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Black Citizenship

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Jacqueline Mattis
Dean, School of Arts & Sciences-Newark
Rutgers University – Newark

Good morning,

I express my thanks and my gratitude to the organizing team for the Sawyer lecture series. I am looking forward to a wonderful day of conversation.

The theme of Black citizenship is timely both personally and nationally.

Twenty years ago I became a citizen of the United States. I recall four things about the journey to citizenship. I remember the long debates that I had with myself and my family about what it would mean to give up my passport, my identity (in some respects), and my legal relationship to the nation in which I was born. I recall purchasing the study guides and studying for weeks for the written and oral exams to become a citizen. It was striking to me that becoming a citizen meant learning information about American history and government that many native-born Americans did not know. Although I was already on faculty at the time, I remember that my former department Chair, Eric, a Marxist Jewish man from Queens, NY who had become an important and loving anchor for me as a graduate student, took the day off from work to drive me from Ann Arbor to Detroit to take my citizenship exam. He was the first person to hug me when I emerged from the exam. What stood out for me was the hours-long conversations that Eric and I had about the complexities of becoming a citizen. These were conversations about his own family’s efforts to navigate anti-Semitism, their commitments to civil rights struggles, and our shared and different immigration journeys. I was profoundly aware of the privileges and precarities of each of our circumstances. In the end, though, I knew that our gendered, racial, ethnic, and class identities gave our respective citizenships different meanings. He was born here. He would always be a citizen. This would always be his legal home. I was an immigrant—a permanent resident— who lived in fear of being deported.

Beyond my conversations with Eric, I recall the swearing-in ceremony, and looking briefly around the room at this pastiche of human beings from all over the world holding the small American flags given to us as we entered the room where we were to be sworn in.

Those moments two decades ago, and the millions of unnamed moments in between, signal to me the complexity of citizenship, generally, and Black citizenship, in particular. In a legal sense there are two key paths to citizenship: birth or naturalization. But, the conversation about citizenship is more than just a legal conversation. It is also more than an individual conversation. Citizenship as a legal reality belongs to individuals. However, citizens are part of a community. Moreover, the conversation about citizenship is existential, relational, communal, sociopolitical, spiritual, and historical. The notion of citizenship requires us to grapple with identity(ies), connections, belonging, and obligations.

The judge, who was the child of European immigrants, took pains to remind us about our responsibilities to our new land, and about the conditions under which this privilege of citizenship could be revoked. He reminded us that, henceforth, America was the site of our allegiance. He spoke in detail about our obligations to America, but he never once articulated America’s obligations to us. He did not tell us that in this new relationship, our nation has an obligation to care for, educate, remember, and protect us… an obligation to recognize, uplift and honor the dignity of our humanity, or an obligation to honor our voices.

He did not say that citizenship is not simply a conferred identity. He did not say that citizenship requires labor. That the work of citizenship is the work of constantly sorting out one’s obligations and one’s identity. Citizens belong to their nations. But, they also do the daily work of making and remaking their nations.

A conscious citizenry is aware of what the state can ask or require of them. However, such citizens are ever aware that all nations are built on failed and kept promises… on myths, aspirations, and expectations. Conscious citizens know that a nation is not a static thing. Nations, like the people in them, are always in the process of being made. Black citizens are especially aware that we are citizens of a nation that is rooted in our scientific, artistic, and aesthetic genius. Although we live in a nation that has yet to contemplate or embrace the fullness of our humanity, Black activism, protest, spirituality and humanity have powerfully shaped the moral footings of this place that is our home. Black citizens know the challenges of building a nation that will sing your songs but erase your voice. Black citizens know the complexity of loving a nation that does not always love you back. Yet, this is the place where our obligations lie. This is the place where we construct hope. Our citizenship requires that we hold a mirror up to our nation, and that we interrogate the meaning of the aspirational scripts on which this nation is built.

It is in this spirit of citizenship that I and we look forward to today as a day when we can have a conversation about what Black citizenship means.