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!”
- Emma Lazarus
This poem has been my heartbeat as I've witnessed the great theatrical we call the 2016 presidential election. Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 as part of an art and literature exhibition whose proceeds paid for the pedestal where the Statue of Liberty rests. The poem was later engraved on the pedestal.
The idealized version of America she writes about in this poem has never existed--at least not for all Americans. Our country was founded by Europeans who were looking for religious freedoms, prisoners looking for a fresh start, and aristocratic younger brothers who had no inheritance and were on a quest for fame and fortune.
They formed a nation where misfits could rise in both station and wealth. With a lot of hard work and a little ambition, a man could rise far above the place he and his family held in their old country. On the international scene, America was a place of wild freedom: a place to throw off the constraints of traditional society and embark on a life full of possibilities-- as long as you were a man, and as long as you were white.
I love this poem, but this ideal America only exists on the pages of sanitized public school history books. European immigrants established a strict racial and sexual hierarchy. In their new country they became like the very oppressors many of them left their old lands to escape.
The United States, like many other countries in the world, was built on the backs of the weak. Much like Greece and Rome our forefathers, who were in many ways noble also acted as predators: stealing and lining their own pockets. This expanse of land we call home was seized from the Native Americans--most of whom were killed through a government policy of genocide.
In order to civilize their new world European immigrants needed labor--cheap labor. At first they employed indentured servants but soon found it cheaper and more expedient to purchase prisoners of war from Africa. Through their labor, American cities were built, agriculture flourished, and wealth was amassed.
I'm convinced that the new colossus Lazarus speaks of in the poem above is really about a kingdom: the likes of which the world has never seen. Today people from every nation are already longing for and participating in this kingdom.
The ethics of the new kingdom are: world-wide welcome, a shunning of greed and exploitation, arms that are open to the poor, the enslaved, the homeless, and all the people who are considered trash; these are the people who are sought out and given a place. This new world is coming, and try as they may, no one can stop it.
If America wants to endure, we need to answer some questions that no one in the current political contest are considering. How can our nation make amends for the atrocities that we have committed? How do we make restitution for genocide, slavery, and oppression? How can we repair all we've broken in our international crusade for democracy? How can we be a part of the healing of the nations, starting with our own?
We Americans have inherited a degenerative disease. If we refuse to apply the remedy our nation will continue to unravel from the inside and be battered from outside attack. We must go back and sure up our shaky foundation.
Ignoring our brutal and bloody past has only sown division within our own country. We must find a new way forward, we must listen to the weak among us and the weak who we've victimized around the world. The most important question for America today is: how can we humble ourselves, apologize for our all our wrongdoing, and work to make things right?