Why portraying Laverne Cox as Lady Liberty is actually perfect

Entertainment Weekly

When the editors at Entertainment Weekly chose Laverne Cox as this week's cover girl, reimagining the statuesque Orange Is the New Black breakout star as Lady Liberty incarnate, they may have felt they were rewriting history. For some, the idea of an African-American trans woman embodying the likeness of the famed neoclassical symbol of American nationalism might seem radical.


But the stunning image, with Cox's blonde locks cascading down a green Grecian gown and her light eyes beaming as brightly as that torch she wields, actually speaks to an American history rarely told.

As any of our American History high school textbooks will tell you, the statue fashioned in the image of the goddess Libertas stands lodged on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor, a gift from France in 1886 to commemorate the end of the Civil War. Unlocked shackles by her ankles, the towering figure came to represent freedom, opportunity, and independence to any number of immigrants as they arrived to our country's shores. What textbooks often fail to highlight is that Libertas may have been molded in the image of a black woman.

View of the head of the Statue of Liberty, designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, on display on the Champ de Mars, Paris, France, 1878. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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It's the type of lore one hears about as an aside in History class — a symptom of our country's continued inability to discuss race unless in whispered tones. It's also the type of lore that mounts as years go on; finally, in 2000, the National Park Service conducted an investigation into the unsubstantiated yet intriguing rumors. What they discovered was fascinating.


While it was originally argued that the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi — who was tasked with the colossal feat of designing Lady Liberty — was a well-known and outspoken abolitionist, he was actually inspired by a French law professor Édourard Laboulaye who espoused anti-slavery views; Bartholdi was reportedly largely apolitical. Nonetheless, a conversation between the two spurred the statue's creation. According to the NPS report, Laboulaye felt "the end of slavery marked the realization of the American democratic ideal embodied in the Declaration of Independence." And while rumors that the statue was meant to commemorate the black Civil War soldiers were untrue, the Bartholdi and Laboulaye saw the statue as symbol of the United States' return to its tenets of freedom and democracy. This belief would apparently influence their project's entire mission.

circa 1886: French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Getty Images

According to the report, while there was no veracity to the rumor that the original model of Lady Liberty was a black woman and her appearance was changed to "appease white Americans," the NPS discovered that despite Bartholdi's "apolitical" stances, the French architect indeed referenced sketches of Egyptian women for this project. Bartholdi was devising a large monument in Egypt at the time, and used these drawings for his earlier concept of Libertas.

But perhaps the most telling piece of evidence unearthed in this report is that the original intention for the Statue of Liberty — to commemorate the abolition of slavery — was eventually be revised to stand for immigration in the 1930s. Lady Liberty's history, like so much of our country's, seemed to be rewritten to exclude this abysmal era of racial inequity.


So yes, as Laverne Cox's gleaming image shines from sea to sea this week on newsstands across the United States — with the words "American Transformation" sprawled across her cover image — it's interesting to consider how she represents the American ideal in more ways than one.

Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men's footwear.

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