Novelist Marlon James on American Citizenship and Identity

© Glenn Ligon; courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Chantal Crousel, Paris

The Jamaican-born novelist Marlon James on why becoming a U.S. citizen meant becoming himself.

The truth is there was nothing I could do to stop it. It didn’t matter that some of my most fearless and badass friends warned me that it happened to them. It didn’t matter that I’d spent all my life road testing irony, sarcasm, and the same Jamaican knack for being constantly unimpressed that led my mother to call the moon landing “okay.” On May 13, 2019, in a St. Paul, Minnesota, auditorium filled with thousands of new Americans reciting the oath of citizenship, I, despite being pretty damn sure that I would never do such a thing, burst into tears. Quick tears that faded fast, before my friend Jeff snapped a picture. But tears just the same.

About that picture. I am wearing a green jacket and blue-green jeans, with a small American flag in my right hand, and the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. Like the tears before, the grin is also out of character. People around me were losing it, even before they raised their right hand, and up to that last line, I thought I was too cool for that to happen to me. After all, I had too much cool to cry at my own father’s death, but just the right amount to do so over Adam Yauch because he was a Beastie Boy. But citizenship is one of those moments, like the birth of a baby, that devours cool. It is unabashedly sentimental, a total sweep of your emotions in spite of yourself. You grab that pocket flag, which you will keep because you want it, and you listen to every word of the governor welcoming you to America, because even though you’ve lived here for years, it feels as if you’re only now entering it. It’s also the moment when you realize you can be immensely proud of a country and deeply unhappy with much of it at the same time.

Related: A True History: The Birth of Our National Parks

So, the tears come, and not just because the process was long, tedious, costly, and, in these times, scary. But also the realization that in spite (or maybe because) of all that, becoming an American means something. That’s the surprise that punches you in the heart. You didn’t expect it to mean anything, because you watch the news and follow Twitter, and if you’ve made it this far, earning it was enough.

It means something because I’ve been trying to come to America since 1984. In 1999, when I learned that I had a long-lost brother who was alive and kicking it in New York City, I jumped at the chance to meet him. The plane touched down at JFK on a winter night one would call crisp, but only because my skin was drying out. Late December, freezing, and wearing a leather jacket that I thought would make me cool, but instead made me colder, I tried to not look dumbstruck as I saw the backside of Queens on the ride to my brother’s home in the Bronx. New York City has a way of making you feel like you’ve never seen America before—never mind that before 1999 I had been in Florida at least seven times a year. My brother turned out to be a lovely man, of course, who catapulted to that rare space of family that I would actually be friends with. But I didn’t fly to New York for him. Like I said, I’d been trying to get to America for years. Florida didn’t count. Nobody Jamaican traveled to Florida to visit so much as to rush in, buy stuff, hug Mickey Mouse, then get out.

And if you’re not from here it doesn’t matter if this visit is your first or your 25th. As soon you pull out of that airport and the actual country starts to flash by the car windows, it happens. The America moving past you, going toe to toe with the America of your imagination, a place you’ve known far longer. This is frequently disappointing, not to mention unfair to those living near an airport who don’t realize the role they play as the first of America that millions of people from all over the world actually see. Never mind that our idea of New York City was shaped by TV, and we had probably been looking at Vancouver. We need proof that Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t live anywhere else. So, we go looking for her New York on 73rd Street, or Patti Smith’s, or Andy Warhol’s, because they moved here to find theirs and I was secretly looking for mine.

By summer the following year, I was back. And back again every two months or so. I was looking for my own America and my own New York (not always the same place), which is just an elaborate way of saying that I was looking for myself. I didn’t know what that self was, or at least would never admit it, but I knew I came to America to find him, because there was no way he could have been living in Jamaica. I think I’m trying to say I was looking for a way to be gay, but I wouldn’t have had that language back then, or at least I wouldn’t have dared say it.


