“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free.”
The Statue of Liberty is both a work of art and an engineering marvel. To commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution, the French government commissioned Frederic August Bartholdi to sculpt the colossal female figure. The statue was to be named “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Bartholdi fashioned the statue as a thin copper sheath the thickness of only two pennies. It could never stand alone. So, he enlisted the aid of the engineer, Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel created a massive iron pylon surrounded by an equally massive iron skeletal system that would support the copper skin, but allow it to move independent of its structure. The flexibility of the copper sculpture held erect by Eiffel’s internal structure contributes to the statue’s remarkable grace.
The gift from France had one string. America had to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal — no small feat. Joseph Pulitzer feared that the ship bearing the statue would arrive before we met our obligation. His newspaper campaign inspired a series of fundraisers. One was a poetry auction with America’s best writers contributing to the cause — Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Emma Lazarus. Lazarus first refused, saying she did not write “to order,” but something about the statue inspired this 4th-generation American, descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her poem, “The New Colossus,” brought the highest bid — the then fabulous sum of fifteen hundred dollars.
In October 1886, when the pedestal was in place and the statue assembled on American soil, President Grover Cleveland unveiled “Liberty Enlightening the World” and claimed with great optimism that the goddess would “pierce the darkness of man’s ignorance and oppression” abroad. But, the statue’s message to America and the world proved to be as flexible as its structure. Emma Lazarus doubted Cleveland’s proclamation. Her pessimism stemmed from ongoing bloody pogroms against Jews in Germany and Russia that made her question anyone’s power to reform repressive nations. She countered this dark thought with her vision of the statue — not as a goddess but a mother. Lazarus named the statue “Mother of Exiles,” and this mother would not wait for liberty to enlighten the world. Instead, as the poem explains, she welcomes “tempest-tost” refugees to the safety of our American democracy. The vision of Emma Lazarus reshaped the designs of both the French and American governments, and hers has endured in the American heart.
Emma Lazarus, Jewish American poet, private person, a phenomenal woman who used her gift for writing to respond to the wave of anti-Semitism fanning across late 19th century Eastern Europe.
I first heard the lines of Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, when I was six. The senior class at my Harlem elementary school, P.S. 90, was rehearsing a play to be performed at graduation. Along with five other little first grade girls, I was present because we had been chosen to be “rain-drops,” and perform a little song on stage that was part of the presentation. The overall theme of the play was the celebration of America’s diversity. A student was on stage dressed in a costume depicting the Statue of Liberty, as the lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…” were recited.
For the little older me, absorbing the history of how black people were transported to these shores and understanding their subsequent fate, it was a harsh and stinging realization, those welcoming words of the poem inscribed on the base of Lady Liberty, were not meant for some of my ancestors.
Decades later, as my two children were blossoming as young adults, and I had extra time to spare, I ventured into genealogy research, on a mission to uncover our heritage beyond my great grandparents. My interest was piqued 15 years, or so earlier, trying to help my 3rd grader son with a class assignment, which was to create a family tree. The amount of information I garnered at the time, however, was pitifully spare. Make a tree! I had barely enough names to fill a couple of twigs!
But that was then. Today, after years of digging, I have unearthed and posted on our family tree, the names of nearly twenty thousand direct ancestors…and five times that number of blood-related cousins, along with aunts and uncles.
Now here’s the irony of my story. On our tree is where I found my link to Emma Lazarus. My maternal great grandfather, James Solomon Davis, born in Boone County, Missouri, in 1854, is the connection! James Solomon, called “Papa Jim,” had always been described as a red haired, blue eyed Irishman. But, as it turned out, research showed that was only half the tale. Papa Jim’s mother was a Kincaid of Scottish descent on her dad’s side, but her mother was a Mordecai whose ancestors were German, and a Maraché, whose forefathers were Portuguese Sephardic Jews who arrived in America by way of Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles. Emma Lazarus descends from the same Portuguese Sephardic Jewish line, and we are forth cousins, separated by three generations; Emma’s second great-grandmother, Sloe Levy (née Myers), and my 5th great-grandmother, Rebecca Maraché (née Myers) were sisters!
So, to each one of my ancestors who endured crossing the Atlantic under the most harrowing and unforgiving conditions, who, either arrived on ships from Europe seeking freedom and prosperity; were captured in Africa and reached these shores chained to the bowels of cargo ships, then sold as “goods”, becoming some other man’s property; or, as in the case of my German-Jewish fifth great-grandfather, Moses Mordecai, arrived in bondage, destined for indentured servitude, I embrace the words of my cousin Emma’s poem, The New Colossus, as intended for all of you.