The grave of Emma Lazarus is located on a hillside cemetery in Queens, New York. Emma’s headstone stands beside those which mark the final resting place of her parents, Esther and Moses Lazarus, and two of Emma’s sisters, Josephine and Sarah.
My mission to find and photograph the headstone of Emma Lazarus was prompted by a story written by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. You see, Emma was a poet, and while her name may not ring a bell, her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty with its famous line “…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” is recognized the world over as the call to the disenfranchised to come to America to realize their own version of the American dream.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is a person worth knowing. Her voice resonates with me. Discovering her poems made me curious and took me down a path to discover she was a young woman with high ideals, and then as now, high ideals didn’t come cheap. Her writing and writings about her life bear this out. By today’s standards, her family would be labeled as the one percent, most likely derided by their fellow Americans for their personal wealth. That’s right, Emma Lazarus lead a privileged life. She was well-educated, well-connected, and well-respected within her elite social circle. You wouldn’t know it by her gravesite, but it was written about beloved Emma that “With her own hand she has sown the seeds that shall transform her grave into a garden…”
As you can see, her grave is no garden. Of course, this was metaphor, but still…
Acres and acres of dearly beloved dearly departed take their place in silent galleries etched by sun and wind and rain. What remains of who they were in life are admissions into the record by those they left behind and perceptions of those who came after. Emma’s story leaves me with more questions than answers. Does nature thrill while passion spills from vessels overflowing with contempt? Do hearts beat with abundant life or merely the longing for an after life? Do we hold sacred the promise once embraced by people of conscience or let it slip the surely bonds of earth unobserved?
I wonder. I wonder with every breath of freedom I draw.
Poets through the ages give us a glimpse into the future. It is easy to see when we look into the past. Human experience tells the tale we must not ignore. Why not break through the ancient barrier that the art of race or creed or rank devises [still, to breed] hatred between heart and heart? Is this a question to which the answer is past due or an idea whose time has come? The system removed from the system, could we see our way to finally letting hatred rest in peace? I do not know. One thing is for certain, I will ask these and other questions until I find answers or die trying.