Marlon James. Mamadi Doumbouya 

People talk about America giving them the choice to become themselves, but nobody told me that it would be something you would do fresh every day. Picture it, leaving my brother’s in Jamaican Bronx, dressed in an oversized T-shirt, baggy pants, sneakers, a backpack, and headphones. Getting off the train at Union Square. Trying to be both cool and quick, as I rushed to Barnes & Noble’s third-floor bathroom, to change into shiny, sharp boots with almost Prince-level high heels, super-low-rise tight jeans (actually called The Offender), and the same blue Stereolab T-shirt I wore every day. Leaving the bathroom a complete stranger to the one who entered it. Then strutting around SoHo like some freshly hatched gay peacock. Hoping to meet someone, but terrified to meet anyone. But mostly just walking around Manhattan prancing like the opening credits to Saturday Night Fever, having nowhere to go, and in no rush to get there.

But this Cinderella had to watch the clock. By 9:50 p.m. I had to get my scandalous jeans-wearing self back to Barnes & Noble to change back into Bronx-approved costume and grab one of the last 5 trains uptown. Twice time ran out on me and I had to head back to the Bronx looking like somebody who couldn’t possibly live there. The funny thing is that I didn’t feel gay or different playing dress-up. Okay, maybe a little bit. But weirdly enough I felt American. It’s the “being yourself” thing that people born here take for granted, but if you’re from someplace else, you try it on every day with a mix of thrill, terror, and relief.

I was a New Yorker but not yet American. In this country all the time but hadn’t yet fallen for it. Neither happened in New York. The falling in love part didn’t even happen on the East Coast. It was the fall of 2005, which was still hot and sunny, and me and my friend Joe, the both of us with books out, drove from New York to Chicago, making stops in Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Springfield, Illinois; and Madison, Wisconsin, crashing on friends of friends’ couches, sharing their dinners, and their jokes, and developing an impression of Americans that two decades of Fox News still can’t shake. Then hopping on a plane west, where, first by bus then by a car with my friend Trini, we drove from California north. Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain got stuck in the CD player, and every day was a trip of a hundred miles or more. San Francisco, Ashland, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver. Rolling alongside the Pacific, cutting through forest and hills, stopping over in big cities, small towns, and just about any bookstore that would have us. It couldn’t last, of course. Book tours had to end, rented cars had to be returned, working people who weren’t making money from books had to go back to work. And men with visitor’s visas had to leave.

Related: America's Most Iconic Drives

So, it’s totally odd for everyone but a Minnesotan that I ended up in Minneapolis. Quick explanation: I needed a job and a college needed a professor. But I became an American in this state, and it’s not just because I happened to be living there. There is something to the idea that Middle America is America distilled, or at the very least boiled down. It explains why everybody is no-nonsense, and apparently owns a brewery. I think I became a citizen here because I fell for the country hard here, hard enough to see that the America of my book tour was an infatuation, that grace period before the other person in the room farts, neither of you make an exit, and you realize that, damn, you’re in a relationship. You fall hard for the Midwest because you have to. It certainly isn’t going to fall for you, not the way you’re expecting. And when a midwesterner shows you love, even undying love, you might still miss it. I tell my women friends that while they’re waiting for a declaration or a ring, he’s been telling you he’s hopelessly in love for months, with all those extra shelves he keeps building in your garage. It didn’t surprise me that the spark that finally ignited Black Lives Matter as a mainstream movement happened here, and the cause didn’t surprise me either. Minnesota is the place where a libertarian wrestler can be governor, but also where four old church ladies will show up at your doorstep to get you to promise to support gay marriage. If there was ever a place I would pledge to be an American, this was it.

Now I'm an American who lives in New York, works in Minnesota, and tours everywhere. And yet if you were to ask me what it means to be American I’d scramble for an answer. But I’ll try anyway. To be American, especially a naturalized one, is to believe despite everything that, yes, this is the land of opportunity. Or maybe a better word is possibility. America is a place where you feel as if you can stop running. Or hiding. Where you can both lose and find yourself. And if something is worth fighting for, you can fight for it. To be American is to realize that the day-to-day realness of the land in front of you is not the America of your imagination, but something better, because this America is an unfinished project, and it’s giving you the chance to help make something of it. Not to make it great again, because it was always great. And terrible. And magnificent. And monstrous. I became American because of an awesome privilege that you cannot get anywhere else. What does it mean to be American? I still don’t know for sure. But I get to build it, rethink it, break it down, and rebuild it better every single day. And nothing is more American than that.