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Proudest Moment on a Gray Day:
On Becoming an American

| July 5, 2010

Jasper John's Three Flags (1958)

Ironic moment yesterday at the wonderful Town Center fireworks tailgate party (which brought out what looked like the entire county): there weren’t that many signs of the occasion having much to do with July 4th. WNZF/Beach 92.7 FM, the co-owned radio stations that midwifed the event and were its chief sponsors (thank you, by the way), were busy highlighting themselves and other sponsors. It doesn’t get more American that that, this reverence for business, so it had its own July 4th flair. But still. You’d think showcasing the nation’s birthday in colors or words, not just at the end with the anthem and fireworks, would take up at least as much room as those cars a dealership had lined up smack around the party rotunda. There was a single flag on the big radio tent, but it seemed lonelier than a guest of honor should be. And I’d be damned if I was going to let the tea party folks out there, ridiculously but tellingly self-segregated in their zone by yellow crime-scene tape, be the only gushers of red white and blue.

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I had a pretty large American flag in my car. For years it hung over a door in a loud display of private patriotism. (Private, yes: you won’t ever find me putting my hand over my heart or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public meetings. I find that ritual a little too herd-like, a little too North Korean tea party for my taste. In a freedom-loving country, and in these democratic meetings supposed to represent pluralism at work, let us be free to love our country, as we express our faith, whichever way we choose.) I brought out the flag, and the radio guys hung it over the tent, big and bright like one of those beautiful Jasper Johns paintings of the Stars and Stripes. It wasn’t much, but that kind of irony was essentially American, too: an immigrant (and an Arab one at that) putting a little July 4th back in July 4. (In fairness to David Ayers, the WNZF general manager, the other flag was his, but I’ve always thought of David as a closet Arab liberal anyway, which is why we get along so well).

Many newspapers on July 4 run the Declaration on their editorial page or replicate the original on a full page. It’s a noble tradition. Many of us immigrants have declarations of independence of our own. It’s the day we were naturalized American. I originally wrote the column below a few days after swearing the oath and, on that day, happily reciting the pledge as if it were my wedding vows. I’ve re-written the column on occasion to keep it current, and re-run it, as I do today, as a personal tradition, though it applies as much on July 4th as it does the other 364 days of the year.

My personal July 4th happens to fall on December 16. That day, 24 years ago, I became an American. The day has become more important to me than any other, including my birthday. I couldn’t choose the place and time of my birth, otherwise I might’ve skipped the part that plopped me in Beirut just in time for a civil war. But with a great deal of luck, other people’s money and a mother who was more savior and savvy than any character biblical or koranic — those two books that were powder kegs for every bomb and bullet raining on Lebanon — I could finally choose the place of my rebirth: A federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Judge Robert C. Heinemann playing midwife.

The memory is handsomer than the day itself. It was a gray morning. I was there with my parents, expecting a founding-father-like ceremony full of solemn quotes and lumpy throats, and feeling more excited about it by far than my college graduation six months earlier, which I’d skipped in favor of a World Cup soccer match. Instead we got pretty much what you get whenever you go into a government building anywhere in a big city. Crowds, delays, the smell of burnt pretzels mixing with the odd smell of urine, because this was the height of New York City’s hate affair with homelessness. The only difference between us 317 initiates to the American Dream and the crackheads and racketeers showing up for their periodic plea bargains were our Sunday suits and their weekday lawyers.

A few months before, I’d been summoned to an Immigration and Naturalization Service office for the citizenship interview. I’d expected a grilling worthy of Ronald Reagan’s Fortress America (Reagan was president at the time). What I got instead, in a tiny office greener than my green card, was a bulky woman who sat across from me at a bulky desk with my file before her, and five minutes of third-grade questions about the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, the names of my senators (back then, the brainy Pat Moynihan, the awful Al D’Amato), maybe a question or two about history. Nothing about the Dodgers beating the Yankees in 1955. Then she made me write a line in English to prove that I was no illiterate, and that was it. I wanted more. She showed me the door.

Back at the courthouse we were finally herded into a big courtroom, ordered to keep standing even though there weren’t any chairs that we could see, Judge Heinemann showed up, spilled a few words of recycled patriotism over us, made us raise our right hand and repeat after him a pledge to the flag and the Constitution — the first and last time I swore such an oath, because I wouldn’t want to spoil it — and that was it for us ex-foreigners. We were Americans.

For all its banality and for all the irresistible cynicism to which it lends itself (it can take it), that moment will never cease to be the proudest of my life, and the greatest relief, like making it to shore from a sinking ship. There was nothing half-hearted about it, no hyphenation about it. I wasn’t just taking a new citizenship. I was dropping an old one, happily and willfully. I’ve never believed in creed or ethnicity as more than uniforms forced on us by convention, in identity as more than dogma. Even heredity is overdone, as if a connection to some half-wit drunk on the Mayflower 400 years ago has any more bearing on the shape of one’s pancreas than direct descendance from Mom back in Queens. I like my olive skin and in retrospect wouldn’t trade a breath of that Mediterranean air that kissed my early days for all the carbon dioxide in Sanford. But memory is not identity, and ultimately, nor is nationality. I am an American because it is one place where I may not be told what I must be, for whom, or for what. American isn’t unique in that regard. There are other places like it. But this one suits me fine.

What suits me less is the association of the word American with some sort of self-evident righteousness. In a 1944 speech before 150,000 new citizens in New York’s Central Park, Learned Hand, the great judge, described the spirit of liberty as “the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” But the neo-nationalism that begun as “morning again in America” under Reagan flamed into hothouse chauvinism under the last president, who thought America embodies an 11th Commandment for the world: “Thou shalt either be with us or against us.” His successor has been a bit more modest, but the culture at large still isn’t. I can hear the immigration citizenship interview boiling down to a single question: “Who’s Number 1?” This shift of the meaning of America from ideal to decree should be less cause for pride than unease. A little ambivalence wouldn’t hurt.

