Essay by Alicia Ostriker
Essay by Mihaela Moscaliuc
“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.
When Principal Deputy Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli suggested, in August 2019, that immigrants be welcomed if “they can stand on their own two feet, be self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, again, as in the American tradition,” I had no doubt that what had started as a tentative project a month or so earlier had become a necessity.
My involvement originated with the desire to help make the message of “The New Colossus”—as encapsulated in Alicia Ostriker’s introduction— accessible in multiple languages, as might simultaneous translations at a global summit. I envisioned a Mother of Exile also willing to render herself intelligible to those arriving on these shores without knowledge of English—a polyphonous, polyglot mother. I wanted her to welcome newcomers in their own tongues—a small gesture of hospitality, but one that should remind us that current anti-immigration rhetoric, though by no means singular in U.S. history, exhibits the failings, rather than the achievements, of our ongoing experiment in democracy. The upsurge in nationalism, jingoism, racism, and xenophobia in the U.S. and other countries has left people—fleeing war, persecution, poverty, or devastations resulting from climate change—stranded, without much hope, in harrowing situations. The disturbing truth is that many of the nations, including the U.S., that turn their backs or close their doors have been complicit, if not directly implicated, in shaping the very histories that led and continue to lead to immigration and refugee crises. They have done so through occupation, enslavement, territorial expansion, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or covert operations that maintain selfish economic and political interests elsewhere.
I do not read “The New Colossus” as a statement of America’s greatness (though I honor such readings as well as dissenting ones), but as the expression of a sincere refusal to remain impassive in the face of global violence and oppression. In extending the welcome to those dispossessed by history, the sonnet’s Mother of Exile embodies some of the most admirable values of American democracy. She has upheld this vision since her ‘birth’ in 1883, weathering with resilient defiance historical moments that have threatened these values.
In 2020 I will have lived in the U.S. for half of my life. I arrived with fifty dollars in my pocket, without family, and relying entirely on the hospitability of people I barely knew or had never before (such as my host family). Sill, I was not one of the “tired” and “poor” desperate to “breathe free.” I came from Romania post-Cold War, in 1996, at a time when U.S. politics favored people like me, white and educated, on academic visas, even those of us from the ‘wrong’ side of Europe. Nonetheless, 23 years later, some of the closest people in my life still may not enter the U.S. to visit me—one of those ironies through which the U.S. can ‘afford’ to set military training bases in some of my homeland’s pristine areas, but won’t grant tourist visas to Romanians.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, I would not have been this fortunate. I would have been considered part of what lawyer Allen G. Braxton, in his contribution to the 1907-1911 Reports of the Immigration Commission (known as the Dillingham Reports), called “the cesspool of Europe” that was turning America into “sewage.” Or I would have been one of the “sordid and hapless elements,” in Woodrow Wilson’s words (recorded in a book published in 1902) of whom Europe was “disburdening” itself. Many immigrant groups before and since the turn of the 20th century have circled in and out of official discourses and populist views that deemed them as threats, pollutants, contaminants, and as contributors to what Theodore Roosevelt dubbed, in 1905, ‘race suicide.’ Lazarus knew, just as her contemporary Mary Antin (a Russian Jewish immigrant writer) argued in her seminal 1912 autobiography The Promised Land, that “what we get in the steerage is not the refuse but the sinew and bone of all the nations.”
When Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883, nativism was gaining traction in the U.S. and European colonial projects were expanding. The year before, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed and remained in place till 1943, and three decades after, the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Acts of 1921 and 1924 (the latter revoked in 1965) set quotas and ceilings. Examples meant to serve particular U.S. interests and ideologies abound. We are living one. Within its fourteen lines, "The New Colossus" does not address many aspects of U.S. history, including the violence perpetrated against the original inhabitants. What it does address, however, needs listening to, and in multiple tongues. Lazarus’s speaks poignantly to times like ours just as it spoke to previous times of anti-immigration sentiments, insisting on a democratic vision powered by compassion and that remains, at its core, inclusionary and welcoming.
We are grateful to all who dedicated their time and expertise to the project and ferried the “The New Colossus” into Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, Spanglish, Persian, Sicilian, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Albanian, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Basque, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Slovak, German, Swedish, Irish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Turkish, Czech, Haitian Creole, Argentinian Spanish, Filipino, Korean, Tamil, Urdu, Esperanto, Greek, Shona, Kumanji, and Isthmus Zapotec.
These translations honor Lazarus’s elegantly cadenced English while also interrupting it, via the work of reconfiguration and alteration that translation always performs, to suggest that our accents and mother tongues not only have a place in this country, but also a role in keeping English vulnerable, its dominance subject to scrutiny. Whether we actively use them or not, these native or heritage languages have become part of the textures of U.S. cultures and remain intimately connected to individual and collective identities across the globe.
This garland of translations remains incomplete and does not include, nor attempt to represent, a substantial portion of the voices and languages spoken in the U.S. and around the globe. Like Emma Lazarus’s gesture, ours too is symbolic. We hope, however, that it will inspire many others to lend their tongues to the Mother of Exile so that she, and we through her, extend the welcome.