“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
A brief scene: a woman stands, watching ships sail into New York Harbour, bringing with them Eastern European immigrants fleeing violence and persecution. Like other Americans of her time (of our time, still), the woman has her preconceived ideas of these new citizens: who they are, why they left their homelands; the tenor of their hopes and dreams in this brave new world. She talks with them, unfolds their tales by the docks. She is affected by their bravery, excitement, strength and fervour for creating a better life, for themselves and their families (for who wouldn’t be). She leaves inspired as to the direction she will take, in a poem she has just been commissioned to write.
The commission is a dedication to another woman. One who will stand, ‘Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame…’ but as a ‘Mother of Exiles’, offering home and hearth to the destitute; hope for a more prosperous future: a reminder that identity, rather than a static fixture, is a moveable feast. A medley of shifting atoms that can re-configure themselves according to cultural context. Should such a re-configuration be desired.
It is a curious means by which to seek one’s identity: to define yourself by what you are not. It is, however, a persistent one, a sometimes necessary one, and a stab at self-creation, at new life. What’s more, seeking to define yourself, your actions, as contrary to the actions of men, seems particularly charged in the current cultural context.
The woman in question? Lady Liberty. The poem? ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus.
‘Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses, yearning to be free…’
Although written as one of many contributions to raise funds for the building of the 89-ft pedestal, on which the Statue of Liberty was to stand, it wasn’t until 1903, two years after a friend uncovered those rousing, impassioned words in a New York bookstore, and nearly two decades after its author’s untimely death, that the poem was affixed to the statue’s pedestal.
‘A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.’
Emma Lazarus, one of the first renowned Jewish writers in American literary history, ‘poetess’, was born in New York City in 1849 to a prosperous Sephardic family. On this day, the 19th November, in 1887, she died. She continues to shape the way we think about immigration and freedom today.
Privilege mollifies, moulds a husk around some; stirs an awareness of inequality and its ramifications in others.
Dedicated to the cultivation of liberties, Lazarus has continued to inspire activists throughout the years, ‘The New Colossus’ itself being the quintessential statement for immigrant rights and freedom. A year after she died, her cousin founded the Emma Lazarus Club for Working Girls, where young Jewish immigrants could learn to type, sew or recite Shakespeare.
Her writing is not free of complication, her language sometimes reflecting her elitism and social Darwinist beliefs, however, she railed against the international anti-Semitism that swept across Europe at the time, as well as the false stereotypes that fostered dangerous prejudice against Jewish communities everywhere.
Lazarus reminds us of the vitality of art in times of uncertainty and fear. It can guide us; shape the pitch of our dreams. We have the power to respond, to write the future we want, not only for ourselves but for others too. Lady Liberty is not a beacon limited to the Atlantic. Her light stretches farther than that. In the mid 20th century, the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs opened, offering leadership to women in Jewish communities in the same spirit as Lazarus offered in her own time.
Whilst many late nineteenth century American women writers found success as authors, they were often seen as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” If that seems anachronistic, just look to the use of such ‘threatening’ collective nouns in any defensive commentary on the swell of accusations of sexual assault. Female voices en masse still carry a power that yields an implicit threat to masculinity, or masculine power.
Even the admirers of the well-respected ‘poetess’ Lazarus, condescended to her – “She spoke like a man, but felt like a true woman” – when Lazarus was outspoken about so-called ‘manly’ themes (aka ‘themes’): literature, war and religion. Sometimes, it is imperative to denounce a masculine legacy, in order to assert a differing path, “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.”
In the years after her death, however, in an all too familiar move, her embarrassed family sought to craft a different narrative legacy for Lazarus. Mould her into a more demure, feminised form. In a memorial essay, her older sister Josephine painted Emma as a painfully shy, “withdrawn” spinster, and “a true woman, too distinctly feminine to wish to be exceptional or to stand alone and apart, even by virtue of superiority. ” Her younger sister Annie worked to wipe Emma’s vocal Jewish identification from her literary legacy. As literary executor, she refused to grant permission in 1926 to reprint Emma’s Jewish poems, finding them unbecoming “sectarian propaganda.”
Editing and airbrushing women’s lives to make them neater? Our stories re-written to sound less offensive to the times? Shocking tactic. Nothing new there then.
As a woman whose work as a ‘poetess’, as she was called, had been at times the subject of condescension (despite much praise from her literary peers), it’s fitting that it would be her lyrical and empowering craft that decades later came to define the American vision of liberty.
It’s more fitting, that they would be both used to inspire and to rally; weaponised as per needs of the task, such is their potency, their universal reach. Protesters quoted Lazarus on banners earlier this year at airports, the Supreme Court and the White House, whilst protesting against ‘President’ Trump’s controversial immigration policy.
Our identity may not necessarily be something we are born with. It can be something that we choose to assert to the world. As the late, great writer James Baldwin said in A Rap on Race, his public conversation with Margaret Meade, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
While freedom of migration is a noted aspect of modern enlightenment (currently questioning the ‘noted’), it was not the main concept that the statue enshrined. However, with Lazarus’ words attached, what Liberty became, what she proclaims to offer, is that everyone can live by their dreams.
The monument itself represents the Roman goddess Libertas, ‘enlightening the world’ with her ‘imprisoned lightning’, throwing subtle shade on the man-spreaders who ‘With conquering limbs astride from land to land’ have inherited a legacy of leading by the sword, perhaps not always with their sight. And so Lady Liberty’s ‘mild eyes command / The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame’ standing as a moral maternity, speaking in imperatives, shirking doubt, poised like an empress. Conquering doesn’t necessarily equate to succeeding. After all, the ‘brazen giant of Greek fame’, the Colossus of Rhodes, fell. Liberty persists. That is, of course, until the seas rise and she is drowned with the rest of us.
Until then, her inscription arms her readers with a delicate balance of outrage and hope, ‘”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she’. Together, these notions weave the moral courage needed to build a more just and noble world, ‘“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”’
Lazarus continues to shape the way we think about freedom, by encouraging a backhand swing to silence. She reminds us that it is necessary to teach by speaking truths which we believe and know beyond comprehension (‘with silent lips’), this is how we can survive: we persist.
Funny then, perhaps, that the secrets of her private life remain hidden; her works mined for evidence of affairs, asexuality, lesbian lovers. Or rather, she is an echo of the fight for women’s work to be judged of its own accord, not to be read as memoir or autobiography.
It is not difference which separates, but silence. We may all have our modes of ‘imprisoned lightning’. Some may identify themselves with these words more than others. Take them to mean what you will.
There are so many silences to be broken. May her lamp give us all courage to speak. Regardless of where she stands, on which ocean she floats. And may it not just be women who listen, who listen before seeking to conquer.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”