I couldn’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to leave everything familiar behind and move to another country with nothing but hopes, dreams, and prayer…but such was the fearless trailblazers that are my parents. They derailed their lives for their children.
My name is Mike Kenyanya and this is my Crystal Stair.
As my name suggests, I along with my parents and siblings are from Nairobi, Kenya. I lived there for 5 years before we applied for a US green card. We were fortunate enough to win the lottery so we mustered up our courage the best we could and moved to Minnesota.
Why Minnesota? Well…when you’re an immigrant you go where you know people. Historically, Caribbean people move to Florida or New York, Polish people move to Chicago… and Kenyans move to Minnesota, I guess. It all revolves around this sense of unbreakable community and uplift. You have to know someone on the other side that will pick you up from the airport, give you a place to stay, support you, look after your kids, celebrate your wins, and help you learn from your losses.
Home for me was filled with family and laughter (I love to laugh). The home was also conflicting. I would spend my weekdays at school learning American culture, American values, and an American language. On the weekends and evenings, I was at home or at Church learning a Kenyan culture, eating Kenyan food, and speaking Kenyan languages. I struggled to reconcile this.
I would like to think I’ve done a good job of taking the best from both these worlds. One of the most important values I learned was service, and that came from my Kenyan upbringing—more specifically my parents. If someone in the community died, my parents would spend every evening at that family’s place for the next week or two. My dad would drag me with him to church to fix a plumbing issue or mow the lawn there. Our doors were always open to others, including when we hosted a family of 12! I was taught service before I knew what it was.
I’m writing to my young black men as someone who failed to graduate high school on time, went on to serve two terms as Student Body President in college, then was elected by the Minnesota State Legislature to serve a six-year term on the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota. Despite all this, I’ve found that my biggest battles have been internal. Before anything else, take care of your mind and your heart. You are your biggest cheerleader and critic, your best teacher and student, and your own best friend and worst enemy.
When I think about being a black man in America, the thing that bothers me most is the fact that I have to think about it at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not spewing that “I don’t see color” bullshit. I’m saying it’s mentally taxing to move through the world, ever conscious that you are black and wondering how that may or may not have affected that last interaction you just had. Did my white friends also get pulled over (without a ticket) five times in the summer of 2017 or was that just me? Maybe, maybe not. It just gets tiring having to wonder.
No amount of degrees or accolades will change that. Y’all heard the hook on Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ”, right?