How Should Black America Feel About Walt Whitman?
As we continue our journey through National Poetry Month, Walt Whitman has been noted as one the most influential poets of our time. He’s credited with developing a certain style, writing in simple language so that everyone could easily access his poetry. And who can forget Robin Williams’ iconic role in “Dead Poet’s Society” reciting Whitman’s O Captain, My Captain!
In 2013, Timothy McNair, a black, gay graduate music student at Northwestern University, refused to perform Howard Hanson’s “Song of Democracy,” a musical piece with lyrics derived from Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass. McNair discovered racist comments in which Whitman refers to black people as “baboons” and “wild brutes” and questions their inclusion in 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. McNair explained, “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.”
McNair eventually graduated, after the controversy blew over. Shortly after, poet C.A. Conrad wrote “From Whitman to Walmart,” an essay dedicated to McNair explains how much Whitman had meant to him as a white working-class queer poet, but also how Whitman’s racist comments forced him to reconsider that admiration.
If we dig deeper, we find that Whitman’s racism was not limited to black people, but also towards Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Like C.A. Conrad, it forces us to reconsider Leaves of Grass where Whitman celebrates the foundation of America. He believed that white Americans would absorb the traits of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians but discard the actual people. Hmm, sounds familiar. So, what do we do with good ole’ Walt?
We will certainly "cancel" people in a minute, if their gift has been misused, i.e. R. Kelly. We realized that we can no longer separate the man from the music. Even in the thick of his wrongdoing, it has allowed us to open up conversation and raise a movement that has shifted us forever.
Next month marks the 200th anniversary of his birth and there will be numerous conferences, exhibits, readings, and celebrations of his work all over the country. Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet is a collection of thinking about Whitman and race that shows an ongoing engagement with Whitman by black intellectuals.
Regardless if Whitman was an actual racist, or ignored racial difference, it is important to think about his notion of the United States after the Civil War and his view of non-white people. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote about the “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.” After reading this, you can’t help but think of it as a prophecy fulfilled with the poets and even rappers we have today.
These conversations are difficult but valuable if they lead us toward reconciling the past. Confronting Whitman’s racism doesn't have to be about erasing him. It’s really about talking back to Whitman as Timothy McNair and other artists did. They believe that America can do better, and so should we.