Dear Emma

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (b. 1849, d. 1887)

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!”

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Dear Emma, 

You wrote a beautiful poem. You passed away before your words became famous, before your words became so connected to the statue for which they were written. At the urging of a friend, you wrote the poem as part of a fundraiser for the statue’s pedestal. 

A work of faith, so to speak, for an unfinished statue.

Your father’s name was Moses. Moses’ story is found in the book of Exodus. He was born at a time when the Hebrew nation was enslaved under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In an effort to control the population, Pharaoh demanded that all Hebrew boys be killed upon birth. But Moses survived. His mother hid him for the first three months of his life, and then she placed him in a papyrus basket. She placed the basket in the Nile, and Moses’ sister kept watch. 

Pharaoh’s daughter had come to the Nile to bathe, and when she saw the basket, she opened it and found Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter brought him back with her, and she raised Moses as her son.

Moses, drawn out of the Nile.

Years later, he would lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. 

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Your last name is Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus, one whom he loved. Lazarus became ill, and when he died, his friends mourned his passing. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

Jesus was taken to Lazarus’ tomb. 

And here, Jesus wept. 

Then, Christ commanded the stone be rolled from the tomb. 

And then, He brought Lazarus back from the dead.

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In the opening line, you reference Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Colossus was a statue of the sun god Helios, built at the harbor of Rhodes. The statue was erected in the 3rd Century B.C. to commemorate a military victory.

Synonyms for brazen include “unabashed,” “shameless,” “insolent.” Antonyms include “humble,” “meek,” “modest.” You reference Colossus because you wish to contrast the ‘brazen’ quality with that of The Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty does not wish to mimic the conquering spirit. Rather than a male sun god, you venerate a woman who’s captured the light, and wields it as grace. 

Instead of proclamation, an invitation. 
Instead of gloating, she guides. 

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The “Mother of Exiles” — Adam and Eve, exiled from the Garden. Moses and the Israelites, cast out into the wilderness for 40 years. David, exiled and hiding; once from Saul, and once from Absalom. Elijah, seeking shelter from the wrath of Jezebel. 

Mary, Joseph and Jesus — fleeing to Egypt in order to escape the reach and wrath of King Herod.

You wrote in response to the stories and experiences of your own people, the Jews, fleeing persecution and violence in Russia. Running for their lives, you hoped they could find a place in America. 

With “mild eyes,” a “world-wide welcome” the statue commands. Her light, shining — the only speaking necessary. And the light is bright enough for all who seek the shores of America.

Liberty. A welcoming. A Grace. 

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When your poem was etched on a plaque in 1903, someone dropped the comma at the beginning of line 9. Instead of “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” It read, “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” This dropped comma changes the meaning of the poem. With the re-instated comma, the exhortation to the ancient lands becomes far clearer.

The New Colossus needs not the storied “glories” of old wars, the braggadocio of conquest.

For those who boast and flaunt and thrash in the public square, they shall have their reward. 

Colossus of Rhodes is a far cruder, far more grotesque expression. It speaks of opulence and the glorification of humanity. It is one more attempt to build the Tower of Babel.

But the New Colossus, with “silent lips,” prays.

She pleads — for the feeble, for the frail. Those who “breathe to be free.” Those “huddled masses” — infants, children, youth, parents, grandparents — bunched together and turned inward, protecting themselves from the cold. All of them, witnesses to each other’s breath, over and over again. All of them, witness to each other’s desire to live, over and over again. 

She pleads for those considered garbage, the storm-battered and those left for dead.

“Peace, beloved. Come sit by the fire.”    
“Peace, children. Be still.”
“Peace, children. Welcome.”

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Dear Emma,    

You knew full well the United States of America’s history reeked of thievery, racism and fear.

But you believed in something, Emma. 

You believed in the capacity of the nation’s soul. You believed we could be a greater nation — you believed we could be large-hearted, larger than the ancient Grecian statue. You believed that amid our strife, amid our tension, that we could choose love and openness. 

It was our heart that was meant to be the New Colossus, not a copper statue in New York Harbor. It was our love that was to be our National Anthem. 

Our slow and steady affection, our defiant embrace of the other, our capacity not to see “other” but instead “another,” our resolve to maintain openness and welcome a stranger into the family — our ability to withstand trespass, forgive violence and hold a posture of penitence, of clemency — that was supposed be the New Colossus.

And I lament, Emma.
I lament — for the way we’re not what you hoped we would be.
I lament — for the way we’re not what you believed we should be.
I lament — for the way we’ve sown fear and hatred.
I lament — for our sins of silence and complicity.    
I lament — for the way we’ve demonized the other.
I lament — for our blindness and arrogance.
I lament — for the dual spirits of anger and greed which steer the United States of America.

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Dear Emma,

Pray for us and weep with us, as the statue weeps as well.
Pray for a sweet love to shine and break through this acrid, hating pitch.
Pray for us, thieves. Pray for us, sinners.
Pray for us as we sing in defiance. Pray for Grace.
Pray for the tired and poor in spirit.
Pray for a brave home. Pray for a free land.
Pray for who you believed us to be.
Pray for the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.