The young black dancers whirled across the stage in billows of blue, orange and yellow cloth to the sound of Caribbean music, hands held high above their heads, clenching foam rubber torches. The Harlem audience roared.
As much of this city races toward Liberty Weekend, more than 600 blacks, Puerto Ricans, Hispanics and American Indians gathered Saturday night for an evening that at its most restrained was a counterpoint to the upcoming events and at its most strident became an open attack.
"We saw the type of commercialism that was going on, as well as the lack of representation of people of color -- we felt it was important for us to make a social statement," Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green, head of the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, said of the official events celebrating the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.
Green was one of the organizers of Saturday's concert "Sweet Land of Liberty . . . For Whom?" on the campus of the City College of New York. "The celebration reflects a historical revisionism. There has not been in any real sense a focus on the fact ld,10 that our struggle for liberty is still ongoing."
Black and other minority leaders have voiced discontent for some time with this week's planned events. Liberty Weekend executive producer David Wolper has been criticized not only for ignoring the concerns of those Americans whose ancestors arrived here as slaves, but also for painting a naively rosy picture of the experiences of all immigrants, willing and unwilling.
"It's not really faithful to the white American immigrant experience either," said Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, an affiliate of the New York Public Library, which is currently holding an exhibit called "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . . ? Voluntary Black Migration to the United States."
"The way America has received immigrants has been an ambivalent one all through history," he said. "Attacks on the Catholic population, the Irish -- it has not been an open-armed, 'give me your tired, your poor' posture by America."
On Saturday, the discontent with Liberty Weekend was sung, danced, beaten on drums and declaimed before an enthusiastic crowd. An American Indian singer dedicated a song "to the lady in the harbor" that began, "For the lies you have spoken/ For the blood you have spilled/ For the treaties you have broken/ For the leaders you have killed."
Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji, Cuban drummer Orlando Rios, Brazilian dancer Loremil Machado and others performed for almost four hours in the sweltering hall. Then, at the end, the young women of Marie Brooks' Caribbean Dance Theater swept across the stage with their torches held high.
"It portrayed liberty," said Brooks after the ecstatic audience response, "but liberty relating and relevant to them."
"If you have towels, shower curtains, the 200 Elvis Presley impersonators that are the Statue of Liberty, you're not talking about the ethnicity of this country," said Marta Vega, director of the Caribbean Cultural Center, a sponsor of the concert. "You're not talking about people who are homeless, people who have contributed by going to Vietnam."
Assemblyman Green and others also said the conditions and fates of today's immigrants, what Green called "the new huddled masses," should be addressed during the celebrations. "The new huddled masses are mainly black, Latino, Asian Americans, Native Americans -- people of color," said Green.
One of the 12 immigrants to receive the Wolper-created Medal of Liberty from President Reagan later this week is New York psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, a black native of Panama who was honored earlier this month at the Schomburg Center. But Clark's inclusion in the weekend has been seen as a case of tokenism.
Liberty Weekend organizations wish the critics would wait until after the event to judge it, but the protests and alternatives have already garnered a good deal of attention. The Schomburg Center exhibit has received much of it, and on a quiet Friday afternoon a steady stream of journalists and camera crews arrived to interview its curator, Roy Bryce-Laporte, a former Smithsonian fellow who estimates that more than 2 million blacks immigrated legally and voluntarily to the United States in the past 150 years.
"They experienced what I call double invisibility," said Bryce-Laporte. The immigrants in a general sense suffered whatever invisibility blacks in general suffered. Then, as foreigners, with particular nuances and needs, particular dreams and drives, tensions and problems, led to being overlooked doubly."
The exhibit, Bryce-Laporte said, is an attempt to bring these people into the light through photographs and papers, documents that often trigger emotional as well as analytical responses.
"We have had people who have cried," he said. "We have had older people who come and touch the pictures." One woman walking through the exhibit saw a picture of a 1914 Howard University graduate and recognized him as a long-sought relative. Now, she has a lead for tracing his life after college.
"When they announced this centennial, the native-born black population quickly said the Statue of Liberty didn't have anything to do with them because they came here as slaves," said Schomburg Chief Dodson. "But if you embrace the total black population that's here, some of them indeed actually came through Ellis Island. And if Afro-Americans consider themselves as parts of a larger black presence in the United States, it does relate to them."
All the criticism has angered the Liberty Weekend officials, who have already suffered through the anger of Italian and Irish groups who were not represented among the Liberty medalists.
"Everyone has something to complain about," said Liberty Weekend spokesman Jonas Halperin, who added the events were planned as a positive celebration, not a critique of American culture. "We're not going to respond. When we celebrate the Declaration of Independence every year, do we discuss the fact our forefathers were all aristocrats, that slavery continued? Why don't we cancel the Fourth of July celebration every year? Mr. Wolper will not comment on any of this.
"People were underpaid who worked on the statue -- should we not have a celebration? We're not out to change the world with this celebration. We just want to celebrate where this nation has come from.
"The fact is, there is liberty. They have the right to complain. We have the right to stop right now and not do this."
Halperin pointed to the two-day Liberty Conference, where historians, journalists and politicians will discuss such questions as "The Doctrine of Original Intent" and "Liberty of Person: What Price Society's Well-Being?" as an example of the celebration's attempt to include serious discussion as well as fireworks and ceremony.
He also said the organization has produced historical films that will be shown in the ABC television coverage of the events "covering as many of the ethnics as is possible. If somebody thinks they're not getting their 12 seconds, what do you do? . . . We got calls about the homeless. A gentleman who is homeless and his wife will be our guests at the opening ceremony."