Someone else’s perspective
A Weekend Trip
A couple of years ago I spent the weekend of my sixtieth birthday in New York City with Maggie and my friends Kevin and Lisa.
They picked me up at the Newark airport on their way in from DC. We dropped our bags off where we were staying and took a boat to Ellis Island and to the Statue of Liberty.
I’d never seen either.
We spent quite a bit of time looking at the exhibits in the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island before getting back on the boat and heading to the Statue of Liberty.
Until then, I’d only seen it from a distance. When landing or taking off from Newark we’d sometimes be able to see it out a window. When teaching in Jersey city I’d walked to the river and looked down at the statue. A small version greets you as you enter the Museum D’Orsay at the foot of the statue gallery.
But as we circled and approached it, the scale was amazing. It’s so much bigger than I’d thought it was.
Your eyes stretch upwards towards her head and beyond to her outstretched arm holding the torch.
You think you know what it symbolizes.
After all, there’s the famous Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus”, on a plaque on the pedestal.
We all know the words.
“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
We all know what the statue represents with these words engraved on the bottom.
Together with Ellis Island’s museum, this is a symbol and statement on immigration.
Except it isn’t.
I totally missed it on my visit there.
But at the base are broken chains that symbolize the end of slavery.
In this article from the Washington Post, historian Edward Beronson explains that the statue was the idea of French abolitionists who met to talk “about the idea of creating some kind of commemorative gift that would recognize the importance of the liberation of the slaves.”
That Post article came out months before my trip to see the statue and I missed it.
I missed the chains that come out of the robe by lady Liberty’s left foot.
I wasn’t alone.
It isn’t part of the story we’re told.
The article reports that by the time the statue was unveiled in 1886 much of it’s original meaning had been lost. By then “Reconstruction had been crushed, the Supreme Court had rolled back civil rights protections, and Jim Crow laws were tightening their grip.”
The Lazarus poem was added in 1903 and added to the impression that many of us have that this is a tribute to the melting pot that we claim to be proud of when we’re not vilifying the latest additions to the stew.
It’s interesting to watch the stories we tell change over time though the facts are static.
I used to teach one section of a course at John Carroll called “Math and Creativity.”
The goal was to introduce future elementary school teachers to the joy and creativity that mathematicians get from creating and exploring mathematics.
The idea is to include topics that so many of the students don’t know is part of math. To them, math is just arithmetic. It is boring and dumb.
How could anyone enjoy doing math for a living?
One student asked to talk to me one day after class.
He wanted to make sure that I understood that every field is like that. His own field was History. To outsiders, he said, it’s dates, and battles, and rulers. To him and other historians it’s a rich story that can be told many ways.
It’s like drawing a map.
We think of maps as being staid and factual, but what does the map include and emphasize? What’s the perspective of the map maker.
There’s an episode of “The West Wing” where they question the representation of the globe on a “standard” map with a “standard” projection.
Why do we draw the northern hemisphere at the top of a flat map? The earth is round, there is no natural “up”.
Why do we use a projection that distorts so much? This map allows you to select your country and drag it around to see how it truly compares to other parts of the world.
Drag the entire continental United States to Africa or South America to understand the power of projection.
I had a friend who was uncomfortable with public schools because they taught his kids about what other cultures worshipped. He didn’t want his children to be taught that there was any way but the one his family had chosen.
I had another friend who complained about his college’s diversity requirement. “I can’t take a class about the Irish immigrant experience”, he argued, “so it’s not really diversity they’re after.”
I’ve been thinking about all of this, from the shackles on lady Liberty’s feet that I never noticed to the diversity classes that people want to be less diverse because of a story out of Utah.
A group of parents wanted their children to be excused from learning about black history in their school’s nominal efforts for Black History Month.
History, some argue, is just facts. It dates and events.
Nothing is more factual locations of land masses.
And yet, when we have to represent it in the pages of an atlas or on a flat page, we need to make decisions of what gets included and emphasized.
The same is true for history.
I don’t need to ignore the stories I’ve heard all of my life to welcome hearing what someone else has to say.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 46. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe