What is the point of a citizenship test? I know the US is not the only one to do it, but it’s a strange way of testing whether you are committed to a country. But as I have decided to become a US citizen (more on that later), last week I was mugging up on 100 questions covering US geography, history and politics to make sure I remembered the right number of congressional representatives (435) and the names of the US’ biggest rivers (Missouri and Mississippi).
And then on Thursday, I headed into a tall office building in downtown Sacramento to be asked a random ten of these questions in a starkly empty office with a friendly but bored immigration officer. For a country known for its flamboyant displays of patriotism, it was a curiously dispassionate way of testing my loyalty.I was not even asked why I wanted to be a citizen, a basic question which you would have thought was at least relevant. Citizenship seemed to involve nothing more than being privileged enough to successfully apply and then showing you can do a memory test.
Sure I might somehow retain the memory of a few of the 13 colonies that first formed the United States, but what about understanding the history of cultures of those who lived long before any settlers arrived? What about digging deep into the ways the nation was formed, the brutality, the conflicts, the unresolved divisions that still shape so much of today? Sure I might have been tested on a few individuals – Susan B Anthony, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington – but history is not just about individuals. What about trade unions, the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement, the Occupy rebellion – that have not just shaped the US today but also inspired movements worldwide.
But beyond the lack of real history, it was also curious that there was nothing in the citizenship test about culture. Surely that is what the US is known for, even beyond its shores. Yet I wasn’t asked to know anything about its music, its artists, its writers, its poets, its film industry. The cultures of its regions and its immigrants that shape the country’s neighborhoods, food and so much more.
And while knowing that the Mississippi is a big river, it’s not particularly relevant to me here in California. Why did they not ask what landscapes I have most admired, what species of trees can be found in my nearby hills, the ecology of the Central Valley both now and before it was drained for industrial agriculture?
I am deeply skeptical of nationhood given the way it has been used to justify war, empire and exclusion. I am conscious that I am living on unceded territory of the Patwin Wintun people who settlers sought to wipe out and whose sovereignty remains unrecognized by the US state. But at the same time, this is now home, a place I have raised my family and among a community who I care about. The struggles for a more just society here now matter to me as much as struggles back in the UK or other places I have lived. I admire so many peoples, past and present in this country, for their talents, skills, expression, inspiration and commitment to a more just society.
So I have decided to create an alternative citizenship test, one that encourages exploration and learning. One that embraces the ecology, landscapes and history of this land. One that’s true and honest. Not a sanitized version but one that actually teaches us so we can make the country better. One that celebrates the rebels, the artists, the anarchists, the counter-cultures that change history, the original peoples of this land, the many who have refused to accept oppression and injustice and have constantly demanded something different. One that talks about a pride of place that doesn’t put one nation above another.
To do this I am asking 50 people from different walks of life what they would like people to know about the US – the good and the ugly, the stuff to celebrate and learn from, the nourishing and the soul-destroying, the hopeful and the hopeless. I welcome ideas of who to ask. I will collate their ideas and share them with you, and perhaps reach other migrants who are applying for citizenship and who want to embrace this as a home with all its complexities.