It’s about a different refugee crisis than the one we face now, but it’s every bit as relevant.
In recent days, the Statue of Liberty has been reproduced across multiple social and print media as a national symbol in opposition to the Trump administration’s aggressive ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations. The lines, “Give me your tired, your poor /Your huddled masses” are repeated as an established principle of U.S. identity: that we are a nation of hospitality.
At this current political juncture, it’s informative to return to the context from which the oft-repeated lines spoken by the Statue of Liberty are abstracted: Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883). By returning to the late nineteenth century, we can recognize the poem as a form of political art at a time when nationalist xenophobia reigned against a different immigrant group.
The Statue of Liberty, we all learn in elementary school, was a gift from the French people to the United States in honor of the two nations’ shared values of liberty and democracy. At its unveiling on October 28, 1886, Liberty Enlightening the World was the tallest structure in New York City, standing at 305 feet. Her torch surpassed the height of the Western Union Telegraph Building (230 feet), the Brooklyn Bridge towers (282 feet), the Tribune Building (282 feet), and even the Trinity Church steeple (286 feet). The statue’s enormity was central to its design, as conceived by the French sculptor…