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Rita Kohn
Inside Perspectives
United States
Indianapolis, IN

“You are welcome” reverberated throughout Indianapolis’ July 3, 2019 Citizenship Ceremony

by Rita Kohn
August 1, 2019
Indianapolis, IN
99 people from 31 different countries became U..S.A. citizens at Indiana’s only presidential site

Rita Kohn, member: Dance Critics Association, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild
“On July 4, 2019 we celebrate our nation’s 243rd birthday and the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776,” announced The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We will welcome almost 7,500 new citizens in nearly 110 naturalization ceremonies [across the U.S.A.] between July 1 and July 5, 2019.”

Judge Sarah Evans Barker staged Indianapolis’ July 3 naturalization ceremony with the zestful aplomb that emulated reminded George Balanchine’s trajectory for his earliest choreography. Similarly to how Balanchine built a program with who was on hand and the circumstances that brought them there, Judge Barker, presiding from her makeshift Bench at the head of the tent on the South Lawn of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, surveyed ‘the talent’ in front of her and placed upon individuals and clusters of people the movement she wanted them to carry out. Her intent became clear: create a lasting impression of moving into and being moved by a new actualization of a new chapter in each person’s life-story.

‘Choreography’—?k?"r i??'g r?™ fi, ?ko?r-chore·og·ra·phy —deriving from Greek ‘chor(ós) chorus’ and ‘graphia’—literally images ‘dance writing’ for a formal presentation, or simply arranging action/movement leading up to an event, or creating a ‘pictograph of bodies’ in the event itself. Underscoring the meaning of leaving one’s ‘old’ allegiance and taking on a ‘new’ allegiance in this new ’civic space,’ Judge Barker imbued significance to each movement she called for—the designees standing to be introduced by name and nation of origin, the protocol of accepting the tiny flag handed to and then carried by a child from the family or by ’a borrowed child;’ the handshake, the hug, the waving of the tiny flag, leading to everyone standing to speak the Oath—EVERYONE: new, recent, long-term, AND those of born ‘as U.S. citizens.’

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Sequence by sequence, throughout the ceremony, Judge Barker created a tableau that seeped into my body—and I can’t help but feel that others will have absorbed this symbolic dance as a rite of passage in its broadest sense.

“You all are welcome here,” pronounced Judge Barker as her opening statement; repeated three times for emphasis. ”You all are welcome here” spoken with emphasis akin to a syncopated beat. Every speaker following her introduction pronounced in tandem, “You are welcome here” as their opening and closing points during three-minute comment.

When you know it’s a one-time-only production, as an arts reporter, you tend to get deep into the feel zone, not just see, hear.

Throughout July, as I traveled around Indianapolis for various community programs and events, I made a point to notice how people were reacting to each other in context with ‘you all are welcome here.’ How were individuals and groups ‘choreographing’ their interaction with people whose appearance physically introduces their cultural origin. For a private event where I was being courted ‘to join,’ I invited a friend to come with me. I observed surprise from the ‘hostess’ but no overt comment was made. When we were leaving, I shook hands with the hostess, who stepped back from shaking hands with the person accompanying me. As my all-time favorite Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra likely would have remarked, ‘why should I join a club that doesn’t want me?’ Perhaps it was rude of me to invite ‘this’ friend to this particular ‘join us’ event that specifically mentioned, ‘bring a friend.’ In any case, I did not apologize, and I did not expect further comment from the ‘hostess.’ This is Indiana, where ‘red’ votes outnumber ‘blue’ because anyone who doesn’t look like us is not us.

To further test the veracity of Judge Barker’s ’you all are welcome here’ mantra, pronounced with surety at a public ceremony with bunting and flags, I continued to invite my friend to come with me to just plain show up events. People at assorted places took my friend’s appearance—in a duality of inference— in stride. Following introductions, she became part of the gathering as a welcome participant.

With IndyFringe on Wheels as part of a neighborhood outreach project, at Cannonball Brewpub I stopped at various tables where ‘mixed ethnicities’ were gathered. I introduced myself and chatted, inquiring what brought them to this place. Consensus, besides the good craft beer and artisan food, boiled down to ’it’s a comfortable place.’ Exactly what brewpubs are supposed to be; ‘you all are welcome here,’ was definitely dancing around Indiana’s former governor. Michael Pence’s attitude—his mantra —has expanded from all are NOT welcome here to some should ‘go back’.

Cannonball brewpub is located astride the Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where the Kennedy-King Memorial perpetually reminds us Indianapolis was the one major U.S. city where citizens respectfully absorbed the assassination and went home to mourn, when the reason they assembled was to hear Robert Kennedy make a speech for their support for his bid for the U.S.presidency.

