Posts Tagged ‘Statue of Liberty’

Mother of Exiles at 125

Saturday, October 29th, 2011


I grew up a neighbor to the Statue of Liberty.

From the apartment in which we lived during my youth in Brooklyn, I could glance down the street toward New York Harbor and see the statue on Liberty Island (which we knew as Bedloe’s Island; it was renamed in 1956). The statue gleamed at night as floodlights shone upon it; during the day it showed the verdigris patina of its weathering copper.

On October 28, 2011, the statue celebrated the 125th anniversary of its dedication.

New York City children in the late 19th century donated pennies that went toward the building of the pedestal upon which the statue stands. Newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant, promised to publish the names of every donor to the pedestal fund. The French, who presented the statue to the United States, a gift celebrating America’s 1876 centennial, called it “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

Almost every New York City school child recalls the 1883 poem of Emma Lazarus dedicated to the statue. Thousands have heard or read Lazarus’s poem. Not many, however, recall its official name, “The New Colossus,” a name the poet chose to emphasize that the Statue of Liberty was “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame” providing a defiant defensive stance, but one that would be a beacon of “world-wide welcome.”

Lazarus, a well-known New York poet, was asked to write a commemorative poem to be auctioned as part of the pedestal fundraising. She responded that she couldn’t write about a statue. However, she turned her compassion for Jewish-Russian refugees—many of whom she taught–into a compelling appeal on their behalf. She understood the statue’s imagery and its powerful message to those sailing into a welcoming haven.

The most memorable lines of her sonnet are words given the “mighty woman with a torch”:

“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!”

Lazarus turned the French appellation of enlightenment into a compassionate symbol of freedom and opportunity, a promise of liberty to those oppressed in foreign lands. In her sonnet, she called the woman with the torch that gleams with that message of welcome the “Mother of Exiles.”

Lazarus was not on Bedloe’s Island when the statue was dedicated in 1886. Her poem was read but barely noticed and little recalled following the celebration.

The poet died the next year. She was 38. Her poem later became immortalized on the pedestal of the statue in 1903.

Despite being raised in New York City, I’ve never visited Liberty Island; I’ve never stood at the base of the statue or climbed inside its magnificent structure. I’ve never taken a tourist’s stance toward Lady Liberty; to me, she was a neighbor and friend. Even as the son of immigrants I’ve never felt a need for a compulsory visit to her island home. Nevertheless, with a little help from Emma Lazarus, I knew deeply what the Mother of Exiles exemplified about my country.

A victim of frequent neglect, the statue has been refurbished twice, once in 1938 and again in 1986. On October 29 of 2011, she has closed again to inside climbers so that alterations can make her safer.

We may recover her safety and sheen, but we have neglected to polish her symbolic message.

Sentiments such as those promoted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, suggest the statue’s beckoning of openness in this era is “an invitation to national disaster.” Playing on mean-spirited and misguided fear-arguments of job losses and national security, FAIR apparently would rather we muffle or extinguish the lamp of freedom blazing above New York Harbor as we seek to ferret out terrorism and illegal aliens. Emma Lazarus disagrees.

What is now in need of refurbishment in a time of selfish anti-immigration attitudes in several state legislatures of America are the sentiments of compassion, freedom, and welcome to the legitimately tired and poor yearning to breathe free, sentiments that Lazarus symbolically attributed to the copper-clad gift from France.

Protectionism often inhibits enlightenment. Should I decide soon to take my family to Liberty Island, it won’t be to focus arrogantly on America enlightening the world or on some warped sense of national security. Our visit will be to appreciate the Mother of Exiles and her enduring message of openness to poor and tired immigrants and refugees.

ALLAN ROY ANDREWS, a Brooklyn native whose parents sailed into New York harbor in the 1920s, is a retired editor of the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper and a poet teaching and living in Maryland.

(In 2012 my wife and I and our youngest son relocated to Augusta, GA.)