Note: in 1883, in honor of the completion of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem, “The Colossus” (below), embodying 19th America’s merger of idealism, generosity and realism. For over a century, the U.S. welcomed greater (European, not Asian) populations, mixing openness with desperate needs for basic workers to drive the domestic industrial and infrastructure boom. Racial discrimination kept newly-freed slaves from better opportunities, blunting upward domestic mobility. Surging development in mining, steel production, machinery, railroads, agriculture, highway/canal construction, and urban housing needs drove mammoth growth – thus insatiable demands for what was nearly always grueling, low-wage work.
Unfortunately, the appeal of massive immigration, which drove the diversity that in turn propelled American prosperity, also eventually incited ethnic, racial, and cultural tension, if not hostility. Immigration, with its blessing of “melting pot” diversity, was early on a double-edged sword, producing an enormous early, white 20th C backlash against immigration. That rejection was resurrected of late by Trumpist, white nationalist attacks on outsiders and immigrants, especially minorities with darker skin. Today’s anti-immigration anger is revoking the generous promises we identify with Lady Liberty – and so time I thought to update/adapt Lazarus’ heroic celebration from a prior age. A poor thing but mine own.
Reimagining a Tattered Lady Liberty
Robert S. Becker
A grand Lady swelled our national ranks,
Embracing tempest-tost, homeless and exiled –
Bereft of hope, by Old World class reviled;
Now aspiration faces Stop signs, not thanks.
Rejected are the tired and poor in dire straits,
Tho ever keen for hard work and invention.
Revere our great wealth from immigration –
For did not hands-on labor make us great?
Yet no outsider, nor peril made this fate,
Intolerant panic ignites such hate;
Arrivals once welcomed as distant kin,
Denied pointblank, profiled by suspect skin.
Thus betrayed is Lady Liberty’s decree
By fearful bigots – making all less free.
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883), in honor of the Statute of Liberty
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”