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6 Responses for Proudest Moment on a Gray Day:
On Becoming an American”

  1. William says:

    Fascinating story Pierre.

    My own path to citizenship probably began before I knew it. It was 1963, and at age 9 I saw John F. Kennedy riding down Wiesbaden’s Kaiser-Wilhelmstrasse in a drop-top Mercedes. I was unaware of all the fuss surrounding him, but I instinctively knew I’d just seen a great man, and America was the place to be. It was later that same year that, like most Americans and many others around the globe, I shed tears over the events in Dallas.

    Having survived the culture shock of being transplanted into suburban western New York at age 12, and experiencing the American Public School system on the sink-or-swim plan, I lived, loved, and worked as an American. I wore the uniform proudly, although in retrospect, I can point to this part of my life as the beginning of disillusionment. Long story – I’ll skip the details.

    The years went by, sometimes as a blur; there were times where “checkered” would be an accurate description of my path, the inevitable result of poor decision making. One day I found myself sitting in an INS office, being interviewed by a tall, strapping Puerto Rican man, an Iraq veteran, and one clearly suffering from PTSD. I was to answer 10 questions on civics, of which 6 needed to be correct. There was no need to ask the 7th. My literacy test amounted to my writing “I wish to be an American citizen” on the bottom of one of the papers in my file. 15 minutes and it was over.

    The journey culminated in a ceremony at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne on a sunny January 23rd. There was a long line of 300+ immigrants and their family and friends, anxiously awaiting their moment. There was a gentleman in a tri-cornered hat working the line, asking if anyone had ancestors who participated in America’s War of Independence (on the American side, naturally). There was also a crew from the local Fox “news” outlet inquiring whether any of us had served in the military. Upon stating that I had, and answering some background questions, I found myself to be under the watchful eye of a TV cameraman. I’ll forgive the crew for being with Fox; hell everybody’s got to work somewhere and they were very nice, and very professional.

    The ceremony itself was loaded with pomp and circumstance, interspersed with the hilarious moment when the BCC orchestra, rehearsing the musical selections for the event, went into the opening bars of the Star-Spangled Banner and the entire audience sprang to their collective feet. The conductor explained that we had passed the test, but it was not yet time to rise.

    The ceremony proceeded, we swore the oath, and were then called individually, by name, on stage to receive our certificate of naturalization. I can’t really fault them for mispronouncing my name, most everyone has had that problem, and it really didn’t matter anyway, I was now a proud US citizen. A short interview with the hottie Fox reporter, and I was off on my first official act as a citizen – registering to vote.

    It was really a proud moment in my life, one I’d wished my mother had been alive to see. Later that evening, we all saw the report on TV, and I wasted no time e-mailing the link to friends and family alike. After watching myself a few times, I decided my statements in the interview could be construed to be rather arrogant.

    Proof positive, for better or worse, that I am indeed an American.

  2. Will says:

    Pierre – that’s an elegant statement. Thank you for sharing it.

    I suggest to other readers that this is worth sharing with people you know who have, shall I say, a very narrow view of what it means to be an American.

  3. dlf says:

    A very touching essay, and of course we had to bring in the T Party, the remarks on Regan, but touching none the less. I guess that is why we all live and in and some cases want to live in the USA, not the best but a long way from the worst. I have yet to see the long lines of the unhappy wanting to leave and I hope I never do, stay and make it better, not change; but better. This would allow more people like the author to become part of this free country.

  4. Pierre Tristam says:

    William, that was a great story, and certainly a more colorful occasion than mine. And thanks for that suggestion Will. dlf, you knew I’d find that tea observation irresistible.

  5. Pierre, I will always think of you joining us “natives” (heirs of the still-excused native killers) as a reason to believe that this “nation” really is just a stop-over, albeit a meaningful one, on the way to a world of reason and light. We ain’t there yet. In other words, when it’s in its decent phase, a place that welcome people as a base to promote the ideals we supposedly share.

    Speaking of that: It amazes me each year how little “Americans” actually know about what July 4, 1776 means. “We” don’t even know the language, ley alone the principles.

  6. Reinhold Schlieper says:

    Actually, I consider myself a bit more a citizen of the world’s community, although I, too, was naturalized back in the seventies. Why? Well, to leave the country for a vacation, one had to apply for permission from the IRS and sundry other agencies for proper clearance. Doing so was a hassle and a time waster. I figured that citizenship could shave off a goodly bit of all that bureaucracy. And it did. I could come and go a lot easier after citizenship. That’s a very US-American pragmatism, I should note.

    I have regarded my citizenship meanwhile more as a bureaucratic adjustment, not as some emotionally deep experience. Carl Schurz, a fellow German-American of long ago, stated quite clearly my brand of citizenship: “My country right or wrong! When right to be kept right, and when wrong to be got right.” To me, citizenship is the obligation to work at getting matters right, de iure as US-American but de facto as a world citizen.

    This Fourth of July quite accidentally summed up my set of symbols: I wore a t-shirt from the Pequot Reservation–perhaps I wanted to remind folks of the wrongs this country’s history rests on. And I wore a baseball cap with black-red-yellow markings and the name “Deutschland,” not because I’m non-US-patriotic person but because it’s the Copa Mundial and the German team is about–we hope–to enter the final game. I just forgot to take it off, but diversity is a positive value, isn’t it?

    So, if there’s a god, may she bless the whole doggone world–no exceptions and no special privileges.

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