Spotlight on Citizenship: What do Citizens Do?

April 6, 2022

In this episode of the Spotlight on Culture, Society, and Religion series, Dr. Derrick R. Spires of Cornell University talks about how citizenship can mean more than just voting. He looks at how Black Americans in the 19th century practiced citizenship in ways we can still learn from today.

About the Expert

Dr. Derrick R. Spires is an Associate Professor of Literatures in English and affiliate faculty in American Studies, Visual Studies, and Media Studies. He specializes in early African American and American print culture, citizenship studies, and African American intellectual history. His first book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), traces the parallel development of early black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship.

Start a Conversation 

  1. Who comes to mind when you think of the word “citizen”? What does it mean to you when someone is a citizen? 
  1. We often hear of citizenship as a legal concept: that it has to do with the state-given right for an individual to vote or to run for office. However, what might it look like to think in terms of cultural, economic, or even religious citizenship? How might that shape who could be considered a citizen or not? 
  1. In the video, Spires provides three practices of citizenship: participatory politics, critique, and revolution. What are some ways that you could enact citizenship today? What activities could you join to build up and/or change your local communities?  

Additional Resources 

Resources on Citizenship in Early America

United States Citizenship Exam Questions and Answers - The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provides the list of questions that they pose to immigrant applicants taking the citizenship test for U.S. citizenship - they must correctly answer 6 of 10 to pass the exam. 

Ben Franklin’s World Episode 255 - Podcast featuring Dr. Martha S. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens (2018), another text on early America that is often read together with Spires’ The Practice of Citizenship (2019) 

“The Last Will and Testament of Mary McLeod Bethune.” Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an educator and civil rights activist who championed numerous causes, most notably making education accessible to African American women. In the document, she reflects on the continuing work for future generations to expand education as a form of citizenship.

Resources on Contemporary Citizenship Concerns

Karen Garcia and John Healy. “Biden Administration Wants to Recreate DACA.” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2021.

Julia Kirschenbaum and Michael Li. “Gerrymandering Explained.” The Brennan Center for Justice, August 12, 2021.

Jean Chung. “Voting Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.” The Sentencing Project, July 28, 2021.