The New Patriot: vol. 8

I’ve never been patriotic. I’m much more likely to rage at the American healthcare system and the savagery of student loans while mourning the human rights abuses of the military, now under the control of a wannabe autocrat, than I am to feel patriotic. It seems that patriotism is experiencing a feeling of belonging, of knowing how you and your story fit into the puzzle of a nation’s borders, and I’ve rarely felt this, though it’s not particularly hard to see how my story is an American one, crisscrossed as it is with immigrant dreams and transatlantic love (both my parents’ and my own). But as far as feeling patriotic: my family’s religion forbids saluting the flag or standing for the anthem, so growing up I never did. In fact, I’ve never saluted a flag in my life. The only abiding thing I’ve ever felt for a flag was when I saw Bree Newsome scale the statehouse in my home state of South Carolina to take one down... but then again, the pride I felt that swole feverishly and deliciously crumbled over my head and shoulders was for her, not the flag. I saluted her and her utter brazenness for weeks. Her actions had literally changed the landscape. In a perverse way, she gave the flag more honor than it ever had—  the honor of being put to rest.

A few weeks ago, we went with a Beninese friend to visit the owner of the land that we are purchasing to build our house. The land owner, who we’ll call Mr. H., is an elderly, retired politician whose voice has a chord of hoarseness that sounds both gentle and menacing, kind of like an Italian gangster. Each time we have met, he looks at us fondly as if doing business with us gives him an old thrill. On our first meeting, he proclaimed, “Elle est americaine!,” while he marveled at the wonder of how Beninese I look. The fact that I look Beninese is always a matter of interest to people here. It delights some and confounds others how very similar I look while being so certainly different.   

On the day that we visited Mr. H. with our Beninese friend, I politely shook Mr. H’s hand, as I usually do, in the same way I have greeted other elders in Benin. Our friend, on the other hand, bowed deeply with his knees almost touching the floor, holding Mr. H’s hand without making eye contact. Mat followed our friend with the same deep bow. I gulped and immediately longed for a magic rewind button so I could follow suit, but the moment had passed.

There are lots of moments like these, where I wonder if I have abdicated some formality that I didn’t know was my duty. Everyday in Benin I am presented with options about how I will integrate into my new country. These cultural codes are the veins of citizenship. When you live in your native country, you follow a set of rules that were yours before you even knew that you had learned them, that exist beneath the radar of consciousness. But now it is as if I am choosing from a cultural buffet table, making selections based on the flavors I crave, leaving the ones I find too foreign to ever be palatable.

On my second day of driving in Cotonou, we got stopped by a cop. I accidentally ran a red light. This is unusual because traffic lights, when they are present, usually seem optional. Just a week after the incident, I was sitting patiently at a red light when a driver in a car to my left told me to just go. I rolled through the red light and the throng of traffic behind me followed suit. No biggie. But on my second day of driving, when the cop stopped us, I didn’t run the light intentionally; I had simply driven past where it was situated, 100 feet or so before the actual intersection, and I could no longer see it. I waited until what seemed like a reasonable amount of time had lapsed, thinking the light had turned green. It had not. The cop, who was on foot and wearing blue military fatigues, came into the middle of traffic where I was waiting to make a left turn and motioned for me pull over. He told me to unlock my doors. Then he got into the car.

In theater, we learn that every interaction between people involves status—  who’s on top, who’s on the bottom— and the ever-present grab for the top place. I used to bristle at this notion, the idea that power plays lie beneath our most basic interactions, but as a new immigrant, these maneuvers are undeniable.

With the cop in the backseat of my car, I gripped the steering wheel and calculated how I would play it. Would I be humble? Would I grovel and beg for mercy? Would I apologize? Would I take umbrage? Would I pay him off to get rid of him? I passed a quick look to Mat in the passenger seat and then looked in my rearview to size up the cop sitting in the backseat. I’m not exactly sure why, but I decided to take umbrage.

“This is my second day driving in your country!,” I said defiantly, making sure he knew that I was a foreigner. “I made a mistake. Do you know what a mistake is?,” I continued, rolling my neck to look at him sideways.

The cop got on the phone and I could hear that he was planning to make me drive to the police station. I started to panic.

I began yelling at Mat to translate everything the cop was saying on the phone. Then I started speaking loudly in English and telling Mat to translate my words. When I caught Mat not translating exactly, I interrupted with even more venom.

“No! You tell him exactly what I said!,” I hurled. Then I addressed the officer myself in French without waiting.

Suddenly the cop went silent. He wanted to get out of the car as fast as he could. In just a few minutes, my strategy (which I don’t recommend) worked. When the cop asked to be paid off, I played stupid.

Him: “So do you have a gift for me?”

Me: “A gift? This morning I bought a pineapple? Do you want a pineapple?”

He chuckled at my audacity, got out of the car, and sent us on our way. Mat and I high fived. I had bested the cop. I had used my foreignness as a weapon, something that immigrants in my home country almost never have the privilege to do.

Lately I’ve found myself re-playing all the immigrant stories I’ve ever read. I’ve read a lot of them—fiction, non-fiction, memoirs...The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is one of my favorites. It’s a non-fiction about the movement of African Americans from the South to cities in the North and West, known as The Great Migration, that took place in the first part of the 20th century. I always get chills thinking of how, with very little historical acknowledgement, upwards of 6 million African Americans were immigrants in their own country, how their migration shaped the cities that we know today; how, for black Americans, personal family histories are tied to these moves in ways we rarely consider.   

The run-in with the cop was a few days before I drove Mat to the airport for him to return to New York for his interview to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He got the appointment two days after we bought our tickets to Benin, after months of waiting for it in New York. He’s been in some citizenship process (fiance visa, green card, applying for citizenship) for the past six years. Once he finally has his U.S. citizenship, I will apply for French citizenship. In the middle of this, he will get a permanent resident card for Benin. When it’s all said and done, we will have been in some process of citizenship for almost a decade. I will be an American, Nigerian, and French citizen. We will collectively own five passports.

One night while Mat was away I listened to poet laureate Tracy K. Smith on the On Being podcast. Tracy had gone all around the country sharing her poetry with groups in libraries, churches, and military bases, and discussing people’s everyday experiences of life in the U.S. At some point on the podcast she read letters that the families of black Civil War veterans had written to Abraham Lincoln begging him for the pensions they were owed for service in the war. In language eloquent in its yearning, grown men threw themselves at Lincoln’s feet, seeking money, but mostly just some recognition of humanity, of their citizenship. What is most poignant in the letters is how certain the men, though many had spent their lives enslaved, were of this national belonging.

Citizenship is a relationship of reciprocity: knowing how you fit, knowing what is to be given and what is to be received from a nation that you call you home. In Benin, I’ve used my difference to my advantage (see incident with cop), and there are other times that I’ve downplayed it. We all do this picking and choosing, determining which parts of ourselves to bring to the table. It is a process in which we find, consciously or not, the aspects of ourselves that make us feel that we are home, even if just within ourselves. It’s powerful—  like patriotism, like citizenship.