You know the lines CNN reporter Jim Acosta quoted to White House adviser and sleepy-eyed hate goblin Stephen Miller; we all do. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Acosta quoted the poem “The New Colossus” to Miller, who retorted by questioning its relevance, as it was added later to the Statue of Liberty.
But of course the history of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet is entwined with the statue’s. She wrote it as part of a fundraising campaign for the pedestal it now stands on. And the poem, attached to the statue on a plaque in 1903, has become absolutely essential to our understanding of what it represents.
Lady Liberty is more than just a light broadcasting the idea of American freedom to the world. Lazarus ensured it was a welcome, an invitation to join the world’s greatest cultural experiment.
We all remember “give us your tired, your poor” because it defines what the statue stands for. But the rest of the excellent poem is worth reading and understanding too, because it explains what she isn’t.
The New Colossus, Lazarus begins, is not like the ancient Wonder of the World the poem is named for:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
The Colossus of Rhodes was a warning, according to tradition. Ships supposedly had to pass between its giant legs to enter the harbor, an act of submission. (The Colossus, about the same size as the Statue of Liberty, actually stood on a single pedestal. But like all good poets, Lazarus didn’t let the facts get in the way of a powerful metaphor.)
The New Colossus isn’t a celebration of military victory or a symbol of masculine posturing.
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch,
Immigrants from Europe traveling west toward New York harbor could see the sun setting behind the city if they arrived at the right time of day, and greeting them would be a woman, not warlike but still mighty, because strength can come from holding a torch that lights the way as well as a sword that threatens harm.
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES.
Wielding lightning was a power reserved for the most powerful ancient gods. But here, the lightning is repurposed as a light to welcome exiles who have no other place, to welcome them as children into, not a strange place, but a new home. It is an act of incredible power, but an act of love.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
There it is again: “her mild eyes command.” Strength, resolve, warmth, love. Her command goes out to a harbor, to the cities it serves, and to the nation it opens. “World-wide welcome.” Not to one people, not to one race or religious tradition. The world’s exiles are welcome here. I – not just the statue, but this harbor, this nation – welcome you as a mother would.
America is for everywhere. But not for everything.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
America was still modern then, still a new idea. It was George Washington’s insistence he not be addressed by any royal title and his abdication after two terms in office that solidified the notion of a citizen president.
Lazarus was not simply welcoming the tired and poor of other nations; she was asserting their superiority to the kings who ruled them. Keep your pomp. We’re building a nation with the people you consider the least, the ones desperate for freedom, your refuse.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Of course Stephen Miller rejects the poem’s significance. Lazarus’ words reach through time to rebuke him and his hate. The law Trump introduced yesterday with Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, the one Miller was defending from the podium, would allow only the elite of other countries to immigrate to the United States. Educated, skilled workers who already speak English would be welcomed by Trump and Miller’s regime. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free can stay on their own teeming shores (unless Trump needs more housekeepers at Mar-a-Lago, of course).
The administration’s targeting of undocumented immigrants – not just violent criminals as they claim, but families, decent people, contributors to their communities – is another rejection of Lazarus’ welcome. She understood the true meaning of Lady Liberty. It wasn’t just a promise to immigrants, but a desperate call to join our grand experiment. She understood our strength as a nation derived not from military might but from a maternal willingness to welcome. Open arms are stronger than a closed fist.
Miller doesn’t get it. He has a history of racist rhetoric dating back to high
school. Like too many Americans, he doesn’t understand America. He should take
a closer look at Lazarus’ poem. There’s no better explanation of our strength,
our power, our greatness, our decency. America is wildly imperfect, with a
history that includes bigotry in its ugliest forms. But the promise of America
is anybody can be an American, no matter where you’re from and what you look
like. Trump promises to make America great again, but he and his ilk have never
understood the first thing about what makes America great.