In 2013, Timothy McNair, a black, gay graduate student in music at Northwestern University, refused to perform Howard Hanson’s “Song of Democracy,” a musical piece with lyrics derived from Walt Whitman’s legendary poetry collection Leaves of Grass. In his writing beyond Leaves of Grass, McNair discovered racist comments in which Whitman refers to black people as “baboons” and “wild brutes” and questions their inclusion in the American body politic. As McNair said then, “I’m so tired of being forced to promote the myth of white supremacy by performing works by old white men like Whitman who said blacks were stupid, shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and didn’t have a place in the future of America.” The performance of “Song of Democracy” was part of a course requirement and McNair’s professor gave him a failing grade, jeopardizing his graduation. (He did eventually graduate after the controversy blew over.)
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The charge of racism was particularly fraught because it was levied against Walt Whitman, the poet who in Leaves of Grass sang of American democracy as a project of radical inclusion, the poet who wrote about tending to the runaway slave, the poet who looked upon the enslaved person on the auction block and saw in them their generations of descendants, the poet who declared that the enslaved were the equal of those who enslaved them.
Shortly after the McNair controversy, poet CAConrad wrote “From Whitman to Walmart,” an essay dedicated to McNair that explains how much Whitman meant to them as a white working-class queer poet, and how Whitman’s racist comments forced them to reconsider, and reject, that admiration.
As for the substance of Whitman’s racism, George Hutchinson and David Drews, in an essay on Whitman’s “Racial Attitudes” reprinted at The Walt Whitman Archive, provide a helpful examination of Whitman’s thoughts on race later in his life. Like many white intellectuals, Whitman seems to have been seduced by the proliferation of racist pseudo-science in the post-Civil War era, a body of thought largely produced in reaction to black emancipation and the prospects of black citizenship rights as voters and office-holders. Whitman’s racism was not limited to black people, but also extended to Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. These comments force us to reconsider all those lovely passages in Leaves of Grass where Whitman the poet celebrates the “aboriginal” heritage of America. Whitman, the man, actually hoped that white Americans would absorb the naturalistic traits of Native Americans, but discard the actual people, much in the same way that contemporary sports fans now cling to their Native American mascots while dismissing living Native Americans who have repeatedly told them how these degrading, offensive caricatures contribute to ongoing Native oppression and disenfranchisement.
So, what do we do with old Uncle Walt now? May 31, 2019, marks the 200th anniversary of his birth and there will be numerous conferences, exhibits, readings, and celebrations of the poet and his work. I submit that this is not a moment for uncritical celebration of the Poet of Democracy. But there is no better place to look for nuanced critical engagement with Whitman’s complicated legacy than in the work of black intellectuals who have talked back to Whitman. As Whitman scholar Ed Folsom writes, “the temptation to talk back to Walt Whitman has always been great, and poets over the years have made something of a tradition of it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in English or American poetry—a sustained tradition, a century old, of directly invoking or addressing another poet.” And in that tradition of talking back to Whitman one finds names like Langston Hughes, June Jordan, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Natasha Trethewey.
The recent volume Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet (2014) is an important collection of thinking about Whitman and race that shows an ongoing engagement with Whitman by black intellectuals, and a recognition of the limits of his vision of democracy. Christopher Freeburg writes in Whitman Noir, “whether Whitman was an actual racist, ignored racial difference, or thought carefully about racial politics while revising his work, it is important to think broadly about how racial difference figures in Whitman’s notion of US postbellum progress.” An earlier piece of criticism cited in Whitman Noir that shows just how long scholars (of various backgrounds) have been wrestling with Whitman and race, is an insightful 1946 essay by Charles Glicksberg from the W. E. B. Du Bois-founded journal Phylon. Glicksberg sharply confronts Whitman by saying that:
Whitman the humanitarian was so drunk with the vision of limitless progress and faith in the prefectibility [sic] of man (the Negro was not specifically included in his calculations), that the Negro problem did not loom large; it was not a matter over which he could afford to become a fanatic like [John Greenleaf] Whittier. Hence he failed to see that it was precisely the Negro who symbolized, in the nineteenth century as he symbolizes today, the essential promise of democracy.
Glicksberg nails Whitman for being the corny and maudlin celebrant that he could be, and argues that his poetry’s Panglossian all-to-the-good attitude was inadequate in the face of violent anti-blackness.
