Essay by Alicia Ostriker

 

Essay by Alicia Ostriker

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” proclaims the Mother of Exiles, in words that reverberate today as a definition of what America offers to the world.

The poem was written in 1883 by the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus as a donation to an auction of art and literary works intended to raise money to build a pedestal for the colossal statue gifted by France to the United States, of “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Initially Lazarus was not interested in contributing a poem, but a friend convinced her that the statue could be meaningful to immigrants sailing into the harbor. This was a crucial new idea. The statue was originally intended as a monument to international republicanism and friendship between the United States and France—but Emma Lazarus in the 1880s was deeply engaged in advocating for the flood of destitute Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Russia, and so she wrote a poem that succeeded, surely beyond her wildest dreams, in changing the meaning of the statue—and the meaning of the United States of America.

"The New Colossus" was the only entry read at the exhibit's opening, but was forgotten and played no role at the opening of the statue in 1886. In 1887 Lazarus died at the age of 38. Then in 1903 a plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the statue’s pedestal.

It is an amazing poem. It claims that we represent not war and conquest but freedom, enlightenment, and compassion. The “brazen giant of Greek fame” was the Colossus of Rhodes, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a monument to military might. Instead of warrior-like pride, here is “a mighty woman” whose torch is “imprisoned lightning”—a beautiful phrase implying technological innovation (I think of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity here). Naming this woman “Mother of Exiles,” calling her eyes “mild” yet commanding, and announcing that she stands for “world-wide welcome” is a stroke of radical insight into what America was and could become. And the words she has this figure cry “with silent lips” still bring tears to my own eyes. Tears of admiration and gratitude.

For me, the poem’s beauty cannot be separated from my family’s history. All my grandparents came to this country at the turn of the century, very close to the moment that inspired the poem. They were escaping poverty and pogroms. To them, as Jews, America was the land of opportunity, of hope for the hopeless. None of them ever became rich. But they survived. For them, the rejection of the Old World of aristocracy and tyranny and the dream of a New World of freedom and safety, came true. I was taught this dream by my parents—taught that I should be proud of being American not because we were “the greatest,” whatever that means, but because we were the melting pot, we were a democracy that gave hope to the “little people,” we were a land of refuge, we were the land where prejudice and hatred might one day be eliminated. Millions and millions of American families coming from every corner of the globe have experienced that hope. Of course, there exist Americans whose families came here as immigrants, and have reaped the benefit of that lamp lifted beside the golden door, who now wish to deny others the chance to “breathe free.” This has always been the case. The forces of xenophobia and racism are centuries old, and very powerful, as Mihaela Moscaliuc makes crystal clear. American history involves an ongoing tension between those forces and the forces that have made us the most multiethnic and multicultural country on the planet.

As an American poet, I’ve written about my immigrant grandparents and second-generation parents, and their struggles. I belong to a tradition of openness that includes Walt Whitman who celebrated America’s variousness, and in my own lifetime I have had the good fortune to be the countrywoman of William Carlos Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell, Paul Muldoon, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Li-young Lee, to name only a few--all deeply American, all immigrants or children of immigrants. I am proud that American poetry is becoming more open, in our time, to writers of every background, and that American culture altogether is a hybrid phenomenon. For while we are remembering how much America has meant to its immigrants, let’s remember also what the talent of its immigrants has done for America—our art, our music, our fiction, our movies, our science and technology, our leadership—in its magnificent mix of ethnicities, native-born and immigrants breathing free, ricocheting off each other, making America the cultural wonder of the world. May we remain so.

Polls today show that a majority of Americans believe immigration is “good for America,” in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary. It has been exciting and inspirational to find so many poets and translators from around the globe, or whose parents came here from around the globe, eager to participate in helping Emma Lazarus’ poem unfold itself into new languages, new meanings, new cultures, including Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Giannina Braschi, Batsirai E. Chigama, Ming Di, Dunya Mikhail, Richard Tillinghast, and Sholeh Wolpé. I am especially grateful to my co-producers Mihaela Moscaliuc and Tess O’Dwyer, and to our presenter (American Jewish Historical Society) for bringing this project to light.

Individually and collectively we always have a choice--we can choose generosity, compassion, and openness to the strangers in our midst, rather than self-protection and fear. May those who wish to lock the door and extinguish the lamp fail. May the Mother of Exiles prevail.