Emma Lazarus And The History Behind Her Poem, 'The New Colossus'

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 14, 2019 4:17 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In defense of that new public charge rule, Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli has offered his own version of the famous Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Here is Cuccinelli in an interview yesterday on NPR's Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEN CUCCINELLI: Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

KELLY: A rewrite to the original poem, which reads give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Well, Cuccinelli stood his ground last night on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUCCINELLI: Well, of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren't in the right class.

KELLY: The poem was written in 1883, which prompted us to wonder, what might Emma Lazarus make of her poem sparking debate now in 2019? Well, let's put that to Annie Polland. She's the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is leading an initiative called the Emma Lazarus Project.

Annie Polland, welcome.

ANNIE POLLAND: Thank you.

KELLY: Start with Emma Lazarus herself. Who was she?

POLLAND: Emma Lazarus was a fifth-generation American Jew who was of Sephardic background, meaning her ancestors had left Spain and Portugal due to expulsion and had travelled and then in the 1700s found a safe place to be in the United States. And she was a poet and a writer.

KELLY: And what prompted her to write this poem in 1883? Do we know?

POLLAND: Well, actually, she - 1881, 1882, she becomes very involved in helping East European Jewish immigrants who have arrived and are in need of help. And she is teaching them English and she's advocating for them. She's writing about anti-Semitism in Russia that had prompted a lot of this migration.

But she writes the poem itself in response to a request from a friend who in 1883 approached her and said, will you write a poem to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? And at first, Emma said, I don't write on command. And then her friend Constance Cary Harrison said, no, but, you know, Emma, think of these refugees you are helping. Think of how they'll see the statue in the harbor. And according to Constance Cary Harrison, Emma's eyes lit up, and she came back in two days or three days with the poem, "The New Colossus."

KELLY: So she was specifically writing to an eye with what people arriving in America - what new immigrants would see as they pulled up in their boats.

POLLAND: Yes. It's interesting because she herself was helping East European Jewish immigrants. But she writes this poem about all immigrants.

KELLY: About all immigrants, which is interesting because we heard Mr. Cuccinelli there saying that this poem was referring to people coming from Europe. Based on your understanding, is that true?

POLLAND: I don't think so. That's not my interpretation. In the beginning of the poem, she refers to the statue, and she refers to America as a mother of exiles. She didn't say a mother of European exiles. She didn't say a mother of Catholic exiles. She said a mother of exiles. And what she's striving for is an expansive and inclusive idea of immigrants and the way in which America itself would define itself by providing that safety and that opportunity for immigrants.

KELLY: So based on your research and what you have been able to learn about her, what do you think she would have made of this poem being reinterpreted, being debated, informing the national conversation about immigration today all these many decades later?

POLLAND: I think - like all artists and all humanists and all historians, I think she would resent her poem being shaped into a simple policy statement. What I do think she would love are the poems we encourage students to write through our program. We ask students after teaching them about Emma and her times if you could write a poem for the Statue of Liberty, what would you write? And from what I've seen of the poems the students have written, I think Emma would take great joy from the way in which students of diverse backgrounds have embraced her poem and used it as an opportunity to put their voice into the ongoing conversation of what it means to be an American.

KELLY: Annie Polland, thank you.

POLLAND: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Annie Polland of the American Jewish Historical Society. Her organization is leading a three-year initiative called the Emma Lazarus Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALCHEMIST, WOODY JACKSON, ET. AL.'S "LOS SANTOS AT NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.