Who Does She Stand For?

tags: Ronald Reagan, immigration, Trump, Statue of Liberty

Paul A. Kramer is an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines.

... For the far right, the openness with which the statue has become associated is a threat. On Aug. 2, CNN reporter Jim Acosta challenged senior policy adviser Stephen Miller—architect of the White House’s hard line on immigration—about the president’s proposal for a policy that favored highly educated English speakers and cut legal entries in half. Acosta pointed out that the Emma Lazarus poem didn’t say anything about speaking English or computer programming. Miller replied, echoing a common nativist talking point: “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty,” he said. The statue was “a symbol of liberty and light in the world,” not of immigrants coming to the United States. Despite his eagerness to discuss history that day, Miller did not bring up his Russian Jewish ancestors, refugees who fled anti-Jewish violence in Belarus.

In truth, the statue has always proved an elusive shape-shifter when it comes to immigrants. For several decades after its dedication in 1886, it was seen by many Americans as representing a militant warrior-goddess guarding the nation’s gates from swarming European rabble. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most well-known poem that brought together the statue and immigration wasn’t Lazarus’ refugee-welcoming “The New Colossus.” It was New England writer and editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s rabidly xenophobic “Unguarded Gates,” first published in 1892. The poem called out to “Liberty,” a “white Goddess,” warning her of a “wild motley throng” on the nation’s unprotected doorstep: Malayans, Scythians, and Slavs who brought “unknown gods and rites,” “strange tongues,” and “tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.” When the Ku Klux Klan drove a parade float through downtown Bellingham, Washington, in May 1926, leading a 750-person procession, its centerpiece was a Statue of Liberty, towering over six hooded Klansmen.

By the early 20th century, recent immigrants and their descendants made the statue—one of their first sights upon entering New York Harbor—into their emblem and talisman. For Amelia Meisner Lindsay, a Russian immigrant who had been a child at the time of her 1905 crossing, the encounter was mystical. “I knew at once that she had recognized us,” she recalled in a 1977 essay. This was the statue Emma Lazarus had written of in 1883, a “Mother of Exiles.” But it took another half century, years of activism, a war against fascism, and the upward mobility of European immigrants to fully displace the nativist guardian in the American public imagination. (The plaque bearing Lazarus’ poem was indeed only installed in the statue’s base in 1903.) By the early post–World War II period, the statue, the poem (especially its viscerally memorable “huddled masses”), and even its author were becoming interchangeable, and “The New Colossus” was being memorized and recited by schoolchildren along with “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Yet even as the exile’s statue joined the American vernacular, promises of shelter and freedom extended to newcomers outstripped those made to the descendants of forced migrants from Africa. Langston Hughes put it this way in the Chicago Defender in 1950: “With her face toward the Old World welcoming the refugees of poverty and oppression, terror and hate, Liberty stands in New York Harbor—some have said—with her back to Harlem.” He called on black Americans to ask the country, insistently: “Shouldn’t we at least have the same chance that refugees have? When will you permit us the privileges you offer Russians, Germans, Poles or Danes who come to our shores?” Liberty, he said, “would take delight in asking those questions for us.”

Hughes had seized hold of a crucial element of the statue’s power: While associated with America, it stood resolutely offshore, looking askance at the nation and posing urgent questions from the border. You could drape its base with Stars and Stripes bunting each Flag Day, but the statue remained stubbornly alien. She came from France. Waves of early 20th-century immigrants had transformed her into a 305-foot-tall thorn in the side of the United States’ racist immigration laws. Notably, Lazarus’ statue did not demand that immigrants make the U.S. stronger, wealthier, or more diverse—its protection was predicated on nothing more than the humanity and vulnerability of those to whom it was offered. It was easy enough to miss the fact that Lazarus’ sonnet made no reference to the United States: The freedom her statue stood for was not of America or by America, but beyond America. ...

Read entire article at Slate

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