The Statue of Liberty is a metaphor.
One cannot carve a statue out of liberty any more than one can take a photograph of freedom or hold a jarful of justice. Liberty is not a thing, it is a concept. And, while it is the bedrock foundation upon on which white America as always rested, for black people, liberty has always been an invisible, untouchable illusion. For us, liberty is whimsy. Like freedom. Like Justice. Like America.
Therese Patricia Okoumou is a metaphor.
When Okoumou was arrested for climbing the base of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July, she wasn’t just a metaphor scaling a metaphor on a holiday celebrating America’s metaphorical independence. She was liberty enlightening the world. She was just another black woman shoving a mirror in America’s face, forcing this country to see itself as it truly is…
Like black women have always done.
Haven’t black women always served as America’s conscience? Haven’t they always been the foot in this country’s ass telling it to get its shit together? Hasn’t the black woman always carried the torch for freedom and justice in America?
On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass adorned himself in his finest clothes and gave his infamous speech: “What to the Slave, is the Fourth of July.” Douglass told the white audience, in prose that bordered on poetry:
The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie … Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!
Douglass’ words were beautiful. I imagine him in his starched white shirt, standing at the dais, enunciating his truth so clearly. He was a symbol of eloquence, intelligence and strength.
And as he was saying those words, I imagine Harriett Tubman was likely laying face-down in the mud, shotgun in hand, following the drinking gourd, escorting escaped slaves to freedom land.
Black women have always been America’s statues of Liberty.
Before Thurgood Marshall became a Supreme Court Justice sitting on the bench in the highest court in the land, Ida B. Wells was the loudest voice in America fighting lynching and segregation in the 1800s. She was a feminist before there was a word for it. 12 years before the NAACP, she launched the National Association of Colored Women. She was a founding member of the NAACP, then she left because she felt they weren’t doing enough.
When people think of the civil rights movement, they think of the famous male names. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 15 years old when Rosa Parks was investigating the Rape of Recy Taylor, long before Parks prompted the most famous economic boycott in American history. The iconic photo of Bloody Sunday on Selma, Ala.’s Edmund Pettus Bridge is of Amelia Boynton, who was beaten unconscious by state troopers. It took nine students to desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Ruby Bridges did it by herself.
While it is remarkable that Therese Patricia Okoumou climbed the base of the Statue of Liberty to protest the inhumane treatment of immigrants, the extraordinary part is how she did it. She sat calmly with her legs crossed as cops begged her to come down. She looked nonplussed. Unmoved. Like a black woman. Like a statue…
The loveliest, blackest part of it all is when she held up the shirt because it either means that Okoumou either brought a change of clothes, or she brought merchandise to stage her infamous protest, both of which are peak black.
I have been fascinated with this story, not because of the incredible audacity of Okoumou’s feat, but because every photograph looks like an illustration of a black woman. Tell me if this picture of Okoumou eluding the law on the symbol of freedom and justice isn’t a metaphor for Harriet Tubman:
Ain’t this Angela Davis? Or Rosa Parks? Or Claudette Colvin? Or Assata Shakur?
Isn’t this a metaphor for every black woman ever who finally got a chance to sit down for a minute after beating her knuckles bloody fighting for a place in this country?
There is no Statue of Liberty.
It is a metaphor.
Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus was a symbolic act of defiance that shed a light on inequality. The Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision desegregated schools but the photo of Ruby Bridges walking into William Franz Elementary proved to the city of New Orleans that it was possible. Had Amelia Boynton made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge unscathed, she wouldn’t have won a free bag of voting rights. Her bloodied image simply served as an illustrated reminder of the brutality of inequality.
She was a metaphor. Like Rosa. Like Ruby. Like Therese. Like black women, their liberty constantly enlightening the world.
And at the base of the metaphor of liberty, it describes her:
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES.
Sounds like a black woman to me.