removed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDTZ7iX4vTQ
 Lydia Lee cover of “Hello” (2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPQNbTPb-F0