It is thirteen degrees outside. And the day is 19 December 19: the day after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump. The next-to-triumphant news does well to thaw the crisp coldness characteristic of the Bostonian air as I leave my work building and head for my Uber. It is next-to-triumphant for many reasons, but the leading one is: no republicans voted against him. There is an air about today, and perhaps it is only me who feels it. I’m filled with a cocktail of emotion; part glee, part anxiety, part eagerness and many other things that words fail to give voice to.
On the ride I convince myself sleep is the cure. It’s an estimated 12-minute, short ride, but once we encounter traffic, it swells to 20 minutes and I take that as a sign. I close my eyes and immediately fall into slumber, leaving the warmth of the Sun absorbing and emanating through the window as a calming lullaby. My mind goes blank and I think of nothing – absolutely nothing.
Realising we are close, I jolt and begin to ease myself from sleep, gathering all the consciousness like a new harvest. There’s confusion, I can tell. Because the map positions us at a back alley that couldn’t possibly be an entrance to what I envision to be a most prestigious happening: Becoming a citizen. I urge the Uber driver to end the ride and leave me to locate Fauneil Hall. The cold is reminiscent of my first winter in 2000. It was one aspect of my American experience that no one could have prepared me for.
I walk around in a circle, gazing at the clock on my iPhone, growing every bit of anxious. 11:51AM, still lost, and panic sets in. I enter what appears to be a village square, and just as I thought: how oddly yet perfectly New England, I spot two officers. Before I utter a word, they point uniformly in the same direction as though anticipating my question. I smile and thank them, to which they respond in chorus,
The line to enter wraps entirely around the building and filters out right at the edge of the square. There’s such a diverse placement of faces in the queue, all seemingly wearing the same expression. I find my way to where the line ends and stand. A woman approaches me, “Excuse me,” she says. I oblige, and she asks the same burning question I had a moment ago: is this the line for the Oath Ceremony? I confirm and she, too, takes her place, muttering “Jesus Christ” presumably because the line is long but the cold, longer. Behind her, more people gather. At least 20 more. And it seems the line will never end.
Two officers appear at the entrance and begin to usher people in, separating the visitors from the soon-to-be-citizens. “You should not be in this line if you are not getting sworn in today! Visitors to the left!” – or some variation of it – is uttered in 30-second increments so it feels like the first day of some sort of boot camp.
There’s visibly one line just before the door but as soon as the crowd enters the building, eagerness disperses it into two. Then, three. Then, four. And, the woman behind me is all of a sudden to my left. The woman-behind-the-woman-behind-me is now to my right. I immediately begin to search internally for the many ways I could communicate to these women how much I would hate to resort to violence if needed. I take a breath and calmly assert my space. They adhere.
The crowd outside appears exceedingly larger inside, with every single seat filled. It’s a theatre-style setting. The decor of the room appears to have retained architectural elements utilised by the forefathers since its opening in 1743. There’s seating to the right, the left, and the centre of the room. A stage is raised and it is mired in varying sizes of paintings of historical figures – White men adorned with whiter wigs and busts and flags. It is unmistakably patriotic. I research and get acquainted with this space and one fact is special to me: it was declared a national historical landmark on October 9th, 1960 – just 8 days after Nigeria’s Declaration of Independence. Aside from being my birth date, it is an angel number and I am readily comforted by this.
It is unsettlingly warm in the room, but I refuse to thin my layers of clothing. One thought about the cold that awaits me outside married me to the creeping discomfort. After every seat is filled, the check-in process begins using a row-by-row system. Row one, two, three and so on. I observe, taking in the body language. Each body is structured and framed as though taking part in a funeral procession. Or, perhaps, in queue to receive Holy Communion. Arms are pulled tight to each side and both hands meet in the centre, fingers interlocked into one other. It is further accentuated by the occasional hanging of the head.
Today, everyone is modest; everyone is without sin; today, everyone is meek and well-mannered. Today, everyone is on their best behaviour. They move like an obedient child in the presence of an overt disciplinarian. Except for a select few. Their gait is glorious and dignified in a manner of “I deserve, and I earned this.” I silently vow to join in their demonstration; to take up space; to dismantle the narrative of the “good-mannered” immigrant. Our humanity is often misplaced in our “goodness”. There is a prescribed notion reserved only for immigrants where we are perceived as human and worthy insofar as we are “good”. It is one that mentally-crippled me for years, self-policing and inhibiting like many in this room. Like my mother.
This country is not my God.
My row is possibly the 20th or the 21st or the 22nd. We are instructed to stand, and walk towards the stage, encountering those that have completed their check-in and collected their celebratory mini flag. There is a woman in the third row from the back. With her flag held in her left hand, her right hand strokes the flag as though inspecting, assessing, and obsessing over its presence in her hands. The blood-red cardigan she’s dressed in exaggerates the red stripes in her flag. I can’t see her gaze but I imagine it is one of intimacy in a manner that is special and specific to her. After a moment – after the truth settles within her – she unhands it, softly rests it on her lap and resumes looking into the crowd.