One of the standouts in Whitman Noir is a re-published 1980 essay by June Jordan, “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” Jordan’s essay is particularly worth revisiting in this bicentennial moment, precisely because she reminds us of Whitman’s own tenuous relationship to the American canon by calling attention to Whitman’s outsider status, as queer, working class, uneducated, as a renegade writer who rejected traditional poetic forms. She reminds us that the respectable men of letters in his own time found his work insufficiently literary, obscene, and perverse, and only later was he provisionally included in the American literary tradition. This bicentennial celebration of Whitman also happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that began on June 28, 1969, and this Stonewall anniversary reminds us that Whitman’s America is also the same America that blackmailed and persecuted queers, that tried to electroshock the gay away, that drove them to alcoholism and suicide, forced them into sham marriages, excommunicated them from families, fired them from jobs.
Like many readers of Whitman, June Jordan was taken with Whitman’s radically empathetic depiction of the slave auction in Leaves of Grass. Whitman imagines that the person up on the auction block is also the father and mother of generations to come, and that the cosmos itself belongs as much to him and her, as it does to the auctioneer.
For him the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For him the revolving cycles truly and steadily rolled.
In that head the allbaffling brain,
In it and below it the making of the attributes of heroes…
This is not only one man… he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
In the essay Jordan explores race and genealogy in American literature, writing in the first lines,
In America, the father is white; it is he who inaugurated the experiment of this republic. It is he who sailed his way into slave ownership and who availed himself of my mother—that African woman whose function was miserable—defined by his desirings, or his rage.
She provocatively uses genealogy as a concept throughout the essay, as reference to the brutal history of rape under enslavement, an allusion to the taboo intimacies of interracial desire despite the nation’s claims of segregation, and as a metaphor for literary influence. Jordan insists that Whitman, because of his queer outsider status, is “the one white father who shares the systematic disadvantages of his heterogenous offspring trapped inside a closet that is, in reality, as huge as the continental spread of North and South America.” By drawing out this distinction between Whitman and the other white fathers of American literature, Jordan clears a space for her own pleasure in Whitman’s work, and also refuses to allow an easy co-optation of Whitman by white Western canon-makers who rejected him in the first place.
June Jordan’s comments also bring to mind James Baldwin’s idea of bastardy as emblematic of the black American condition, that the black intellectual must find a way to use whatever material that she has been given, even the work of imperfect and problematic white fathers. In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin writes, “I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West… I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.”
In the only known recording of Whitman’s voice, a 36 second wax cylinder recording dated around 1889-90, believed to have been conducted by fellow New Jersey resident Thomas A. Edison, Walt Whitman reads an excerpt from his poem “America,” which describes the nation as “center of equal daughters and equal sons.” In these two white centuries since his birth in 1819, America’s bastard daughters and sons have contributed their own verses to the powerful play, and have tested the validity of America’s democratic promise.
Like June Jordan, I was also drawn to the queer outsider Whitman. As a New York City tour guide I fell for Whitman the flâneur, the man of the street, the one who saw value in this strange ballet of urban life, and who in poems like “To a Stranger” relished the sparks of intimacy that can happen on the crowded streets. (“Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you.”) As a professor, I’ve taught Whitman in American Literature classes. I’ve taken my students on walks from our dingy building on Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn over to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where the old Fulton Ferry terminal once stood, where we read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” with the East River flowing beside us and the present day ferries docking and departing. I’ve always felt that Whitman predicted the explosion of hip-hop out of the streets of NYC when in the preface to Leaves of Grass he wrote about “the gangs of kosmos and prophets,” a new order of poets that “shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.” Who better fulfills that prophecy than American bards like Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas? When I see lines from Whitman like, “I know perfectly well my own egotism/And know my omniverous words, and cannot say any less,” I hear the swagger and braggadocio of Kanye West who once said that “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself.” (Speaking of problematic artists who needed to be “cancelled.”)
Look, “cancel culture” is not really a thing. The idea of “cancelling” someone is mostly a Twitter joke about checking certain problematic and powerful men who we know damn well aren’t going anywhere. That said, these conversations can be valuable if they lead us toward honest reckoning with the past, and honest reckoning with our culpability in the atrocities of the present. Reading the works of black intellectuals on Whitman shows that confronting Whitman’s racism is not about erasing Whitman. In fact, by talking back to Whitman, Timothy McNair was engaging in the very practice of communication across time and space that the poet himself encouraged in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” though maybe he didn’t imagine the conversation would get so testy.
Black artists like June Jordan talk back to Whitman and talk back to America because they believe that America can choose a better self. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman, I hope that we can celebrate him while also telling the truth about his flaws—and America’s flaws. As June Jordan says, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman. And I am not by myself struggling to tell the truth about this history of so much land and so much blood, of so much that should be sacred and so much that has been desecrated and annihilated boastfully.”