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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Statue of Liberty poem celebrates immigration of ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’

By Jayce Carral For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Where is the Statue of liberty?

With a broken chain at her feet and a spiked crown adorning her head, the Statue of Liberty stands 305 feet tall from pedestal to torch at the edge of Liberty Island in New York City.

The statue’s conception began 1865 when Frenchman and American supporter Édouard de Laboulaye wanted to commemorate France’s independence and America’s abolition of slavery with a gift, according to the statue’s official website. Inspired by de Laboulaye’s idea, sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi drew out the neoclassical national treasure now known as Liberty Enlightening the World.

“Is it a coincidence that New York, the most powerful and prosperous city in America, maybe in the world, happens to have a memorial to immigrants just a few 100 yards offshore?” said Mark Finney, executive director at Thrive International in Spokane. “Maybe that’s not a coincidence.”

France and the United States struck a deal, the French would create and assemble the statue, but the U.S. had to fund and build her pedestal. But the U.S. moved slowly, so artistic events like theater performances, exhibitions and auctions were held to raise funds. For one auction, poet Emma Lazarus wrote a piece that later went on to cement Lady Liberty’s symbol not only to freedom but to immigration as well, forever linking the poet, poem and statue together.

Emma Lazarus lived a life of privilege, but doing the right thing really mattered to her, said Esther Schor, Princeton University English professor and author of “Emma Lazarus,” a biography of the poet published in 2006.

High culture was Lazarus’s world, but she was repulsed by it when she saw how Jewish immigrants were living after arriving in America during a time where Jewish persecution was rising in Europe. Lazarus continued working with Jewish immigrants by teaching them English and publishing muckraking articles about the refugees’ living conditions as well as bringing awareness to antisemitism.

Lazarus was the type of writer who learned by writing, Schor said. She delved into a multitude of genres, including poems, prose, plays and novels. She wrote about many things like expulsion, the Jewish diaspora and mythology. After reading Henry George’s book “Progress and Poverty,” she penned a poem by the same name published in the New York Times detailing a ship where people are playing and singing on its deck while slaves are working underneath. Schor said this poem about economic inequality is an example of Lazarus being aware that her family’s wealth – Lazarus’ father owned a sugar refinery – was made off the backs of slaves.

Her work with the Jewish community and success in literature made her the perfect candidate to write a poem for the art auction that would raise money for the statue’s pedestal. The poem Lazarus created was a sonnet with a type of formality that is present in many of her other works. It is a dialogue between the poet and the statue. And the work’s form “brings out the rejection of something that is not adequate and the embrace of something new,” Schor said.

Written Nov. 2, 1883, “The New Colossus” describes the statue’s appearance, names her the Mother of Exiles and transcribes her words of welcome and acceptance toward “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The poem ends with the statue lifting her torch to light the way to a door for the incoming people who are leaving their lands for a new one.

“What we’re going to have at our gates is a mighty woman with a torch – and woman is the first bell struck,” Schor said. “It’s not the light of learning. It’s not the light of reason. It’s not the light of ancient universities and gods. It’s the light of warmth and welcome and acceptance and refuge.”

“The New Colossus” was sold at the auction, according to the statues official website, but it is unknown to whom or for how much. Although the poem radically changed the meaning of the statue, it faded from view after being circulated in a small magazine for a short while.

Lazarus died in 1887 at the age of 38. Years after her death, her close friend decided to memorialize her work and had the poem cast on a bronze plaque and pitched it inside – not outside, contrary to popular belief – the pedestal in 1903. A replica of the plaque is also located in the Statue of Liberty Museum.

The decision to place the poem inside the pedestal binded the literature and sculpture together and created a meaning that defines one of the better aspects of the country, Finney said.

“It’s very unfortunate that so many people who themselves are only three or maybe four generations removed from their own immigrant ancestors are being riled up to close borders and be very hostile and dehumanizing towards immigrants who are coming now,” he said.

Finney works with multicultural communities in Spokane through Thrive International to help immigrants and refugees move “from surviving to thriving,” which is difficult especially considering limits with government resources. He works with three main groups: Ukrainians refugees fleeing from the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, African youth who have been refugees (often for multiple years) and Middle Eastern people who are leaving oppressive governments as well as people connected to the American military who fled during the evacuation from Afghanistan.

Reconnecting with family is one of the main reasons refugees and immigrants arrive in Spokane as opposed to larger cities with larger immigrant communities. But even then, among those who do or don’t have family in the area, there is still the idea of the American dream. He said the American dream is a myth. Yet even though it is hyperbole, there is still truth in it. He said the country is not perfect and it has a myriad of problems in the past and present, including systemic racism, discrimination and economic inequality, but there is still a presence of freedom and opportunity that may not exist in places where people are coming from.

“We are a nation, the best elements of which come from our immigrant heritage, and I hope that we can continue to recognize and embrace that more in the years ahead,” Finney said.

So what is the statue now? It is still an icon, but the demographics of new and incoming immigrants and refugees have changed to include regions other than Europe, which is different from the time the statue and poem were made.

In recent years, events and movements have been created to update the meaning of Lady Liberty and “The New Colossus.” In 2017, the 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York, held a week-long festival celebrating the poem and poet. For several years now, the American Jewish Historical Society has launched several projects including Emma’s Sitting Room, the Emma Lazarus Project and Emma Lazarus Curriculum, all of which can be viewed on the historical society’s website. There also have been several translations made of “The New Colossus,” as well as projects that rewrite the poem to reflect the country’s changing immigrant experience.

“What should she be saying now? What does the statute say to you?” Schor asked. “I think we’re still in that moment of thinking about immigrants through the statue.”