Excerpts From State by State

How I Became a Michigander
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 8 2008 6:57 AM

Excerpts From State by State

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In October of 1988, my parents—as if to punish me for some egregious offense deserving of banishment—took me, their first son, to the airport in Accra, Ghana's capital city, and put me on a Boeing 747 bound for America. The departure hall, with its malfunctioning cooling system and creaky ceiling fans that only recycled trapped heat, was just as hot and humid as outside. When my flight was announced for boarding, the horde of family members who came to bid me good-bye huddled in a corner, and with hands and heads facing the heavens, prayed for my protection and well-being in America. My destination was Interlochen, a small northern Michigan town of 3,500 people. Six hundred of them were temporary residents of the Interlochen Arts Academy, where I was enrolled to begin my sophomore year of high school.

It was the first time I had left Ghana and the comfort of Hausa-Islamic culture, which, as a way of strengthening kinship and religious cohesion, emphasized doing everything—from praying and eating to traveling—in the company of other Muslims. I made my way alone across the ocean, first to New York, then to Detroit, and finally to Traverse City, at the northern tip of Michigan. As I headed west, everything got whiter: Of the four hundred or so passengers on the flight from Ghana, more than three-quarters were black. By the time we had crossed the Atlantic and I had switched to a smaller plane to Detroit, the percentage of black and white was roughly fifty-fifty. On the final leg of the trip, I was the only black person on the plane.

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Most Michiganders I came in contact with were unconditionally generous, always willing to give a helping hand to someone in need; and they did so with patience and an amazing grace that was reminiscent of the traditions of my Hausa culture, which placed the generous treatment of sojourners very high on its list of morals and ethics. Examples of such generosity from Michiganders were evident to me in the first days of my arrival. From the airline lady who kept the airport open for a school official to show up, to the Academy's van driver who, knowing that the cafeteria would be closed by the time we arrived on campus, stopped at a gas station and bought me a slice of pizza and a can of "pop" (Michiganese for soda), to my residence hall's housemother, who knocked on my door early in the morning carrying blankets and warm sheets for me. Overnight the housemaster had phoned to tell her that the "African student had arrived, but he didn't bring any blankets or sheets."

Soon after my arrival in Michigan, it became apparent that I would need somewhere to go to during the many short, interspersed holidays in the school's academic year. My Ghanaian school was only a forty-five-minute drive from my home. Moreover, the educational system in Ghana tolerated very little holiday making, considering it a distraction. I spent my first Thanksgiving at the house of a fellow student from Cleveland, Ohio, and I lived with my campus housemother's family during the Christmas holidays. Not long after that, a woman who worked in the admissions office all but adopted me into her family. She and her husband and two daughters offered me the spare room in their house and told me I was welcome to stay with them during school breaks, weekends, or whenever I simply needed a break from campus life.

The family lived in Kingsley, a village of less than one thousand people south of Traverse City. Until my arrival, no black person had ever lived there. My host father was a hulk of a man, standing well over six feet and weighing a hefty 280 pounds; and yet he was as nimble and graceful as a gazelle on the improvised basketball court in front of our car garage, where we often played our lopsided one-on-one games. His demeanor and personality could be summed up in two words: gentle giant. He could be very funny, but he said little most of the time. He was a Republican who owned several guns, and he spoke often about racial injustice and inequality in America, especially about the plight of American Indians.

As a way of telling the direction of the East, my father had instructed me before I left Africa that I look for the direction of my shadow at midday, and that wherever it pointed was East, where Muslims face to pray. The problem with this unscientific yet time-tested and effective method of navigation in Michigan is that I didn't see any sun for the first three or four days after my arrival. By mid-October fall weather in northern Michigan is usually well under way, which means it could be cloudy, dreary, and sunless for days. Luckily, Islamic teaching allows one, when in doubt or in a foreign land, to face anywhere to pray until he or she is able to determine the actual direction of Kaaba, the holy black mosque in Mecca.

In general, Michiganders have a live-and-let-live attitude about life, with a deep sense of religiosity and a strong kinship to family and friends. Open-minded and curious about other people's beliefs and cultures, the Michiganders I know are more listeners than preachers. In my three years of living in the midst of a Christian family, no one ever talked to me about Christianity or tried to impress upon me its virtues. Instead, they respected my beliefs and religious practices, and were awed by my determination to pray five times daily despite the geographical and climatic challenges I faced. Muslims are instructed to rid their minds, hearts, and environments of any distraction when they stand to pray before Allah. And even though I never mentioned this to my host family, they somehow figured it out on their own. Anytime I went up to my room to pray, my host mother would turn down the volume of the television set and my younger sister would shut the door to her room, from where rock or country music always blasted.

My three-year stay in northern Michigan changed my life and made me what I am. For one thing, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to continue living in areas that have lots of snow, hence my decision to attend Bennington College …. in Vermont. And the quiet solace of pristine snowfall during the winter months and the long, bright, and cheerful summer days played a big role in making a dedicated writer out of me. No environment could have been more fertile for my imagination and ideas than the natural wonderland that is northern Michigan.

The connection between my host family and my African family has taken genuine and strong root over the years. My two daughters call my host mother "Grandma Michigan" and their biological grandmother "Grandma Ghana." Their "Grandpa Michigan," I am sad to say, lost a battle with cancer a few years ago, but he lives on in our memory, and I will always be grateful for all that he gave me.

I now live far from Michigan, in New York City, where snowfalls are scant and dirty, and certainly not the kind that inspires a writer to type away. And I have lost whatever little of that distinctive Michigan accent—what one website devoted to Michigan lore described as "a little bit Fargo, a little bit nasal Chicago, and a little bit Canada"—that I picked up during my years in the state. But I still see myself as a Michigander. When anyone asks me where I'm from, I say: Michigan. My questioner typically does a double take and asks, "But where are you really from?" To which I say again: Michigan. I am a Michigander now, or perhaps better yet, an Afrigander.

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