The Young Americans

by J. Tobias Beard

A description of the 2009 naturalization ceremony at Monticello published in C-VILLE but not available online. Held every year on July 4th, the ceremony is quite beautiful and moving. Every year the guest speaker is a celebrity who is also a naturalized citizen. In 2009, the guest was the artist Cristo and his partner Jeanne-Claude, famous for wrapping large objects in pink plastic.

It is hard to see the stage and assembled dignitaries wrapped up as they are in ceremonial bunting and tiny flags, against the burping of the brass band. It is hot and sweaty as I sit on the lawn at Monticello for the forty-fourth consecutive naturalization ceremony on July 4th, 230 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every year people become citizens on the 4th at Monticello, and anyone can come and watch for free. This is why I am here. And traditionally every year a prominent citizen who was once a prominent non-citizen speaks to the assembled throng. This year’s guest speakers are the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famous for The Gates in Central Park and for wrapping cloth around an entire bridge in Paris. And this is another reason why it is hot and sweaty and hard to see the stage, because I, myself, getting into the spirit of things, am completely wrapped in red, white, and blue fabric, peering through small cut out eyeholes. Christo became a citizen of this country in 1973 after three years as an illegal alien, and 17 years without a country to call his own. And I, who am American merely through the accident of birth, am beginning to feel a little foolish mummified in this flag, at what one participant calls “this beautiful party.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have little to say that is memorable. Christo says hello and then turns the mike over to Jeanne-Claude who smiles and exchanges pleasantries about the heat and her son and her marriage, and then recommends that we visit her website. It must be disappointing to the organizers of this event when artists who have described their art (usually huge, dramatic splashes of color where little color or drama is expected) as “a scream of freedom” say nothing about either art or freedom.

There are 69 people awaiting naturalization from an extraordinary array of countries: some of which America is currently bombing, like Iraq, others that many Americans consider better than their own, like Canada, and some, like Sudan, that seem to be hell on earth. In a feat of pronunciation bordering on the miraculous, a clerk calls out the names of these 69 candidates and they line up onstage and repeat The Oath of Citizenship, an oath that calls for “true faith and allegiance,” an oath that asks one to “bear arms on behalf of the United States,” and to do all of this “freely without any mental reservation.” I myself never took an oath to be an American and have trouble, as I read along with them, accepting it.

And then the Judge declares that they are now Citizens of the United States of America, and we all cheer, and they, these young Americans, are grinning from ear to ear, and giving the thumbs up, and pumping their fists, and the journey seems so worth it. They are invited to step up to the mike and tell their stories, and certain words catch the wind and stand out like flags, words like Proud, Safe, and Free, and phrases like War Ravaged, Left Behind, and New Family. And we, native-born citizens in American Flag sport coats, and hats with battery-powered fans attached to the brims, walk up to them and perform our job as the official welcoming committee and say “congratulations.” Welcome to America, check out our website.

I, who have trouble letting go of my natural born irony, remain seated as the crowd begins to leave an hour later, heading no doubt to pie-eating contests, pick-up baseball games between once and future Americans, and fireworks. Something wet—maybe sweat, maybe tears—is running down my face as I reflect on the beautiful party that is the United States of America, and on the fact that it is very unlikely that anyone will come and unwrap me anytime soon.