Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery."
― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"
Not only a woman of color, but a woman of many colors, mostly—or entirely—verdigris green at the moment, and forevermore, most probably. She arrived in New York Harbor from France on June 17, 1885, just two decades after the end of the Civil War. Little did she know, from her optimistic vantage in the bay overlooking the first European settlements on the Lenape Manahatta Island, that we'd still be fighting that war today. What is she thinking of us as we enter this fraught election season?
She was bright brown copper when she was assembled on Liberty Island, intended to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution, "Liberty Enlightening the World." How low we have fallen from those heady enlightenment days. Just for starters, the barbarity of the war in Ukraine is medieval, a primitive barbarity not that distant from a cave dweller ripping bone from the flesh of a boar.
It's difficult to imagine the sensation of relief and promise my family felt when they landed here as refugees and went through the humiliating rigamarole on Ellis Island before being admitted to what they considered a land of promise, peace, opportunity and plenty. Escape from genocidal barbarity to freedom and light. That is how they must have experienced it, I've always said to myself. But this is not exactly what it was for them, at first. They were ragged, desperate, poor, frightened, distraught about the fate of family left behind. They had to learn English, find a place to live, study. My stepfather, a well-known lawyer in Vienna, had to get a job in a factory to support medical care for his terminally ill wife. He never lawyered again. My mother and father were sent to Wyoming by the refugee agency. She worked as a nurse, and he worked as a "ghost doctor" in a hospital where he shared his ophthalmic surgical knowledge with the local staff. Eventually, they migrated back to New York.
The population of New York City was diverse and it was segregated by race and class, which must have been difficult to decipher. Class they understood well from Vienna, a status conscious culture, a person's German accent inflected with high class or low class origins, as English is in Britain. How would they rise to the status they expected of themselves in New York? They'd been persecuted as Jews, but when they arrived in America, they were, suddenly, completely privileged. Yes, there was anti-Semitism, quotas at universities, a myriad of discriminatory policies, but they were, at least, undeniably White. That gave them an advantage they did not expect. They made the most of it. By the time my sister and I arrived we had Black maids in the house. And, of course, they were always "treated well," "respected," "part of the family," addressed only by their first names, and the grateful recipients of hand-me-down clothes. When I was beaten up by a gang of Black girls in the public High School gym locker room, my parents knew the deal; it was time to send me to a nearly all-White private school, where I would be safe and assured of a fungible college degree, and a step-up onto the affluence train.
Now I live in a town in upstate New York, where slaves were owned by the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers and the extant stone houses were built by the settlers and the enslaved population in tandem, laboring side by side, owner and slave. So why does this town have only a miniscule—mostly transplanted—Black population, and no evident slave-descendant population, though descendants of the settlers are embedded in the culture, geography and real estate of the town? Obviously, Lady Liberty was taking a nap while post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and domestic terrorism raged. She's finally awakened from her slumber and telling us it's time to vote. It's the very least we can do.