After 28 years of living in this country, I recently became a United States citizen. For most people born into privilege, it is difficult to fathom what this means and how difficult this journey often is. While every immigration story is different and everyone’s process may not take as long as mine, each immigrant I know – documented or undocumented – has tread some path “through the blood of the slaughtered” to be here. My story is no different.
My family came to this country in August of 1991 to escape the civil war in Liberia. My dad was already in the United States working on his Ph.D. when the war broke out. The rest of the family, including 2-year-old me, was still in Liberia with my mom. For almost a year my dad didn’t know our whereabouts or if we were even alive. Through a miracle or chance meeting we met a priest from Louisiana who helped arrange our travel and reconnect us with my dad. Once we got here and I assumed an age of reason and conscience, I knew that my story was different.
For years I could see the anxiety and despair in my parents’ faces as they wondered if the life they were trying to build would be suddenly upended by threats of deportation or a dramatic change in our status. Each year of my life I remember going to the immigration office and feeling like a criminal as officers spoke to us aggressively, searched us, disrespected our time and made us feel unwelcome in the country I was trying to grow up in. At every key moment in my life I was plagued by my precarious immigration status. As my friends focused on the normal issues of our youth, my primary question was where I would live the following year if the president didn’t renew our status. In high school, as friends prepared to get their driver’s licenses, it took me almost two years to prove to the Louisiana DMV that I could or should get my license.
As others prepared for college, I was reminded that I couldn’t get any federal loans and many scholarships because I was an international student, even though I had never left the country. And despite applying for early admission to Morehouse, I didn’t secure it until May of my senior year because the school had to review my status. Once finally in college, I still didn’t have the freedom to dream and move about like everyone else. As my classmates heeded President Robert Franklin’s call for us to be global citizens, I saw them traveling the world, studying abroad and spreading the Morehouse vision around the globe. I, however, couldn’t go. I couldn’t leave the country; at best I could live through the stories they told me and see the world through their eyes.
As graduate schools, law schools and prestigious fellowships recruited from our class, I always had to steer clear of those events because I knew the dreaded question would come up and my status would prove a barrier to my success, even though I had the grades and resume to apply for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. Even when I made it to graduate school at the University of Chicago and eventually started working at Calvary, my status still haunted and limited me. I often thought people would eventually find out that I wasn’t really an American, still just a temporary resident, and that at any moment my time here could be up. This problem has plagued me my entire life and has affected every bit of normalcy I’ve tried to have.
Yet as hard as it has been, this problem has also made me the person I am. As someone who wanted the American dream from the moment I could see it, but always facing its limitations, I was put in solidarity with other oppressed people. Over the years I came to see that the immigrant experience and black American experience are closely linked. I learned that while I struggled for formal citizenship and status, my AfricanAmerican friends and family were still struggling for real citizenship beyond what they had on paper. I learned that my temporary yet legal status was not that different from the precarious status of so many other immigrants, especially those undocumented from Latin America who became the “face” of the problem.
I came to see that the political structures and public discourse about who this country would ultimately be for affected all of our lives the same way. My story as a displaced Liberian immigrant living as a black person in the American South pushed me to use my perpetual despair to tap into resources that would sustain me and imaginations that could free us all. And so while there was much blood, sweat and tears (Oh, so many tears), nothing in my life has helped me more than to feel that my own story of being rejected and of living on the margins has many expressions in the struggles of others. Because of this I feel for dreamers and undocumented parents and youth, migrants crossing the borders, children locked in cages because of their status and adults locked in cages because of their color. I feel for those killed unjustly by the police and brutalized because of their orientation or gender non-conformity. I feel for religious minorities and women who are discriminated against because they refuse to be sexually exploited. I feel for those who suffer even if it shows up in ordinary, everyday, encounters.
And so while I’m smiling in these pictures, I’m fully feeling the weight of what it means to become a citizen while Donald J. Trump is the president and people who have cruel feelings toward immigrants, blacks and other minorities have the power of the state to cause despair in millions of lives. I can’t really celebrate that much because I feel for all the people in my life whose status has not changed and whose citizenship hasn’t been fully actualized. But while I can’t celebrate much, what I can do is recommit myself to the dreams of citizenship that I had when I was a kid and still have today. Those were and are dreams of a world, but more specifically, a country, a place, a community where no one is made to feel inferior, treated unequally, or held back from their dreams because of the color of their skin, country of birth, immigration status, physical ability, persons they are attracted to, deities they believe in or gender identity they claim.
As I reflect on what it means for me to become a citizen today, I am choosing to recommit myself to stretching this country’s moral imagination as far as possible and pushing our political structures and institutions to make space for as many people as possible, to do as Martin King said, “what America promised on paper.” So today I stand in the tradition of my American heroes, people who have made a place for themselves, and ultimately, a place for me too so that I could claim this place as my own even when others rejected me—people like Oladuah Equiano and Sally Hemings, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Homer Plessy, W.E.B. Dubois and Ida Barnett Wells, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Ruston, Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, James Cone and Delores Williams, Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Ilhan Omar, and the millions of people out here grinding, surviving, trying to live, to be and to imagine freedom.
All these help sharpen my own feelings for freedom, and I hope with my new status as a citizen to keep on feeling and so help others to feel what I feel. I hope I can do so through moral pressure from the church, through the content of my scholarship and teaching, and through the public policy process I can now formally participate in. I am excited to put my citizenship to work as “I, too, sing America,” as Langston Hughes once said, knowing that millions sing with me and do so even though millions of others still feel as though they have no reason to sing. Together we can sing for them too. We can imagine and create a world together, for and with each other, where we all have seats at the table and rooms in the house, places where there is nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sees how beautiful we all are.
I, too, sing America. (Langston Hughes, 1926)
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
‘Eat in the kitchen,’
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
Elijah Zehyoue is currently serving as an Associate Pastor and Pastoral Resident at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.