Mixed Feelings at the Statue of Liberty

She looked tired, dirty, and worn out.

“Liberty Enlightening the World,” the original title of the statue, is far more optimistic in its symbolism than its functional application. Though borders and nation states are merely constructs—made up to divide and organize (and control)—those terms are a big deal to most people. Though other countries have their own particular issues, I am most qualified to speak on the country I call home: There’s a lot of good that has come from this made-up nation and there’s a lot of bad, and there are pretty obvious systemic maladies still in play today.

On a visit to Liberty Island, I learned that what we rarely see of the Statue of Liberty are the chains and shackles at her feet, symbolizing the abolishment of slavery around the time the statue was erected. Even in the decades that followed, immigrants seeking life in the U.S. for a multitude of reasons—like my ancestors and probably yours—were processed through Ellis Island, and people were rejected because of physical disabilities, illnesses, lack of money, mental capabilities, and some were detained behind fences apart from their family members for months at a time. More than 150 years later, the lasting effects of those chains, shackles, and fences still impede the free and total functional liberties of many people on both sides of a made-up border that defines “the United States of America.” It may not be your experience, but it is the experience of millions. You can pay attention to it, argue against/ignore it because it’s uncomfortable or “unpatriotic” or “too political” and too challenging to learn and think about.

I invite you to read more history, learn about how current U.S. policies handle immigration, listen to people whose ancestors and family members have experienced (or currently experience) detainment, chains, and restricted access to this so-called liberty that Americans love to talk about. You may see more nuance, alter your perspective, cultivate empathy, or change nothing at all. But at least do yourself the favor of stepping outside of any privilege you have and consider what this piece of art near Ellis Island can say to you.

This is what it said to poet Emma Lazarus:

The New Colossus

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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