Active and Passive Citizenship in Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" and Judith Ortiz Cofer's "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica"
Morris, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature
In The New American Exceptionalism (2009), Donald E. Pease relies on sociologist Ghassan Hage's description of "two utterly different ways" of "national belonging" that he calls active and passive (28). The active citizen, Hage notes, includes "[t]he nationalist who believes him or herself to 'belong to the nation,' in the sense of being part of it, [which] means that he or she expects the right to benefit from the nation's resources, to 'fit into it,' or 'feel at home within' it" (qtd. in Pease 28). Inhabiting what Pease calls the "national will to manage the spatial field," the maternal speaker in Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" (1883) enacts an active mode of what Hage calls "national belonging." Lazarus's speaker, in other words, experiences a sense of agency, entitlement, and a feeling of being at home. She aligns her will with the fantasy of America as what Pease calls a "State of Exception" following Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's State of Exception. By contrast to how Lazarus represents her lyric speaker as a citizen who feels at home within the nation, the immigrants, described as "poor wretched refuse," remain silent throughout the poem, and thus "passive" in terms of governmental belonging. In "The New Colossus," America is represented as a "State of Exception" in that the new empire is imagined as a benign ("mild" eyed)--rather than martial--and maternal--rather than male--figure that offers a "world-wide welcome" to displaced exiles from discredited Old World empires. (1)
In "The Latin Deli" (1993), the Puerto Rican born poet Judith Ortiz Cofer (b. 1952) self-consciously reimagines the passive status and silent posture of the immigrants of Lazarus's poem. Writing in a different climate in which a diasporic, bifurcated, and multicultural poetics was widely accepted by this time, Cofer's revision of Lady Liberty into a patroness at a Latin deli suggests that the language of "The New Colossus" and the figure welcoming immigrants to America were ripe for revision. Cofer replaces the active/passive model Lazarus sets up between her speaking subject and the silent immigrants about whom she speaks in her address to another nation (give me your tired ...) with a multilingual and dialogic conversation. Cofer's poem represents the linguistic disposition of two sets of speakers--The Mother of Exiles, recast as an immigrant shopkeeper, and her unruly, unassimilated, and often dissatisfied customers. Both sets of speakers are ambiguously situated within the active/passive model. Cofer represents an individuated set of immigrants as they assess--in realistic, rather than idealistic, terms--the difference between what Pease would call the "exceptional" promise of the national realm beyond "the golden door," described at the end of the Lazarus poem, and the lived experience of displacement, loss, and exile in a new country within which they do not quite "feel at home."
An expression of a mythic American monoculture in tension with an emerging multiculture, "The New Colossus" offers an ambivalent message to the arriving immigrants. Although the immigrants are welcomed, the form, tone, diction, and style in which the welcome is framed signify that the new cultural realm will exclude their difference from the Lazarus speaker's linguistic disposition. Ranen Omer-Sherman notes the contrast between the speaker's sentiment (welcome) and the form and tone in which that sentiment is expressed (reservation): "[A]t the same time that her lyrics sympathize with the immigrant's plight, Lazarus positions herself at a great distance from the masses" (186). It is Lazarus's voice (both as poet and as the figure of the national imaginary, Lady Liberty), not theirs, that is the authorized vocal expression of the nation as a unified corporate body. The immigrants' linguistic disposition will not be validated as an admissible element of their entrance into the United States. (2) Unless a linguistic transformation occurs, the poem's classical frame strongly implies, the immigrants will remain passive citizens, uncanny figures for the National Other within the context of the National Same. …