Shamille Pinnock stepped up to the mic and squared her body in the library’s low light. She had an announcement for the audience: Jamaica is not the candle-scented inside of a Bob Marley song. And her family, brimming with immigrant histories from the island, is as American as apple pie and textbooks on the Revolutionary War.
“I am an American,” she began methodically. “And I believe my family is a textbook example of what it means to be an American. Even if this textbook may be buried in the back on the library on the last shelf.” Members of the audience stilled, and leaned in to listen.
Pinnock was one of 12 storytellers who converged on the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) Monday night to present her story at a “Becoming American” Story Slam. A collaboration between the NHFPL and Long Wharf Theatre (LWT), the slam was intended to celebrate what it means to become American — that is, to make the choice to be American — as Long Wharf kicks off its run of Napoli, Brooklyn later this week. A play about an Italian immigrant family trying to raise three daughters in New York in the 1960s, it seemed like the perfect backdrop for New Haveners to open up about their own “American” experiences.
“The prompt for this story slam was becoming American, and what that means to you,” LWT Community Engagement Director Elizabeth Nearing said at the event. “Becoming is very intentional, right? It’s something that you work towards, that you came from.”
Like Pinnock, a child of two Jamaican immigrants who considers herself — and her parents, and their parents — part of an integral American story. That story started with her maternal grandfather, whose decision to immigrate with his wife, young son, and daughter came after he found himself working multiple jobs and living in a small house with two other families, barely able to scrape by. He’d announced to his family one night that he planned to leave for the United States, Pinnock recalled, and her mother had felt the whole world opening up to her, even as a child.
But the process of immigrating was arduous, and took several years of her grandparents scrimping money and picking up menial jobs to sponsor other family members. As their children became citizens and then went on to attend college — the first in the family to do so — her father’s journey was just beginning an ocean away, where he had obtained a visa to study in the United States.
Upon migrating to the country, her father discovered that there wasn’t a study option open to him. “He was here broke, and illegally,” Pinnock recalled. The options sprang up before him: he could return home, to poverty, or stay, working three to four jobs at one time while he inched toward American citizenship. He chose the second, met Pinnock’s mother, and laid the foundation for her American experience.
“It is these unheard, unknown stories that have created America’s reputation as the land for second chances, prosperity, opportunity,” she said. “As the land for dreamers. My family had a dream. And it was this country that allowed them to realize that dream.”
Gabi Coatsworth is a British woman who thought that becoming a citizen with an American husband would be easy — until she tried it. She transported the audience back to early 1980s, where her story began in Boston.
“Americans think that if you marry one of them, you automatically become a citizen, but there’s nothing automatic about it,” she said to a smattering of laughs. It was a lesson she’d learned shortly after her company’s lawyers informed her she would have to speed up her marriage to stay in the United States. For 15 months, she couldn’t leave the country, told her green card status would be jeopardized or cancelled if she did. Then she ran into more red tape. She was studying for the citizenship exam, and found herself at odds with one certain part of the naturalization oath: the commitment to bear arms for the United States.
It was a little clause looking back at her with big, angry eyes and furrowed brows. Coatsworth had been a pacifist all her life. If the United States went to war and instituted a draft, she couldn’t imagine picking up a gun, much less shooting it. So she did what seemed normal: She wrote her senators until one of them made an exception, and she was allowed to use a separate oath. The year was 1991 — still 24 years before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offered immigrants the choice to commit to bearing arms or non-combatant military service. And then, just as the dust was settling, her sister died in Britain, leaving two young sons. A life that had been plagued with the trials of citizenship became a life littered with the obstacles of student visas, constant questions about the sons’ citizenship, and an ultimate move to adopt the boys to keep everyone in the same country.
Those challenges, she said — particularly threats of deportation from customs and immigration officials — felt timely now. So too, she said, was the choice to identify proudly as American, and show her family’s magnanimity in the process.
“Nothing about the process made us feel like the country wanted us to become part of it,” she recalled. “Still ... here we are, glad to be American, even if we have an English accent.”
Others in the room noted that New Haven itself factored directly into their American-ness. Caroline Smith, who took at job at SeeClickFix after graduating from Yale and has since written on the city for GovLoop, proclaimed that “for me, most of becoming American has been becoming a New Havener.” Ony Obiocha recalled marching down Broadway during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer, and feeling fiercely American in the experience. And speech pathologist Wendy Marans left audience members with a reminder that they — American-born or naturalized alike — had a choice to personify what it meant to represent both the United States and the cultures from which they sprang.
Married to an American in 1984, she hadn’t opted for citizenship until Barack Obama ran in 2008. She was nervous; the oath of naturalization was a formidable document that came with teeth. But a ceremony with U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton had proved transformative.
Everything had been pretty standard when she entered the room with immigrants from 20 different countries. None of them came from the same country; none of them spoke the same language. A few friends and family members had come to show their support; they waited in the wings while citizens-to-be were called out by name, and given little American flags. And then Arterton made an announcement.
She urged those in the room to take pride in their home countries, and hold on to those cultures. Shaking hands with each newly naturalized citizen, she asked them to teach their children and neighbors about those countries. To allow what they had seen in their lives, the customs with which they had been raised, to inform how they worked and lived in New Haven, sat on juries, and personified American citizenship.
“I am here by choice, and with privilege,” Marans said. “I wanted to be here. And particularly right now, that’s what I’m holding onto.”