Wherever I went, I was meeting up with a microcosm of Indianapolis’ residents—some “citizens,” some not, some visibly ‘other,’ some blending in. Grocery stores make a point of offering products with ethnic richness. The Indianapolis School of Ballet end of summer intensive performance at Indianapolis’ iconic Artsgarden space was a gathering of cultures. And, remarkably, the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of “Hamlet,” performed on the makeshift outdoor theatre at Riverside Park, welcomed everyone. A mere century ago Riverside was a ‘public’ place where ‘people of color’ or other selected ethnicities knew they were not invited. On stage I observed a rainbow of actors; ditto for the audience on blankets and lawn chairs. A few days earlier, with IndyFringe on Wheels at the newly opened Guggman Haus brewpub, the scene was similar. This near northwest neighborhood welcomes all.

On July 30, I sat solo outside at The Chatterbox, considered Indianapolis’ iconic ‘dive bar’ in a very much need of repair century-old building located amidst high end shops with apartments above them. I watched groups of people in various configurations of ‘ethnicity’ passing by, some eventually settling in at a Chatterbox table. The arrival of a friend, a first generation ‘American’ parents came from Cuba, sparked a conversation. “You have to make a way for you to be welcomed; get involved, be an essential member of the community, care about the people and places around you.” Laurie-Young Cutsinger is a dancer, choreographer, teacher of dance; she was on the first Indianapolis Colts Cheerleading squad in 1983, on stage with Indianapolis’ first Cabaret troupe when they opened in the German-centric Athenaeum 1990, a member of the innovative Susurrus Dance Company 1995-99, and this July she helped launch the first Indianapolis Dance Heritage Festival, “bringing together the many shades of dance carrying the passion, stories, and rhythm of black culture.”

Citizenship is an everyday dance of our polyglot U.S. population; dance becomes the visualization of active citizenship.

For a month, I choreographed myself into situations to test ‘the judgement’—the ’lietmotif’— handed down by Judge Sarah Evans Barker: “You all are welcome here.”

‘Here’ on July 3, 2019, certainly was intended to be on a broader landscape than at the by-all-means welcoming homesite of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States described as open-hearted, open-minded. His presidential site is where “What does it mean to be a Citizen?” is part of an on-going Boy Scout “Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge Workshop.”

Prior to the July 3rd ceremony, Charlie Hyde, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site President & CEO, replied to an email Q/A:

Kohn: What is significant about this year's ceremony in relation to previous citizenship ceremonies at this site?

Mr. Hyde: National discussions about immigration—and what it means to be a citizen—have been at the forefront of the news this past year. Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker is exceptional at articulating the importance of citizenship in a meaningful, heartfelt way that calls upon the proudest and perhaps most profound of American traditions—E pluribus unum.

Kohn: What do you believe are the attributes of Benjamin Harrison that make him a role model of active citizenship for this new class of U. S. Citizens to seek to emulate?

Mr. Hyde: Benjamin Harrison was a proud Hoosier and loved this country, serving both in public office and in military service. He was recognized in his own era as an exceptional orator, and rose to the national stage for his unique ability to call others to action. He once said, “an American citizen could not be a good citizen if he does not have hope in his heart.” I think this sentiment speaks very much to this moment in our country’s history, and especially to new citizens. They are here in the United States—and willing to commit their lives, fortunes, and families—to seeing it meet its highest ideals. Like the 23rd president, they have hope in their hearts.

Kohn: What do you believe are the ways new citizens can make a positive impact upon the City of Indianapolis, the State of Indiana, the Nation?

Mr. Hyde: There is something especially affirming about seeing a new citizen take their oath. These are people who have every bit as much to offer of themselves as citizens, as we have to offer to them as their newly adopted country. We should do everything we can to open the doors of opportunity to them—whether as citizens, or encouraging them to take leadership roles as community leaders, public officials, or even elected officials. They bring their own unique life experiences with them, and may be able to contribute new perspectives—or novel solutions—to chronic problems.

Kohn: Why is Miss Sylvia McNair a noteworthy choice for participation in this event?

Mr. Hyde: Benjamin Harrison said, “Do not be ashamed to love the flag or confess your love of it. Make much of it; tell its history; sing of it.” As a Grammy-award winning vocalist, Sylvia helps us “sing” of our love of our country in an extraordinary way. There’s hardly a dry eye at the Presidential Site, or among the almost 600 attendees.

As a locally relevant and nationally significant institution, civic engagement and calling upon our fellow citizens to participate in the American system of self-government is of paramount importance to us as a presidential site—especially as an organization representing the only president elected from Indiana. We are honored to celebrate new citizens on July 3rd, and to help honor our forebears who helped make our freedoms possible on July 4th. Our Independence Day Social on the 4th is a free community event, with complimentary first floor tours, live music, family games and activities on the grounds, and of course, refreshments. After all, a little patriotism and a lot of ice cream are a good way to make the most of the holiday!

See photo gallery here: /www.indystar.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2019/07/03/new-citizens-naturalized-benjamin-harrison-presidential-site/1642358001
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