The Statue of Liberty: An Evolving Allegory

nicholas p. fernacz

The Statue of Liberty is seen on the 130th anniversary of the dedication in New York Harbor

The Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
image courtesy | Time

unless stated otherwise, all mentions of immigrants are in reference to those who are undocumented, a more politically correct term for “illegal.”

Uniquely characteristic to the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and given to the United States as a gift from the French people in October 1886, is its defiance of temporality. Its shifting colorway has allowed the statue to represent the evolving values of the United States. In the late 1880s, when the copper statue would have been deep brown, America valued “relatively free and open immigration.”[1] However, as capitalism encourages, money has become the largest factor in much of American politics. Capitalism, America’s greatest value above all else, and its commodification of Black and Brown bodies is reflected in today’s Statue of Liberty, with her brown skin turning a shade of green that reflects the U.S. dollar.[2]

Immigration, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, was a key issue, with America electing Donald J. Trump whose platform urged voters to support him in erecting a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border. A rampant quip among conservatives, “they are stealing our jobs,” illuminates the frustrations of lower and middle class white Americans who feel as if their current incomes are in danger because of immigrants who are willing to work under-the-table for cheaper wages. The “they” that conservatives are referring to here are undocumented immigrants. What these voters fail to realize are two key aspects of an immigrant’s experience.

The first aspect is: immigrants are willing to work for lower wages due to two hegemonic relationships they are engaged in. These relationships are: 1) the immigrant and the State, where the immigrant has no other option but to break the law in order to work/support himself, and 2) the [immigrant] worker and the manager, where the worker is forced to bend to the will of the manager in order to protect his employment. When these two relationship are forced upon the same person, they must be willing to be submit to their oppressor in fear of being reported to the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, also known as ICE.

The second aspect is: many of the immigrants that are being targeted by ICE are people of color, from places like Africa, and South and Central America. Many of these immigrants are fleeing nations with rampant drug violence, where politicians are being openly assassinated. These refugees are coming to America in order to create a better life for their families, a fundamental American value, represented by the Statue of Liberty when many of white America’s ancestors immigrated here.

I am sure that many immigrants would be willing to work while abiding by laws, but that is impossible for many of them. In the midst of this political discourse, people are taking action and protesting, with over 700 demonstrations occurring across the United States in late June 2018.

On July 4th, Therese Patricia Okoumou, an immigrant who attained the status of naturalized citizen, took it upon herself to kick start a national conversation by scaling Lady Liberty’s pedestal. In doing so, she made international press, culling a large support of, in particular, other women of color. Her actions spoke to the frustrations of immigrants, who, at the hands of the United States government have been separated from their families and kept in cages. Again, the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism evolves to center the contemporary values of the United States, this time setting the stage for police violence against a person of color, and the detaining of an immigrant. What was once a symbol of freedom is now a symbol of State oppression.

Statues permeate current leftist discourse, particularly, what do we do with Confederate memorials? In this article, I posit that the interpretation of objects, particularly statues, can change over time. While statues of Confederate soldiers were once monuments to “veterans,” they are currently being interpreted as monuments to Black oppression. It is my opinion that the Statue of Liberty, and Confederate statues, still have something to teach us. The Statue of Liberty provides us with hope for the future, the promise of the American Dream. She teaches us to be compassionate to people who are coming here from far away in order to be safer. Confederate monuments teach us that our history is tainted. They remind us that what is happening to immigrants now is a part of our larger history, and that these legacies of injustices do not disappear. Perhaps this can remind today’s leaders that their actions are not just for today, but are etched into American history.

On June 20th, President Trump signed an executive order to end family separation. Protesters urge for more to be done, including: uniting separated families, and abolishing ICE, which has been likened to the German Gestapo of WWII. My, and many others’ hope is, that President Trump will look to Lady Liberty’s enlightening torch as a symbol of hope and freedom, in which the United States can support its proposed value of liberty and justice for all.


endnotes

[1] “Early American Immigration Policies.” USCIS. Accessed July 7, 2018. https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/agency-history/early-american-immigration-policies.

[2] Lyric Prince. “Watching Okoumou’s Heroic Climb Up the Statue of Liberty.” Hyperallergic. July 07, 2018. Accessed July 07, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/450417/therese-patricia-okoumou-the-statue-of-liberty/.

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