On June 14 (Flag Day) I spoke at a naturalization ceremony as the representative of the Philadelphia Bar Association. I was honored to play a part in such an important occasion in the lives of those 69 new citizens. What struck me most was how hard these people had worked for the opportunity to call themselves "Americans" and how many of us take being a citizen for granted. In that brief moment, and since, I have been able to reflect on what the oath that was taken by those people from 33 different nations means to me, someone that was lucky enough to be born an American citizen. This good fortune, even among my difficult circumstances as a child, wasn't missed on that day as I listened to those new citizens.
In the words I spoke to my 69 new friends and neighbors, I couldn't ignore the fact that we are living in economically challenging times, but that doesn't have to mean that the dreams they have for themselves, their children and grandchildren can't be achieved. I would like to share with you my remarks from that day:
I come from a background that makes my story uniquely American. Born into poverty, I was homeless at age 9, failed out of college by age 18. But I did not let that stop me. I got a job as a live-in nanny during the day went back to college at night and graduated from the same college, I had previously failed out of. I graduated from Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2004 where I earned a law degree, M.B.A, and Masters in Taxation in only four years. I am living my American dream of being an attorney.
There are probably so many reasons why I shouldn't be here today, but I can tell you one of the reasons I am here is because I was fortunate enough to be born in the United States of America. Born in a place that said it didn't matter that I was black, a woman or that I had been homeless, but if I was willing to work hard, make good choices, and keep striving when I failed then I would be rewarded with an opportunity, an opportunity to achieve my own pursuit of happiness. I was not guaranteed success but I had a shot and I took it. Nothing in our great country is guaranteed except life and liberty. The pursuit of happiness is up to you. I'm going to tell you the truth: These are challenging times and you're going to have to work extra hard to achieve your dreams. You're going to have to make difficult choices along the way but in America it is our own choice how our lives look. The choices won't always be easy but at least in this country you have them. Dreams take work, even the American dream. If it were easy everyone would be successful and living their American dream.
Many people ask me how I was able to overcome the obstacles in my life and I always give them the same answer: God, grandma, hard work, mentors, luck, and sacrifice. I needed all of those things for me to make it. What I also needed were the Americans who came before me. Those individuals willing to sacrifice everything so that people like you and me would be free and have a chance. Some of them you know their names, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall, and the countless others who you don't know their names like my grandmother Ann Johnson who lived their life with quiet dignity going about their business, working hard and taking care of their families, with dreams that someday their children and grandchildren would have all the opportunities in the world. These people weren't rich or famous, but worked to change the world for the benefit of generations of people who would never know their names, for the benefit of all of us, you and me. This day is about celebrating the greatness that each of you has inside. All the things that you are striving to achieve your own American dream.
You all gave up an existing life, maybe even a good life in your home country for the possibility of something greater, for a better life for you and your family, unlimited opportunities for your children, or maybe a place where you could peacefully live the way you wanted to live. No matter your reasons, we couldn't be more proud to call you fellow citizens. As an American you have an opportunity to decide what you are going to do with the opportunity of being an U.S. citizen. Who will you be? What will you give to your new country, your time, talent, service and skills? Each one of you has the power to make this country even greater. What will your mark on the history of this still fledgling democracy be? In the immortal words of President John F. Kennedy Jr., "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
As fellow Americans, I urge you to think of these words as not only history and nostalgia, but also a call to take action in your own lives as a part of this democracy. The lives you now begin as citizens of the United States of America. May God Bless You in your own pursuit of the American Dream, and May God Bless the United States of America.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with the people who tell them. Learn more