I approach the table, walking by people victoriously posing with their own mini flags. I pause and vicariously partake momentarily in their celebration as there is no one present to commemorate with me. I present my pertinent forms and I am instructed to turn in my green card. It is taken and promptly placed in a ziploc bag with a myriad other green cards. The gentleman next to me is turning his in as the representative exclaims, “ohhh, that’s an old one!” presumably referring to the model of green card he holds. And, I wonder how long he’s waited. Or has been made to wait. And, under what circumstances.
What feels like twenty, thirty minutes pass. Check-ins are visibly concluding and the air in the room grows thicker due to increased activity. A representative takes the stage to announce that the ceremony will begin as soon as the judge joins us. I don’t know what I imagined the “ceremony” would entail, but a part of me wondered exactly how long the judge would be, would they speak, and for how long. After all, I still had a day of work ahead of me. I imagine there are others like me in the room and I extend myself into a shared anxiousness.
With everyone seated, the room appears settled – calm, with an occasional roar from a child seated in the back row of the visitor area. I retreat from my anxiousness and fall into hunger. I share a joke with the gentleman next to me on how lovely it would be to be a citizen of the Land of the Free Snacks. Just as it consumed me, I am distracted by the same representative as he takes the stage again. He makes poor attempts to pronounce names of attendees whom have yet to check in. He is aware how poor his attempts are and throws caution as he insists on certain names more than others depending on the degree of difficulty.
Name, no response. Name, no response. Name, no response. This pattern continues and my mind struggles as it sorts through all the possible reasons as to why someone would fail to be present on a day like this.
A day like this.
“All rise.” The clerk enters, followed by the judge walk in, and two young children dressed in all-black suits and ties bear mini flag resembling mine in-hand. It’s a woman, and I am overjoyed by this.
“Be seated.” We take our seats and the preliminary proceedings are readily carried out. The judge takes the podium and delves into her speech. My earlier sentiments are echoed in her words,
As immigrants, you just want to keep your head down.
She reminds all 367 of us from 71 countries that we were American long before we were citizens. That we held the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government – long before today. To honour our origins, she lists all 71 countries and invites each person to remain standing as our countries are called. She reminds us that she, too, is a child of immigrants, with a mother who emigrated from Greece – alone – at the age of 17, and a father from India – alone – at the age of 22. She is brought to tears as she speaks on the presence of the young boys whom, like her, saw their parents naturalised whilst in elementary school. She acknowledges the presence of a soldier of the United States Army whom was allowed to serve well before he could become a citizen. Her inflections allude to the absurdity of it all, and I couldn’t agree more.
Rhythmic applause fills the room. It is followed by periodic, attentive pauses as she spoke. With each session, we established a oneness, realising and pouring into the magic that brought us all together in this room today. We rise to see the judge leave, and then to receive our certificates. In this chaos, I hear a conversation behind me: two men excitedly speaking about how thrilling it must have been to receive a letter from a sitting President. It was from Obama. The rest of their conversation gets lost in the chorus of others, now free of their eagerness, speaking all at once.
I am reminded of my years in high school, fibbing to friends about reasons I couldn’t join them in their summer job. And the semesters spent classifying as and paying international student tuition costs in spite of living in the country for 8 years. Or the subsequent years I took away from college uncertain about the ambiguity of the process. The 13 years that would pass before I could visit Nigeria for the first time. The loss of my grandmothers in those years bleed through present memory, and for a moment, I grieve.
I think about that moment when my immigration status finally spun out of limbo and everything was moving at a steady, promising pace. Shortly after, Trump announced his first travel ban. I feared there would be more, and with his comments specifically targeting Nigerians, it was only a matter of a time before I would be barred from ever visiting.
Today feels poetic. Especially knowing it falls not a day short of the vote to impeach Trump. A deep breath washes over me. I find comfort knowing every sacrifice put forward was not done in vain; that it was not compromised from callousness and gross incompetence on the part of the soon-to-be-impeached President. Most importantly, with my acquired status as a Neo Native, I have a voice that I can exercise now in a vote.
I will join my 367 brothers and sisters to live and to advocate for the many others who couldn’t be present. For the children misplaced and displaced at the border. For the countless families whose livelihood have been disfigured for daring to be devoid of complacency. And, to hold the West responsible for the dependency immigrants have grown into as a consequence of disparaging circumstances in a post-colonial world.
My voice will be counted, and it will matter.
Stephanie C. Nnamani (@tefftheory) is a self-taught award-winning Nigerian-American photographer, essayist, and archivist. Her work is centred on narratives concerning presence, absence, and Otherness as it applies to her identity as an African-woman-artist and immigrant. Nnamani experienced what she describes as an “inner-worldly shift” upon returning to Nigeria for the first time in 13 years and has since applied and explored it throughout her practice. Attentive to colour and its intimate role in storytelling, Nnamani captivates her audience through a meticulous use of it, focusing on spectrums that remind her of Home.
She is the founder and creative director of STUDIO THEORY–a digital, platform committed to creative expression rooted in an abandonment of a traditional, fixed definition of what comprises a “studio.”
Related country: Nigeria
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