“An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” Thomas Jefferson
One of the “assignments” in my queue this week has been: Have you successfully become a United States citizen? If so we want to hear your story!
And well, no. And yes! I haven’t become an American, I was born in the United States. Raised here. I remember where I was the day Kennedy was shot—John, and later Bobby, desegregation, MLK, Apollo 11. Woodstock, well, vaguely, I bought the triple album.
I grew up watching The Three Stooges, Leave it to Beaver, Lost in Space, The Monkees, The Partridge Family, All in the Family. I ate TV dinners and played in the neighborhood until the streetlights came on. I was a child of the 70’s.
My mother has been involved in political and social activism for sixty years. Therefore, by default, as a teenager, I wasn’t. In an American Literature class in high school, I was forced to read Emerson and Thoreau, Self Reliance and Civil Disobedience respectively. John Lennon’s Power to the People and Give Peace a Chance were already a part of the public consciousness.
Part of my consciousness. The American Transcendentalists were my heroes. Changing the world with the power of words was, to me, a viable option . I was fifteen and had a poetry column in the local newspaper. A poem a week, paid!
My mom had worked on the campaign trail for both John and Bobby Kennedy. She was a staunch democrat. She was a believer in civil liberties and the freedom of speech. But something happened. She met or talked to someone and it all changed. She joined Massachusetts Citizens for Life, became part of their administration. My siblings and I were hostages at rallies in Boston and DC. We went to demonstrations and protests because we were told to. There were no choices.
The day I became a Citizen (yes, with a capital C), I was sitting at the desk in my brother’s bedroom writing a poem, I don’t remember about what. My mom came into the room. She handed me the newspaper with the last poem I’d written. “I made an edit or two,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll like it.”
I read a poem, with my byline, but it wasn’t my poem. I had written a poem about being lost, cast away by society—into the abyss of teenage angst. The poem I read was about an unborn baby being aborted. I stopped writing for the paper. For a long time, I didn’t write at all.
In an age before email, my poetry had to be hand delivered to the editors. At fifteen, I was dependent upon my mother to see to it that I met deadlines. And she betrayed me for her own purposes and agenda. I was both horrified and ignited. My voice had been silenced—in America!
It was a hard lesson at fifteen. I was secretly pro-choice. And then I read Thoreau. I began refusing to join my mother at rallies. I had my own opinions. My mother moved from registered democrat to a republican.
I read Whitman and Twain.
I registered to vote the day I turned eighteen, and voted in my first presidential election two short months later. Mom worked for the Ford campaign, I voted for Jimmy Carter. My mother insisted that I had gone to the polls just to be contrary—just to cancel out her vote. But that wasn’t the case. I had studied both platforms. I made an informed decision. I became a citizen.
And one vote can’t cancel another. Votes represent the diverse voices within our population. Voting is the punctuation to the conversations we have as citizens. I became a citizen of the United States when I joined that conversation; when I made it my responsibility to learn—to know—about what issues are important to us as a nation. I reinforce my citizenship with every letter I write to congress, every vote I cast.
All anyone has to do to be considered ‘American’ is to be born here. To be a citizen, one must actively participate in the process of government. According to The United States Elections Project, in 2010, 90,732,693 of the 217,342,419 eligible voters went to the polls, just 41%. Of the 217,342,419 Americans, 90,732,693 are repositories of the public will.
I’m not proud to be an American; I am a proud citizen of the United States, a voice of the public will. I’m proud to be someone who defends the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of choice.
And the process was easy. There were no tests to take, no money to pay, I simply repeated after the registrar, something about being honest, and legally eligible to vote. I had to raise my right hand. But when I took that oath, the unspoken responsibility became mine—to be an informed citizen; to consider all of the issues on the table; to not deny others their freedom of speech or belief.. I think the better question to ask, as we get ready to celebrate two-hundred-thirty-six years of independence, is have you successfully become a citizen?
PostScript: I didn’t submit this as the assignment because it was clear that the company was looking for those people that were not born here, and it’s 150 words over the limit.