About two weeks ago, I discovered, courtesy of a “A Mighty Girl’s” page on Facebook, that it was Emma Lazarus’ birthday. She wrote the poem that is engraved on a plaque and attached to the base of the Statue of Liberty. I decided to take a break from our trip around the world in our homeschooling to talk about this amazing writer and hear about her life.
Today was the day we sat down to read the book. The only thing I knew before we read it was that she wrote the poem. Ms. Lazarus was initially inspired by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Imagine her delight when, as a young woman, she became a student of his. And her writing career took off.
Ms. Lazarus was not only a writer but also a vocal and strong advocate for the immigrants who came into New York, especially the Russian Jews who, in the late 1800’s, fled Russia to escape the pogroms–raving mobs who went from town to town killing people of all ages. It broke her heart to see the conditions the families were living in when they got to this country–and the uncooked and worm-ridden food they had to eat. She got angry and she took action. Ms. Lazarus was an integral part of the efforts to care for these newcomers.
“Not everyone welcomed the newcomers. Some, blaming immigrants for crime, disease, and poverty, called for new laws to keep them out. Emma worked harder to change attitudes.” — Erica Silverman, Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus
Oh y’all. Things haven’t changed much, have they?
I read the book to my littles. After we finished, I told them without embellishment or opinion about the children being sent from Mexico by their parents because of the conditions in that country. Princess likened it to one of her American Girl stories, where a child was sent to America to be safely out of war-torn England. Once we established that we were talking about the no kidding country of (Old) Mexico (their grandparents live in New Mexico), they had opinions galore to share. I explained that there are people who don’t think the children should be in our country, that they should be sent back to Mexico.
Then I sat back and listened.
“Mama, no. That’s awful. Those children will get hurt. They can’t go back. It’s like the people from Russia with Emma Lazarus,” our Princess said.
I asked them what they thought we should do.
“We need to take care of those folks,” Princess said. I was confused for a moment about whom she was talking, until she continued. “We need to make them change their minds.”
Cooter, ever the fan of the Lone Ranger and Star Wars and justice by force, all but shouted, “We’ll shoot ’em.”
Well there’s good news. Sigh. Violence begetting violence and all of that. As I was about to nix that whole idea, Princess calmly and firmly interjected, shaking her head, “No. I do not want a single bullet to go into a person while I am alive.”
Exactly that. They’re 50-50. Okay, maybe there’s hope.
We talked some more about what was the right thing in all of this. And then we read together the words at the base of the statue that Emma Lazarus called the Mother of Exiles.
“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, 1883
After we read this, Princess said quietly, “We have to take care of those children, Mama. They need to be cared for just like me and Cooter. We are all the same.”
“Yeah, let’s get a little boy to come here. He can be my little brother,” Cooter said, already imagining teaching the little guy the wonder of Star Wars and Legos.
I remember these words touching my heart when I was their age. Just as Emma Lazarus was inspired by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ms. Lazarus’ words grabbed my soul and wouldn’t let go. I had these beautiful lines memorized and said them over and over, savoring the melody and meaning of them.
Tonight I’m thankful for the thoughts and conversation between two little people who carry the future of this country in their hearts and minds and dreams. And actions. Those words, “We are all the same” and the willingness to embrace the unknown and call him our own–this gives me great hope. That they reached these conclusions without my expressing my opinion–I give thanks for children who are willing to love and to care. Without limitations.
Because unless we are 100% Native American, we all somewhere in our collective past, spent a moment or more tempest-tost, tired, and with very little, standing looking for that golden door. I’m thankful for the ones who way back when made the journey and first set foot on this land that I call home. A land that gives hope to so many.
May it ever be so.
Love to all.