I walk down the street in my flowing Ghanaian print dress. I am on my way to my favourite Eritrean café to journal about my swearing-in ceremony. I am sentimental. I want to shout out, and then grin broadly while I tell everyone I meet, “I am a US citizen now.” I smile broadly at some folks. Most of them, white men, stare some place above my eyebrows and don’t acknowledge me. I want to say I am one of you now, but somewhere deep inside I know this can never be true. I have lived in this country long enough to know this isn’t the whole narrative. I continue to walk and smile anyway. A Black woman and her daughter stop me to comment on the African fabric; they make small talk. I contemplate sharing my good news. All of a sudden I’m shy.
Earlier as I sat listening to the many levels of ceremonial rites, I penned a few words on the blank portions of my program. Some are mine, others are what some speakers said, yet others are reflections from what my fellow citizens said:
The theater is packed full with family members and well-wishers seated up above in the mezzanine and the new citizens down in orchestra. I feel I am standing on the edge of making history. Goosebumps take residence on my skin and refuse to move on.
Pictures of the White House, Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Washington Monument flash across the screen suspended from the ceiling. In the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California, about 2000 people are gathered to celebrate.
These flashing pictures are interspersed with black and white and sepia shots of the millions of immigrants who have rolled through Ellis Island over the centuries. The pictures show them waving mini Star Spangled Banners. Tears fill my eyes despite my resolve not to ruin my rarely made-up-but made-up-for-the-occasion face. That mascara was applied after ten minutes of fretting.
The steady scroll of pictures begins to switch to our own locale. I see the Golden Gate flash across, followed by the Bay Bridge, then the Redwoods and numerous mountainscapes, lush with greenery or red desert dirt. I live here! My heart skips a beat. I dab my tears quickly as they roll down my cheek. I imagine the trail of salt it leaves.
Names of countries flash across the screen. Flags follow. I try to test my knowledge by matching country to flag. Countries whose former citizens are being sworn in. I smile sadly as Ghana and then much later, my red-green-yellow dotted with the black star, appear on the screen. Another tear rolls down. Would this be termed a betrayal? I wonder how many other Ghanaians are in the room. Are they and other citizens feeling pangs of guilt?
As my guilt slinks into the corner, country names are called out and former citizens stand. I discover that of the 111 countries amassing the 1206 immigrants represented in the room, I am the only one standing in for Ghana. Contrary to popular belief Africans aren’t dying to give up their allegiance to their countries. More tears. This time I give up trying to wipe them. I try to smile through my tears satisfied that we have proved them wrong, at least for this event. China, Mexico, and a handful of European countries actually have the highest number of immigrants present. Go figure!
The MC thinks he’s funny, making jokes that get a stilted-clapping response at best.
“No more waiting in lines at ports of entry. Your blue book waves you through and buys you a smile.” Yeah right! I will test this theory when I return from Ghana in the fall.
“Your passport is a valuable document, use it in good faith and protect it. It gives you the freedom to choose your path.” This, I myself know to be true. I couldn’t be an “aimlessly” wandering academic back in my home country; the pressure would have had me conforming by now.
“America is better for all 1206 of you deciding to become citizens.” Really? Do you mean that?
A past immigrant of Asian descent gives the formal address. Ironic that they would pick one of the model minority. She is proud as she says:
“Value family because that is the foundation of this country.” Oh Lord here we go!
“One of the first and most important things to do is to learn English.” I wonder if anyone is chuckling in their heads. This from someone who has obviously mastered the language enough to be given a speaking part. I roll my eyes. I wonder how much of her speech is doctored.
“You are not foreign anymore!” This pronouncement makes me almost guffaw forgetting where I am. We, all of us with our blended accents and difficult-to-pronounce names, will always be foreign.
The ideals we espouse in this here ‘land of the brave’ are tantalizing alright. The packaged U.S we sell to immigrants is attractive. Having lived in this country for 17 years I know living up to these ideals is where the real work is. It’s where we as a people very often fall short.
Later, I wave my mini banner and sing, “O Say Can You See…” The harmony is touching. I reflect on all the journeys that culminate in this theatre. More tears. I think on my own journey and my reticence to make this particular commitment. Have I failed in choosing access? Much later, I walk the streets bordering Piedmont and Emeryville wanting to shout “I do!” to anyone who cares to know. I have bought this package with all its flaws. Now what can I do about it?