Barry Saunders

His first Fourth as an American

Oral Stephenson just celebrated his first July Fourth as an American citizen, and he did it the same way I celebrated my 57th – in front of a television.

The main difference is that Stephenson, a native of Jamaica who became a U.S. citizen in a June 12 ceremony, watched patriotic holiday festivities and fireworks displays, while I switched back and forth, back and forth between the annual “Twilight Zone” and “Sanford & Son” marathons.

Stephenson explained his subdued celebration by saying that he, like many Jamaicans, has an aversion to crowds. “I’m not a crowd-type person,” he said.

As for me, I just love Fred, Lamont and Bubba.

We are blessed to live in a country where we don’t have to line the streets and salute a passing potentate on the nation’s anniversary, but get to celebrate it the way we want to or not at all.

‘Totally overwhelming’

Stephenson, 45, said nothing impressed upon him the privilege of being a citizen – the difference between being a citizen and being merely a guest with a green card – more than leaving the United States briefly.

“For the very first time recently (as a citizen), I traveled through the airport using a U.S. passport,” he said, wonderment in his voice. “When you’re going through Miami International Airport, there are two sections. There is a section that says ‘U.S. Citizens’ and there is a section that says ‘non-citizens.’ It was an overpowering feeling, totally overwhelming, the first time I went through the section that said ‘U.S. Citizens.’

“It is a little bit too early to talk about how (being a citizen) relates to the other benefits” citizenship bestows, he said. “I have not tried to tap into those. ... I have not voted yet, but I have my voters card filled out.”

What did Stephenson think of America before he got here? I asked.

“Next to heaven,” he said quickly “Next to heaven.”

It’s an impression he got not just from the American cable television shows to which they have access in Jamaica, but from his mother, who came to America as “an economic migrant” more than 30 years ago, he said.

Christmas joy

The wonders of America became tangible, he said, the first time he went to dinner – at a Brazilian steakhouse at Durham’s Brightleaf Square – with co-workers of the mortgage company for which he worked before being downsized out of a job after eight and a half years.

Was it the never-ending stream of succulent meats the waiters at those joints bring to your table? I asked, remembering what makes me salute the flag.

No. “It was around Christmas time,” he said, “and they had this huge Christmas tree. I’ve never seen anything as big as that. I had to touch it for two reasons. One was to remind myself that this was not on a television set, that this was actually real and I’m really here. Number two was that it was time for me to put into proper perspective the kinds of opportunities that were now available to me.”

Stephenson is trying to take advantage of those opportunities, he said. “I am submitting several applications and it’ll be interesting to see how differently I’ll be viewed in light of my status change. ... I do know that here you are viewed on the basis of your knowledge, your skill set.

“I believe,” he said when asked what being an American means to him, “in people having a full appreciation and understanding of their own identity, one they must maintain and preserve. But I believe you also must open your mind to appreciating the viewpoints of other people and societies.”

The green card he had for nearly nine years, he said, afforded him all the privileges of citizenship except the right to vote in federal elections or to hold federal jobs. Nor, he could have added, did it afford him the privilege of saying “I am an American.”

He has that privilege now.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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